Painting above by Patricia Watwood
by Dr. Gregory Hedberg
Based in the heart of Renaissance Italy, The Florence Academy of Art and the Charles H. Cecil Studios were in fact spawned in modernist America. The origins of both schools go back to 1969 when an eccentric artist and educator named Richard Lack started a new kind of art school in Minneapolis. Much like the two art schools in Florence — whose origins go back only to 1881 — the Atelier Lack was a radically new art school that attempted to revitalize art education by reintroducing rigorous training in traditional drawing and painting techniques.
In the 1970s, as curator of paintings at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, I had occasion to visit the Atelier Lack and to observe the students. Carefully drawing plaster casts and nude models, they appeared to be even more reactionary than the photo realists who were in vogue at the time. Back then, it seemed very ironic that this bustling atelier was taking root not far from the cutting-edge Walker Art Center and in the heart of perhaps the most avidly modernist city in America in terms of art collecting and architecture. Donning my modernist hat, I naively suggested to some of these young artists that they might visit the Walker Art Center, whereupon they retorted that they had been weaned on the Walker! They had also experienced the leveling of almost the entire old part of their city to make way for dozens of new, avant-garde buildings. The more we spoke, the more my image of them as provincial reactionaries crumbled. Two of these young students were Charles Cecil and Daniel Graves who later left the United States to start an art school in Florence.
Often the most radical ideas start in the provinces and indeed it was not until 1982 that a new school with similar goals was begun in New York City. Founded by Stuart Pivar, an eccentric collector and inventor, in a Greenwich Village studio, The New York Academy of Art soon won the support of Andy Warhol, who was seriously interested in the revival of traditional academic training for artists. Warhol’s support for this traditional type of academy resulted from the lack of such training in his own education and his prediction that “the course of art history would be changed if one thousand students could be taught Old Master drawing and painting techniques.” Warhol eventually became a member of the board of The New York Academy of Art, and after his death, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts awarded its very first grant to this new school, to which it eventually provided major funding.
The following year a third traditional art school, the Cecil-Graves Studio, was founded in Florence. Created by Charles Cecil and Daniel Graves in Lorenzo Bartolini’s 19th-century sculpture studio, the atelier was the precursor of the Charles H. Studios and The Florence Academy of Art, which was later started by Graves in the garden conservatory of the Palazzo Corsini in Florence. In 1985, two years after it was founded, I visited the Cecil-Graves studio and again saw a small cadre of serious art students, most of them young and American, drawing from plaster casts and painting from live models. The 19th-century atmosphere of the atelier was unforgettable. In the early 1970s, both Cecil and Graves had studied extensively at the new Atelier Lack in Minneapolis, a city as new and modern as Florence was old and traditional.
At the time, I was chief curator of the Wadsworth Atheneum and represented the museum on the board of the Hartford Art School. Returning from Florence, I asked the dean at Hartford if they offered any
traditional painting or drawing courses. Informed that there was a life-drawing class every Wednesday afternoon, I soon discovered that it consisted of a nude model that the students were allowed the freedom to draw, unencumbered by any instruction. This practice was typical of most art schools at the time and was akin to teaching music by allowing students to look at a piano once a week. Apparently, no one on the faculty of the art school had been thoroughly versed in traditional drawing skills; hence, no one was qualified to teach them. Like Warhol, I concluded that a serious problem with art education was simply not being addressed, and, in 1987, I left the museum field to become the first professional director of the New York Academy of Art.
Once immersed in the New York art world as head of “Warhol’s Academy,” I soon realized that there were two camps when it came to art education. The larger group hardly ever thought about it, and when they did, they assumed that young artists all over the country learned traditional painting and drawing skills, then rejected such training, moved to New York and became “avant-garde.” The second group was aware of the fact that such training no longer existed in art schools and considered it to be a good thing as such training was possibly detrimental and certainly passé.
In 1988, I applied to the National Endowment for the Arts for a grant on behalf of the fledgling New York Academy of Art but was turned down. The rejection letter opined that “such traditional education would stifle creativity in young artists.” Of course, Picasso benefited from intense technical training in his youth at the Barcelona School of Fine Arts, including life drawing and the copying of plaster casts, without his creativity being stifled — indeed, his early and complete mastery of traditional drawing skills is evident throughout his career — but a century later, official United States government policy dictated that such traditional education was in fact harmful.
