Teaching art in 89 lessons

Instructors and artists share top assignments they've come across.

By Dwight Garner The New York Times

Published March 30th 2012 8:00 pm



When the American painter, sculptor and installation artist Paul Thek (1933-88) taught art classes at Cooper Union in the late 1970s, he wrote and then gave to his students a long, provocative and now famous list of questions and marching orders he titled "Teaching Notes."

Thek's sometimes intimate questions included "On what do you sleep?" and "Have you ever been seriously ill?" Among his tantalizing assignments for students were "Add a station to the cross," "Redesign the human genitals so that they might be more equitable" and "Design an abstract monument to Uncle Tom." I'd walk a long way to see Richard Serra or Cindy Sherman attempt any of these, especially the middle one.

"Teaching Notes" closed with this statement, which professors (and critics) everywhere should etch onto the bottom rims of their reading glasses, facing outward: "Remember, I'm going to mark you, it's my great pleasure to reward real effort, it's my great pleasure to punish stupidity, laziness and insincerity."

Thek's list has been passed around by serious art teachers for decades. It is now reprinted in -- and its spirit lingers over -- a mischievous and nourishing new book called Draw It With Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment, compiled by the editors of the art magazine Paper Monument, a sibling publication of the literary magazine n (PLUS) 1.

Here's what Paper Monument's editors, in this slim book, have had the wit to do: They've asked dozens of artists and teachers, some well known and some not, to speak about the best art assignments they've given or received or even heard of.

The results are aimed at MFA-level teachers, but these 89 entries are accessible to anyone, many even to children. Like the conversation in the final hour of a boozy art opening, these small anecdotal essays mix gossip, profundity, bogosity and lecherousness in equal parts. The book is buzzy and wild, like real talk.

Some of the assignments printed here read like haiku. "Take an 18 x 24 inch piece of paper and make a drawing using nothing but your car"; "Defenestrate objects. Photo them in mid-air"; "Go into your studio. Using all the clothes you are wearing, make a work of art. Leave the studio naked."

Others sound like party games, albeit the kind that will have the neighbors ringing the police at midnight. There are stories here of pianos being demolished and then reassembled; of male nude models developing stubborn erections; of art made from nearly every bodily emission; about an entire class unwittingly eating pot muffins at 8 a.m. on a Tuesday because a student has brought them along.

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When the American painter, sculptor and installation artist Paul Thek (1933-88) taught art classes at Cooper Union in the late 1970s, he wrote and then gave to his students a long, provocative and now famous list of questions and marching orders he titled "Teaching Notes."

Thek's sometimes intimate questions included "On what do you sleep?" and "Have you ever been seriously ill?" Among his tantalizing assignments for students were "Add a station to the cross," "Redesign the human genitals so that they might be more equitable" and "Design an abstract monument to Uncle Tom." I'd walk a long way to see Richard Serra or Cindy Sherman attempt any of these, especially the middle one.

"Teaching Notes" closed with this statement, which professors (and critics) everywhere should etch onto the bottom rims of their reading glasses, facing outward: "Remember, I'm going to mark you, it's my great pleasure to reward real effort, it's my great pleasure to punish stupidity, laziness and insincerity."

Thek's list has been passed around by serious art teachers for decades. It is now reprinted in -- and its spirit lingers over -- a mischievous and nourishing new book called Draw It With Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment, compiled by the editors of the art magazine Paper Monument, a sibling publication of the literary magazine n (PLUS) 1.

Here's what Paper Monument's editors, in this slim book, have had the wit to do: They've asked dozens of artists and teachers, some well known and some not, to speak about the best art assignments they've given or received or even heard of.

The results are aimed at MFA-level teachers, but these 89 entries are accessible to anyone, many even to children. Like the conversation in the final hour of a boozy art opening, these small anecdotal essays mix gossip, profundity, bogosity and lecherousness in equal parts. The book is buzzy and wild, like real talk.

Some of the assignments printed here read like haiku. "Take an 18 x 24 inch piece of paper and make a drawing using nothing but your car"; "Defenestrate objects. Photo them in mid-air"; "Go into your studio. Using all the clothes you are wearing, make a work of art. Leave the studio naked."

Others sound like party games, albeit the kind that will have the neighbors ringing the police at midnight. There are stories here of pianos being demolished and then reassembled; of male nude models developing stubborn erections; of art made from nearly every bodily emission; about an entire class unwittingly eating pot muffins at 8 a.m. on a Tuesday because a student has brought them along. [2] =>

Kevin Zucker, an artist who teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design, relates the pot muffin story. His essay includes this observation: "Later that afternoon you will have to endure a lengthy meeting with someone from the college's 'risk management' office. The official's job description, enthusiasm for discharging his duties, and Men's Wearhouse suit will all combine to make you bottomlessly sad."

The editors note that "many of the anti-assignments collected in this book use the slippery logic of 'I command you to disobey me' and other infamous tricks of the oracle."

Most of the contributors, however, respond in the spirit of the undertaking. Their essays are a pleasure, in that they show us serious thinkers returning to bedrock principles. They remind us that every artist was an apprentice once.

This is the book to read on the subway while on your way to the Whitney Biennial. It allows you to consider the long and improbable leap from novitiate art to the real and electric thing.

One surprise is that a book like this one doesn't already exist. The editors began work on it, they write in an afterword, because they were surprised to find, in art literature, "how little attention was paid to the nuts and bolts of art teaching." They point out that art assignments have largely been an oral tradition, "adapted, shared, and reworked." This book thus comprises a mini-canon.

Paper Monument is adept at this kind of small, unpretentious volume. In 2009 it published a demonic little pamphlet titled "I Like Your Work: Art and Etiquette." It was packed with sardonic advice about how to behave at openings and elsewhere. It addressed burning issues like when to act like a jerk, and how to dress if you happen to be obese.

A fair amount of flatulent academic writing clouds the air in Draw It With Your Eyes Closed. ("All art should kind of assault the domestic interior"; "begin by revising your previous notions of space.") But if you follow art and can't stomach a certain level of pretentiousness, you'll forever be stuck in the shallow end of the pool.

Draw It With Your Eyes Closed is an upbeat and idiosyncratic book that also happens to speak some uncomfortable truths about the art world. One of them is this: "It's quite difficult to get a foothold if somebody older than you doesn't take an active interest." Perhaps more pertinently, there is this advice to any teacher who lords it over his or her students: "Don't forget how easy it is for them to find images of your own work on the Internet."

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