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Art School Creates a New Reality


Kevin Yu in his studio at the New York Academy of Art in TriBeCa. CreditJoshua Bright for The New York Times


New York Academy of Art Recovers From a Bad Reputation


By RANDY KENNEDY, The New York Times, MAY 21, 2014

Andy Warhol, who knocked painting off its pedestal by introducing it to mass production, is not the first person who might spring to mind as a defender of art’s academic traditions, particularly fusty-sounding ones like cast drawing and anatomical study. But he was a classically trained draftsman. And in the late 1970s, he helped found what became the New York Academy of Art, a bastion of figurative training that was swimming decidedly against the current, even at a time when Neo-Expressionism had brought painting the human form back into vogue.

For most of its existence, the graduate school, which began life in an old church in the East Village and later moved to TriBeCa, did little to help — and a great deal to hurt — its contrarian cause. It was often an organizational mess, torn by internal dissent and embroiled in litigation with one of its founders. Two of its financial officers (one of whom was known for keeping a pet boa constrictor in his office) were accused of embezzlement over the years. And in 1994, an educational consultant hired to assess the school concluded that it lacked even the most basic features of an educational institution.


Heather Personett, sculpting from a model, Jack Bruml Norton. CreditJoshua Bright for The New York Times

But over the last several years, the academy has been slowly and steadily digging its reputation out of the ditch. As it graduates its most recent class Thursday, it finds itself increasingly sought-after by young painters and sculptors, and in the middle of an orbit of successful representational artists, cutting across generations — Philip Pearlstein, Eric Fischl, John Currin, Jenny Saville, Dana Schutz, Aurel Schmidt — who serve as lecturers, critics and supporters. The school’s rise has coincided with and benefited from another upswing, over the last decade, in the perennial up-and-down fortunes of figurative painting. And a few of its recent graduates have quickly made their way into established galleries.

“When I tell someone what I do,” said David Kratz, a painter who took over as the school’s president in 2009 after having studied there, “I can always tell by the look on their face if they knew the school from years ago, or if they know the school now.”

The two-year program, which accepts about 50 new applicants a year and is supported by trustees who are concentrated in the worlds of fashion, jewelry and art, draws an increasingly international student body. And it has attracted many young artists who say they do not necessarily intend to work in a figurative style but want to know more about traditional technique and find themselves camped happily with an easel in front of plaster casts of classical and Renaissance sculpture that once belonged to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Dumith Kulasekara drawing a squirrel head in a Man and Beast class. CreditJoshua Bright for The New York Times

“When I was in college, I was going to galleries, and I wasn’t very happy about what I was seeing,” said Ali Banisadr, a graduate who is now represented by the Sperone Westwater Gallery on the Bowery, “because there was this huge push toward de-skilling in painting.”

“It was something I wasn’t interested in at all,” said Mr. Banisadr, who grew up in Iran and California, and now works in Brooklyn. “I wanted to learn how to paint to be able to convey clearly what I wanted to say and to know how I wanted to break away from those skills.”


Camila Rocha in her studio.CreditJoshua Bright for The New York Times

Peter Drake, a painter who has served as the dean of academic affairs for the last four years after teaching for many years at Parsons The New School for Design, said that for much of the academy’s history “there was almost a hiding-your-head-in-the-sand quality to many of the graduates.”

“It had this real atelier feeling,” he said, adding that the prevailing mood was “almost as if working figuratively precluded looking at the 20th century.” But the school, which received accreditation last year from the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, has significantly increased its focus on critical theory. And it has worked to broaden students’ awareness of the contemporary art world — a strategy that has worked at least well enough, Mr. Drake said, to make the school a consistent feeder to the vast factorylikeChelsea studio of Jeff Koons, who employs legions of assistants to make his paintings. (“They don’t end up staying there for very long, because it’s kind of soul-numbing,” Mr. Drake added. “It’s very prescribed.”)

On a recent day at the school, housed in a hulking five-story industrial building packed with more than 90 small painting and sculpture studios, students were at work on pieces that would soon be subject to professional critiques, but that would be tested beforehand in an even more daunting real-world way. During its bad years, the school was known by many in the art world primarily as a place that gave great parties, and its annual TriBeCa Ball remains a celebrity magnet. But that ball, held in April, has also become a kind of hunting ground for major collectors and dealers, so students were trying not only to finish significant pieces but also to prepare themselves to be on display.


Zoë Sua Kay in one of over 90 studios in a five-story industrial building housing the New York Academy of Art. CreditJoshua Bright for The New York Times

Camila Rocha, 31, a Brazilian-born first-year student who saved money to attend the school by working as a tattoo artist, was putting the final touches on a moody portrait of a young man with his head against a wall. Elizabeth Glaessner, 30, a postgraduate fellow who will have a solo exhibition at theP.P.O.W. gallery in July, was sitting in front of a wall in her cubicle studio filled with recent small portraits on plexiglass that looked both domestic and post-apocalyptic. “I’ve learned not to be afraid of paint here,” she said. “I’ve grown to love the feeling of putting it down and being completely aggressive with it.”

Jacob Hayes, 27, a second-year student who grew up in a working-class family in rural Kansas, had just finished a series of small, obsessively repetitive portraits of the same haggard-looking man — his uncle — who did not pose willingly; the portraits were all based on mug shots taken over the years as he cycled in and out of the Kansas penal system. “I actually don’t know where he is right now,” Mr. Hayes said, “which probably means he’s in jail again.”

Of his own path to becoming a painter, Mr. Hayes said, it was hardly in the cards when he was younger; he is still occasionally shocked to find himself working in New York City. “I had to sell my truck and all the rest of my stuff just to get here,” he said.

A few weeks later, during the TriBeCa Ball, Mr. Hayes, who had cleaned up his studio and was wearing a freshly pressed shirt, had added a new series to his studio walls: mug-shot-based portraits of a cousin. “He’s had a much rougher go of it than my uncle,” he said. Alongside the new work, he had arranged a shelf with a few nice tumblers and a bottle of Kansas-distilled whiskey, which he offered to the well-heeled partygoers who crowded around him.

“You don’t really know who’s here to see art or just to be seen,” he said. “But I’m ready for anybody.”

A version of this article appears in print on May 22, 2014, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Art School Creates a New Reality.



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