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To appreciate the New York Studio School, one should know why and how it came about.
In September of 1963, an article appeared in ARTnews by painter and educator Mercedes Matter, which gave voice to the grievance of many art students who felt frustrated by the frantic pace and fragmented courses of contemporary art education. It criticized art education for what it had become, contrasting it with the character of what academies of fine arts and artists’ ateliers had been.
The article had the effect on her students of galvanizing them to create a school themselves, if she would help them. She agreed, and together they founded the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture.
For the faculty, the students chose the artists whom they had admired as instructors; Matter enlisted the artists of exceptional quality whom she knew to be sympathetic. The early faculty included Charles Cajori, Louis Finkelstein, Philip Guston, Alex Katz, Earl Kerkam, George McNeil, and Esteban Vicente for painting; for sculpture: Peter Agostini, Sidney Geist, Reuben Nakian, and George Spaventa; Nicholas Carone and Mercedes Matter for drawing, and Meyer Schapiro and Leo Steinberg for art history.
The School opened on September 23, 1964 with a student body of sixty selected students who had responded to the call of a new approach to art education. The original space, a loft on Broadway, had itself had been found by the students, under the leadership of Marc Zimetbaum.
The students realized that during the first week, they had spent more hours drawing at the School than in an entire semester at another institution. This was to be the character of the New York Studio School: daily continuity of study through work in the studio.
The School was from the beginning supported by generous funding from external foundations, and from an enthusiastic and involved Board of Trustees. Most gratifying, especially in the early years, was the endorsement given by the art community, who showed their support for the experiment by donating artworks to raise money for the School.
In its second year, the need for more space became apparent. An ideal location on Eighth Street, which had comprised the original Whitney Museum of American Art, became available. The enormous commitment of taking on a site of this size became realized through the generosity of one of the School’s first students, Claudia Stone, who died suddenly and bequeathed to the School half of her estate. Thus the School’s marvelous building and permanent home is testimony of how much the School owes to the devotion of its original students.
During the years there have been a number of Directors or Deans, including Sidney Geist, Morton Feldman (who had been a major influence at the School through his talks), Mercedes Matter, Bruce Gagnier, and since 1988, Graham Nickson. Throughout the changes in leadership, the School has maintained its essential character of learning through perception and allowing students the circumstances for consistent work.
The painter Graham Nickson, the current Dean, has expanded the School in a number of ways, one of which includes his Drawing Marathon. He has restored the building to its inherent beauty, and enabled the necessary reparations to be made. Most importantly, he has infused the atmosphere of the School with his extraordinary energy and his passion for art.
Over the last two decades, the School has been enriched in many areas. Indeed, several programs developed during this period have become synonymous with the School. The Drawing Marathon is of primary importance, underlying the fundamental power of drawing issues and their continuing relevance to painting and sculpture, and being able to ‘see’. The Marathon has become a major force in understanding and celebrating drawing, both nationally and internationally. Drawing Marathons and their example have inspired and influenced the teaching of drawing worldwide, and continue to be a highly important part of the program.
Another influence on intellectual and creative thought has been the highly regarded Evening Lecture Series program, a forum for major artists, thinkers, critics, art historians and poets, as well as emerging and middle career individuals. It stimulates the making and thinking about art of our time, and encourages lively and crucial discourse.
The School’s programs have developed, from its original non-degree position to its new Masters of Fine Arts program, cautiously and with great deliberation. The School still believes in the same powerful elements of its historical position, and is strengthened by a robust administrative structure. We are now able to offer our students the advantages of a Masters degree along with a superlative program.
Other exciting aspects include the student exhibition series, the Orvieto, Italy program, the Art History seminars, and most recently the formal establishment of the Certificate and Masters programs. Along with these, substantial scholarship support has been established.
The School continues to grow in strength and has maintained a belief in its original vision: faith in the great language of art; a total commitment to research and excellence; the support for intensity, integrity and serious work habits; the encouragement of an open mind, and the conviction of the power of art to change one’s life.
New York-based art historian, curator, writer and NYSS faculty Jennifer Samet explores the rich history of the School in her essay “Mapping the Pedagogy of the New York Studio School.”
“The New York Studio School was founded in 1964 by Mercedes Matter, in collaboration with a group of students and faculty, during a time of cultural ferment. To this day, it is bound by a sense of mission, one that has often stood in counterpoint to the prevailing tastes of the art world. During the heyday of Pop, conceptual art, and minimalism, the School emphasized drawing, working from life, and a sustained studio practice. To delve into the history, however, is to become aware of the contradictions inherent in a school run by some of the most passionate minds of the New York art world. This essay represents a first attempt to trace a pedagogical map of the New York Studio School, one that connects the school’s teaching to a multiplicity of influences…”