This was not the case, however, in Eastern Europe. Although dismantled in the west, academic training for artists remained strong in the east, in all the countries in the former Soviet bloc and in communist China as well. Thus the contemporary German artist Gerhard Richter, recently honored by a large retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, received five years of strictly traditional academic training as a young man at the Dresden School of Visual Arts in what was then East Germany. The NEA’s pronouncement notwithstanding, as Richter alternated throughout his career between abstract and realistic paintings, the traditional Old Master training he received as a youth allowed him that freedom to competently execute a representational painting if he so desired. Similarly, another widely recognized German artist Neo Rauch, whose work is prized for its technical virtuosity, received similar academic training in the former East Germany.
When I left the New York Academy of Art in 1992 to join Hirschl & Adler Galleries, there was not a lot of great work coming out of these young academy graduates. Frankly, for a time I thought the NEA might be right, but in retrospect, it was just too early to tell. Mastering Old Master painting skills is like learning classical ballet or a difficult foreign language — it takes a lot of time, and early attempts can be stiff and awkward. In 1999, however, while organizing an exhibition to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Art Students League of New York, I did an extensive survey of young artists who trained at the league and The New York Academy. Happily, at this time I found a number of traditionally trained artists who, a dozen years out of school, now not only knew how to paint but also had something new and interesting to say. I now sensed that the experiment of a new direction in art education was working!
A New Aesthetic Movement
In addition to a new emphasis on quality of execution, there is evidence of a slow but very interesting mind shift among young artists. In general, a broad spectrum of older artists seems almost inevitably to include shock, angst or politics in their work — an impulse to disturb articulated in The Shock of the New by Robert Hughes. On the other hand, a growing number of American artists who today are under 40 years old seem more intent on creating paintings that are visually beautiful rather than emotionally disturbing. For example, when the young Patricia Watwood submitted her diploma painting to the faculty of The New York Academy of Art, the faculty elders praised its technical skill but criticized it for being “merely” beautiful. Rather than needing time to mature and “develop an edge,” these young artists are in fact very conscious of what they are doing. I recall another young painter actually poking fun at the realists of my generation for being so simple-minded as to always paint the trashcan behind a building and not the beautiful façade.
Ironically, modernism in part began with a similar “back-to-beauty” generational shift that occurred around 1870 in England with the Aesthetic Movement. The older generation at this time was the political and moralizing Pre-Raphaelites, such as William Holman Hunt, who carefully chose subject matter — some quite shocking — that was meant to move, inspire or disturb the viewer into action. In contrast, the younger generation, consisting of artists like James McNeill Whistler and Albert Joseph Moore, was less interested in subject matter. They extolled “art for art’s sake,” believing that art was like music and the “merely” beautiful was the highest purpose of art. Whistler may simply have wanted to please his viewers visually with his painted harmonies, but he initially shocked them with his fundamental shift in aesthetics and intent. Similarly, many of the artists here only intend to please their viewers visually with their quiet still lifes, landscapes or nudes, but, again, they may initially disturb as they too reflect a fundamental shift in aesthetics. Adding intellectual gravity to this new outlook is Professor Wendy Steiner’s recent book Venus in Exile: The Rejection of Beauty in 20th Century Art that calls into question the current deep suspicion by an older generation of the “merely” beautiful.
New “Old Medium” Art Schools
Since that traditional atelier was started in Minneapolis in 1969, the two surviving 19th-century sources of traditional training, the Art Students League and the National Academy of Design, both in New York, are now reinvigorated and once again packed with students. Reflecting an ever-growing demand on the part of young artists to learn traditional techniques, the other newly formed academies (in order of their founding) are the Lyme Academy College of Fine Art in Connecticut (1976); the New Orleans Academy of Fine Art (1978); The New York Academy of Art (1982); Charles H. Cecil Studios, Florence (1983); The Bougie Studio in Minneapolis (1988); the Seattle Academy of Fine Art which is now the Gage Academy of Art (1989); The Florence Academy of Art (1991); the School of Representational Art, Chicago (1992); the Art Academy of Los Angeles (1994); the Angel Academy of Fine Art in Florence (1997); the Michael John Angel Studios in Toronto (1997); Mims Studios, Southern Pines, North Carolina (2001); the Bridgeview School of Fine Art in New York City (2001); the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art (2002); the Harlem Studio of Art (2002); and the Accademia degli Incamminati begun by Nelson Shanks in Philadelphia (2002).
