This excerpt is from Did I do That? Thirty Years of Adjunct Teaching, a book that Peter Dudek is writing about his years in academia, teaching art. Many of the conversations and stories came about in class, during faculty meetings, or over dinner & drinks with other artists who teach.
Contributed by Peter Dudek / When Tony Smith was teaching at Cooper Union in the early fifties, someone told him how to get on the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike. He took three students, entered the roadway somewhere in the Meadows and drove towards New Brunswick. It was a dark night and there were no lights or shoulder markings, no railings, or anything at all except the dark pavement moving through the landscape of the flats, which were rimmed by the hills in the distance, and punctuated by stacks, towers, fumes, and colored lights. The drive was a revealing experience. The road and much of the landscape was artificial, and yet it could not be called a work of art. On the other hand, it did something for Smith that art had never done before. At first, he did not know what it was, but its effect was to liberate him from many of the views he had had about art. It produced an experience which had not had any expression in art.
The experience on the road was something mapped out but not recognizable. There was no way to frame it, you just had to experience it.
He later discovered abandoned airstrips in Europe, abandoned mega works, that evoked Surreal landscapes, something that had nothing to do with any function, and appeared to be created worlds, without traditions, artificial landscapes without cultural precedents.*
That story of Smith driving on the unfinished highways of New Jersey circulated in the art world. This was previous to any exhibit of his minimalist sculptures, and that experience, that story, spread about through word of mouth, foreshadowing the earthworks of a younger generation. Robert Smithson and his investigations of the marshy wastelands of New Jersey, his Spiral Jetty, and the work of his contemporaries in the American southwest was, in a way, conjured up through the storytelling of Smith.
In the 1960s Smith’s road story was published in Artforum which made it known to a wider audience of artists. He also taught at Hunter College where Alice Aycock wrote her Master’s thesis on the U.S. highway system and exit ramps.
I entered the Master’s Program at Hunter in the late 1970s while Smith was still a presence there. In class Smith never hesitated to dovetail a yarn about Barney or Jackson or Frank Lloyd Wright into class critiques. And truth be told, art schools back then (undergraduate & grad) were about stories, tales and anecdotes. Studio classes were often improvisational, semi-structured and liberating. I cannot recall a single studio class where there was a syllabus. They simply did not exist. No syllabus. No learning outcomes, no reading lists to ponder, and certainly no writing required. Instructors talked about what we would do and then we did it. We were there to make stuff. It was as simple as that. But storytelling, a form of oral history, enlarged what we were doing in class by accessing the personal history of the instructors and the so called “real world” experiences of art making. And it retold the foibles that entered art history. For example, was Pollock’s Blue Poles really made in collaboration with Tony Smith and Barney Newman? Had Pollock reached such a point of despair and frustration with his painting that when Smith and Newman arrived he allowed them to make additions? Were those footprints on the canvas really made by Smith as he entered the painting to add some drips? Did Barney actually apply the vertical blue “poles” himself, those slash-like marks reminiscent of his “zips”? If not, why does no other Pollock painting have such markings?
At the Jackson Pollock retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, I was standing in front of the Blue Poles with William Agee who also taught at Hunter. I asked him about the backstory. He said it didn’t matter to him, because for him the painting was a mess. It was a funny story, but the painting was a failure. That sort of command decision, the taking of a decisive stand on an aesthetic matter was so typical of art school back then. I had been in school when it was common for faculty to be composed of artists from multiple generations. In my case I studied with first generation practitioners of abstract expressionism, post painterly abstraction, conceptual art, minimalism and post-minimalism. That presence of generational evolution and their differing ways of talking about art gave students a foundational background to pass on when they would enter the world of teaching.
However, while I was in school I didn’t give much thought to the idea of teaching after graduation. I felt teaching was a possible option, but only after I had achieved a post-graduation history as an artist. I had started exhibiting in grad school but I wanted a few years away from an academic setting before returning. During my education it was emphasized that artists must develop multiple income streams. It was apparent that for most instructors, teaching was just one of the many things they did, which changed from year to year.
Five seemed to be the ideal number of income options. There was working in the art world (for a gallery or an artist), manual labor (like carpentry), teaching (maybe), starting a business (perhaps), and I’m certain I had a fifth option (but can’t remember what that was). Maybe it was selling art. I don’t know, but I kicked around many of those options for several years before I got my first teaching job.
