The earliest art class I can remember was at ten, in Lahore, Pakistan. The class was held under a line of tall trees along a dusty road. Willow trees or cypress (?) swayed overhead. It’s vague and improbable. Why along side a road? The only clear thing about it is a painting I made, a multicolored sunset over twisting black rocks. I painted it for my mother who I hadn’t seen in just over a year while I lived with my grandparents. I remember it clearly because I saw it a month ago; it hangs in the stairway down to her basement in Mattituck.
My next memory was two years later, in the Brenner School in Kfar Saba, Israel. Matatiahu, my art instructor also taught Wood-shop class. I was an enthusiastic but inept carpenter; I could never measure things attentively and my joints were always out of whack, my projects a mess of protruding nail heads and smeared glue. I was better at Art (or so I thought) — I had always liked to draw and paint — but Matatiahu didn’t like me. Maybe it’s because I was a foreigner, only recently fluent in Hebrew. Or maybe I’d established an unshakeable reputation with Matatiahu at the workbench. Or maybe I was just an obnoxious twerp.
One day, Matatiahu assigned us a project to do at home: a painting of birds. Determined to
redeem myself in his eyes, I worked long into the night. I collected reference pictures of dozens of species of birds and arranged them in a sprawling painting of an oasis at sunset. Flamingoes and storks posed along the water’s edge, sparrows and owls were arranged on tree branches, and hawks soared through the pink and purple clouds overhead. I felt like a young Audubon when I handed it in and, the following week, when Matatiahu handed back our work, I eagerly flipped it over to see his comments. In blue ballpoint, he had written, “F. The assignment was ‘birds’ not ‘landscape‘.
My mother and my stepfather, proud ’60’s anti-authoritarians, were majorly pissed. ”Who grades a child’s art work, for Chrissakes?“ my mother fumed. She stormed down to the school, lodged a protest, and my grade was changed. The following week, Matatiahu told us about a nationwide student competition for traffic safety posters. I painted a grisly scene of a corpse sprawled across the bloody hood of a smashed car. No doubt gritting his teeth through his congratulatory smile, Matatiahu picked my work to represent the school. I didn’t win the competition but fortunately my parents didn’ t fight this latest injustice.
As a teenager in Brooklyn, I attended a very progressive school. My art teacher, Paul, was an ardent Marxist and always encouraged us to be loose and experimental, not to worry about figurative bullshit — concept was king. I loved him but he taught me much more about class oppression, tofu, and joint rolling than how to draw.
On Sundays, I studied drawing at the Brooklyn Museum. The second week of the term, a large and loud girl took a liking to me and began to rip pages out of her sketchbook and pass lewd notes to me. I was a very skittish and self conscious kid and filled with horror when she made other students pass these notes to me. I took to sitting at the back near the door and escaped down into the Eastern Parkway subway station the minute the class broke. Occasionally, she caught me on the platform, complaining that she had to buy a special notebook for notes to me as she had emptied her large sketchbook. The fact that I never responded with anything but grimaces and shrugs didn’t seem to dissuade her ardor. Midterm, I dropped out and far too embarrassed to tell my parents what was going on, I spent my Sunday afternoons at the library instead.
The summer after junior year, I followed the example of my idol, Eric Drooker, who the year before had gone to the RISD summer program. It was fantastic; we lived in campus dorms like grownups, studied painting and drawing and printmaking, but more importantly stayed up late, drank loads of beer, and made out with girls.
This was the mid 1970s and I was an overly intellectual, arrogant, and insecure teenager. Most of the art I made was highly conceptual. If I could figure out a way to outthink the teacher, all the better. When our design teacher asked us to use up a whole pencil in a single drawing, I had a brainstorm. I ground up a pencil and its eraser into a fine dust in a sharpener. Then I painted a nude woman in rubber cement, and used an atomizer to blow the shavings all over the painting. When the teacher saw my soft, gradated image hanging among the grimy black works of my classmates, he chastised me for not doing the assignment. But when I explained my ‘ingenious’ technique, he apologized publicly and my triumph was complete. Summer school proved to be another opportunity to refine my mastery of the fine art of pissing off authority.
It was also the end of my art education. Being surrounded by the most talented kids in schools across the country at RISD has lowered me a notch or two. I think I gave up on art at that point and frankly no one else seemed that concerned.
At Princeton, I took some art history classes but loudly resented having to memorize what other people said said about famous art. I don’t remember being asked for my opinion of the masters and instead resisted the ideas of the art establishment that had, in my mind, calcified the history of art into just another academic discipline to keep professors tenured. Mine wasn’t a very coherent critique but I loved clinging to my opinion, which seemed to be the underlying point of much of my education.
It took me another twenty years to accept my ignorance, in fact, to embrace it. These days, I am hungry to learn about art and to saturate myself in as many different ways as I can find to explore it. I wonder what my life would be like if I had been able to find teachers who could have kept me enthusiastic and open-minded, for all these years.