In 2006, the Grand Central Academy of Art — under the umbrella of the Institute of Classical Architecture, a new institution in New York City that has a similar ‘back to the future’ attitude about architecture — was begun in New York City by Jacob Collins. During this same period, dozens of small realist artist’s ateliers were opened, such as those started by Ted Seth Jacobs, Michael Aviano and Jacob Collins. None of these new schools or ateliers has the rigorous four-year curriculum found at The Florence Academy or the large faculty of The New York Academy, but they all document a new direction in art education. Recently, more and more young Europeans have been seeking such training, yet most of the students at these new academies are still young Americans who were initially educated in the modernist idiom. For example, Florence Academy founder Daniel Graves’ hero in college was the Modernist painter Arshile Gorky.
Meanwhile, it is most rewarding to appreciate the type of art coming out of the older and now venerable “new medium” art schools, such as the University of California in Los Angeles, as well as the kind of art coming out of the new and rapidly growing “old medium” art schools, such as the works found in the current exhibition. Ironically, the traditionally painted works are now more unexpected and radical. Appreciation of one kind of art does not exclude appreciation of the other. While many of my generation still feel there is a battle being fought between modernism and post-modernism, the majority of artists under 40 working in either artistic camp do not sense this conflict. Readily open to both kinds of expression, they make art, not war.
While some of the new academically trained artists have gone on to produce modernist or abstract work, the focus of this exhibition is the work of artists who chose to continue their exploration of the traditional language of painting and drawing. Perhaps the best term to describe the dominant Old Master realistic style of this exhibition is Slow Art. Unlike photorealism, which is based on the language of photography, the visual expression of these works comes from the appreciation and the long study of the visual language of Old Master painting. To acquire such skills and to paint such works of art is a long slow process.
Born into the flat and precise style of photorealism, the younger generation of realists shown here responded by striving to be more painterly and thus turned to the Old Masters, such as Velázquez and the Baroque. A parallel shift occurred around 1840 in France with Manet and many of his contemporaries. Born into the flat surfaces of Neo-Classicism — a tight and precisely drawn style akin to photorealism — Manet wanted to be richer and more painterly in his work and thus he also turned to the Old Masters, again especially Velázquez, for inspiration. As demonstrated by the Manet/Velázquez exhibition recently held at The Metropolitan Museum in New York the periodic need for artists to look back and to relearn lost skills from artists who lived centuries before is becoming more fully understood and appreciated. Heretofore, Manet had always been treated, though wrongly, as a modernist artist who totally broke with the past. For the first time in the show at The Metropolitan Museum, a major scholarly exhibition treated Manet as an Old Master realist — an artist who revived and reinterpreted the Old Master style of his 17th century hero Velázquez. Like many of the artists shown here, Manet also preferred a dark palette like Velázquez, while contemporary taste both then and now preferred bright colors.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks to the appreciation of Slow Art is the false notion that contemporary art must only use the latest, newest and generally fastest visual language. While today we all live in a modern world, armed with cell phones and computers that enable us to communicate instantly, the English language we use to communicate — the language used here — was developed centuries ago. Technical and scientific developments are important, but they pale in comparison to the development of that language in the Middle Ages. No one seriously objects to the use of the Old Master languages by contemporary poets and writers.
Paralleling the ideas of Joseph Campbell, the comparative mythologist, one can also conclude that living today with all the latest high-tech conveniences does not alter the fact that these things are merely benign details compared to the most important thing in one’s life, especially one’s spiritual life. If we could somehow revive a man who lived in the year 1600, we could still relate to him on a very deep level, as we would both have experienced pleasure and pain, the yearly cycle of the seasons, love and fear, birth and death, the beauty of nature — all of the truly important fundamentals of life. This is the reason modern man can understand and appreciate the art made in 1600 or even 1600 B.C. It is also why, in the end, there is no reason that contemporary art cannot echo or use the vocabulary of the art of the distant or recent past. If contemporary critics want to deny artists the right to use the visual vocabulary that evolved in the Renaissance, they should try writing their criticism without the traditional language that evolved around the same time.