I was in the midst of having a pretty good year when the opportunity to teach came about. I had received a grant, moved into a better studio, made a large-scale site-specific sculpture, and then went to Spain for about a month. When I returned there was a message on my machine from Jeanne Siegel, the Chair of the Art Department at the School of Visual Arts. She didn’t say why she called, but in the years after I graduated from SVA I mostly paid my bills by doing carpentry. I was pretty sure Jeanne knew that, so I figured she wanted me to make her a bookcase.
And I did not return her call.
A week later I was sitting by the phone when it rang. It was Jeanne. “Do you want this teaching job or not?”, she blurted.
I said “uh.. yeah… Jeanne, of course, I just got back in town and was about to call you.”
“Well get down here I need to talk with you.”
I went down to school to speak with her and the other powers that be, and suddenly I had a job teaching Foundation Sculpture.
A week later I was sitting by the phone again when it rang. It was Jeanne. She said, “Peter I’d like you to build me a bookcase.”
And I built it.
But now I had to prepare for this teaching position, and the question was, “what do I teach?”. Jeanne had asked me to develop at least three ideas. So when I walked into the first class I ever taught, all I had was a piece of paper with three ideas typed on it. I passed it around to the ten or twelve students. I told them that we were going to make sculptures and that they could start with any of the ideas on that piece of paper, or if they had something else in mind they could do that. I told them I had no interest in being an authority figure. I was simply there to help facilitate whatever they wanted to make, but they had to decide on the first project. If I did that today I would probably get fired, but that’s what I did for my first five years of teaching.
And here’s how it went: right at the start ten out of twelve students began with one of my projects. However, by the third class most of them broke off into doing their own thing. So, by week five it seemed like no one was doing anything vaguely similar to what was on my list. I had twelve students all working on different projects, sometimes collaborating, sometimes not. In each class I would run from student to student, figuring out what they needed, and putting out fires (but more on that later). The class was six hours long and it was exhausting. By mid-semester I wasn’t sure who was in charge. Was it me? The students? Anyone? If the chair or someone from the administration walked in, would they fire me? I approached each class with a combination of fear and dread. I had never taught before. Was this how it was and would always be? By week ten chaos ruled supreme, and then something happened. All the students suddenly were looking at me. They wanted something from me. They saw me as their leader. What should we do next, they seemed to ask?
I looked around at what we made. “We need to find a space,” I said. “We need to gather all this stuff and put it someplace. We need to install it someplace where it doesn’t belong.”.
We hunted around the school and found an unused area, it wasn’t a classroom. It wasn’t a space dedicated for exhibitions, it was simply an unused area of an awkwardly large hallway. We put all our stuff there. We didn’t tell anyone. It was just there.
Other faculty members, students and administration would come upon it and ask, “What is this? Did a class make this? How did it get here?”.
They asked those questions because it startled and surprised whoever discovered it.
They would periodically return, for it was too complex a situation to take in all at once. It was compelling and it was interesting to look at.
The displacement of those works from the studio to another space was the cohesive act that clarified what we were doing. The work didn’t need to have a common thread, it was held together by an allover variety. I would love to say that I had planned it all, that organized chaos and chance operations were intentional and necessary to create a desired outcome. But that’s not how it happened. I did not want control nor did I have any.
Each class began like a jazz concert in which musicians gathered on the stage, made random sounds as they warmed up, which then coalesced so that suddenly you were in the midst of a concert, without actually knowing when it started. My classes functioned much like that, students wandered in, a tool was picked up here, a material gathered there, and without a clearly defined starting point class was in motion, things were being made, the room was humming. So that became the so-called, “method”, that I continued to use for the next several years.
And around year five, I had to stop using this unscripted method. I was now teaching at two schools. Working without a syllabus for one class was intense enough. But now I was teaching three or four classes per semester and working without a syllabus was killing me. Every class seemed like making a movie while not providing a script. It could be fun, and productive fun, but the administration was starting to have their own thoughts. They were in the midst of formalizing what should be taught. A structured format was coming down the pike. Plus, there was something called the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. They had an agenda. And they wanted a syllabus.
To Be Continued.
* The first few paragraphs are a re-wording of extracts from Samuel Wagstaff, Jr, “Talking with Tony Smith”, Artforum, vol. 1, no. 4, New York, December 1966, pp. 18 – 19.
UPCOMING: Peter Dudek will host a conversation at Two Coats of Paint on Clubhouse on Monday, September 20, at 11:30 am. Details to come.
About the author: Peter Dudek is an artist, a partner and creative director at Bascom Lodge, an Arts-and-Crafts-style lodge at the peak of Mount Greylock in Massachusetts, and a faculty member at SVA and Hunter.