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.
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.