The other roadblock to an appreciation of Slow Art is the fact that we have all come to expect the rapid changes and quick execution that are endemic to contemporary art. Starting with the years it takes to learn the language and ending with the time it takes to execute a painting, Slow Art is a very time-consuming art form. Most of the artists in this exhibition produce only six to eight paintings a year. Again, there is an apt art-historical precedent for an alternating period of rapid and then slow change. The Renaissance, a time of extremely fast evolution with major technological and artistic developments such as the printing press, oil medium, and landscape painting, was followed after 1600 by the Baroque Period, with great art but only slow evolution as artists took time to digest, refine and build upon the discoveries of the Renaissance.
In general, Baroque artists such as Velázquez and Zurbarán were more concerned with correct anatomy, realistic colors and light sources and took much longer to execute a painting than the very facile Mannerist painters, such as El Greco or Tintoretto, of the preceding generation. Similarly, the 20th century, another period of rapid and major technological and artistic developments as in the Renaissance, may well be followed by a Baroque century of much slower evolution and more carefully rendered works of art. In effect, art and architecture may slow down as artists digest and develop further the tremendous number of new art forms and techniques evolved in the last century, including the nascent, slow-moving idiom here termed Slow Art.
Many of the artists represented in this exhibition drafted and signed a Slow Art manifesto. The actual document is on view in the exhibition and is reprinted here on page 18. The artists participating in the current exhibition who signed the Slow Art Manifesto on January 11, 2005, were Paul Brown, Jacob Collins, John Morra, Graydon Parrish, Christopher Pugliese, Jimmy Sanders and Patricia Watwood. Anthony Ackrill, who is also represented in this exhibition, was also present but did not sign.
After a first draft of the Slow Art manifesto was written, Graydon Parrish discovered Carl Honore’s new book In Praise of Slowness, How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed (Harper, San Francisco, 2004). Honore documents how after the Slow Food Movement started in 1986, there were soon similar slow movements in music, urban planning, child rearing, sex and much more. Moreover, only after a final draft of the manifesto was written did a Google search of the term “Slow Art” turn up comments made by Robert Hughes at the Royal Academy Dinner in London in June 2004 under a headline, “We need slow art.” In his address, the noted art critic stated:
We have had a gutful of fast art and food. What we need more of is slow art: art that holds time as a vase holds water: art that grows out of modes of perception and making whose skill and doggedness. make you think and feel; art that isn’t merely sensational that doesn’t get its message across in 10 seconds, that isn’t falsely iconic, that hooks onto something deep-running in our natures.
Because they are a new genre, made slowly and carefully by hand without the use of photography, the works in the current exhibition also call upon people in the art world to slow down and look hard at what these artists are doing. When I first saw Anthony Ackrill’s painting Queen’s Egg I loved the sophistication of the image — how the shape of the egg is echoed in the figure’s hips, how the sky and trees are reflected in the water, plus the modern touch of a toe ring. Only much later did I notice in the middle of a field behind to the right the artist had painted a solitary tree, long symbolic of life or the tree of man. Both the egg and the tree thus symbolized life or rebirth. Upon first glance, the fact that in parts of the work one could see the canvas texture disturbed me. Underestimating the sophistication of the artist, I thought Ackrill had just not prepared his canvas properly. Slowly, however, it became clear that this particular aspect of his work was very consciously done to emphasize the true nature of the materials and to underscore that this physical object is indeed made up of oil and canvas. I then also came to notice that Ackrill was in good company and that Velázquez, Poussin, Degas and numerous other great artists of the past had done the same.
While technical training has never in itself made great art, equally important, technical training has also never precluded creativity. All of the works in this exhibition reflect talent and exceptional competence in execution, while many also show the spark of genius and are quite extraordinary. Surely the truly remarkable works will increase in number over time as more and more academically trained artists succeed in their struggle to master the difficult but also rewarding language of the Old Masters and to make it their own. Meanwhile, considering that most of these new academic art schools are less than a decade old and the course of study is of considerable duration, many of the artists in this show are but in their mid-30s, with only a few years of independent work. At that age, neither Gauguin nor van Gogh (or Warhol or Pollock, for that matter) had yet shown their full promise. As these new schools continue to educate more young artists, the next decade may reveal that Andy Warhol was right, and 1,000 students learning traditional skills may indeed change the course of art history — at least by broadening its horizons. In the meantime, this exhibition presents an exciting sampling of a new direction in art resulting from a new direction in art education.
Dr. Gregory Hedberg is the Director of European Art, Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York City