Twrkv + New York Studio School: a history

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This year the New York Studio School celebrates its 50th anniversary. From humble beginnings, it was founded in 1964 by a group of restless students under the leadership of artist, activist, writer and educator Mercedes Matter.

A new art school organized and run by art students is thriving in a drab, downtown loft,” wrote The New York Times, “it has no curriculum, gives neither grades nor credits, and grants no degrees. It focuses exclusively on the fundamentals: drawing, painting, sculpture and the history of art.(1)

Mercedes Matter, Herbert Matter

The idea for the school developed in February of 1964 when a 21-year-old student by the name of Mark Zimetbaum and some fellow students compared notes on their dissatisfaction with current teaching methods in art school. “We wanted to get away from the kind of design school so prevalent today, where you get a smattering of everything,” Zimetbaum explained to The New York Times.(2)

The group of students approached an instructor at Pratt, Mercedes Matter, whose recent article in the September 1963 issue of Art News, entitled “What’s Wrong with U.S. Art Schools?”, had criticized standardized art education in the United States. The article lamented the “pressure and haste” and the “sacrifice of depth to breadth” in the current curricula at most schools. Matter advocated for a return to the disciplines of drawing, painting, and sculpture. The students encouraged Matter to create a school that reflected her ideas and values.

As the students organized, Matter persuaded colleagues at Pratt and elsewhere to join her in forming a faculty for a new school. Sculptors Sidney Geist and George Spaventa along with painters Charles Cajori and Esteban Vicente signed on as regular instructors. Jack Tworkov (who had just accepted the Chairmanship at Yale University School of Art) joined the faculty as a visiting artist and taught drawing and painting. Dr. Meyer Schapiro, professor of Fine Arts at Columbia at the time, agreed to lecture regularly on art history.

And so the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture was born. Classes began on September 21, 1964 in a 6,000 square foot loft on the seventh floor of 646 Broadway on the corner of Bleeker Street. Students had found the building through a listing in the newspaper.

The Studio School, as it has come to be known, became the alternative institution dedicated to fundamental principles of artistic training patterned after the traditional European atelier system: artists accept students to work with them in ateliers.

The School’s original manifesto declared:

Whereas in most schools, the emphasis is on the time spent in classes with instruction, ours is on the continuity of our own work, work which is one, which is but the evidence of our intrinsic growth in perception and experience, not a variety of separated enterprises.

New York Studio School, Jack Tworkov

New York Studio School moves to 8th Street. According to The New York Times, in March 1967, the Studio School was able to make a down payment of $250,000 (one-third purchase price) for a new home at it’s current location in the original home of the Whitney Museum of American Art on 8th Street (which was formerly the sculpture studio of Gertude Vanderbilt Whitney). To learn more about the history of the building click here.

The down payment came by way of the unexpected death of one of its students, Claudia Ann Stone. She passed away two days before her 21st birthday leaving the school half of her residuary estate. “Miss Stone’s brother, Maurice, and her mother, Mrs. Maurce L. Stone, made additional donations to the school in her memory, which brought the total to $200,000,” reported The New York Times. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund gave $50,000.(3)

Lloyd Goodrich, director of the Whitney Museum, said that the news of the school’s purchase of the building was “wonderful” and he was “delighted that it is returning to something like its original art purposes.” The New York Studio School, he added, “is one of the fine progressive art schools in the city and it is deserving of good quarters.”(4)

John Cohen, The Cedar Bar

Mercedes Matter and Jack Tworkov. The friendship between Mercedes Matter and Jack Tworkov likely began in the mid-1930s in New York during the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Tworkov was working in the Easel Division and Matter, having studied under artists Maurice Sterne, Alexander Archipenko and the prominent art teacher and Abstract Expressionist Hans Hofmann, had received a stipend from the WPA to work as the assistant and translator for Fernand Leger.

Their acquaintance grew strong over the years. In the early 1950s and in the heyday of the Eight Street Club, Tworkov participated in a panel moderated by Matter that included included Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and George McNeil (all heavy hitters associated with the rising Abstract Expressionist movement).(5)

In the late 1950s Tworkov was among a tight group of artists that met regularly each Sunday afternoon in the living room of Matter’s MacDougal Alley apartment to draw from the model. Artist Philip Pearlstein recalls these sessions with some nostalgia in his essay The Drawing Group, Drawing Naked People.(6)

Although Abstract Expressionism was in full swing, in their model sessions at Matter’s, “everyone worked in their own style,” Pearlstein recalled; “there was never any discussion, and everyone was polite and tried not to look at the work of the others.” Sessions would begin at 6pm and run through midnight.(7)

In addition to Tworkov, Pearlstein counted Philip Guston, George McNeil and Stephen Green among regular attendees along with Paul Georges, Charles Cajori, Lois Dodd and “occasionally Mary Frank, Gabriel Laderman, and Alex Katz.” When Mercedes moved the group to Thursday nights during the 1960s, Tworkov continued to attend, likely hitching a ride from Pearlstein in his Volkswagen Bus.(8)

Tworkov at The New York Studio School. Tworkov joined the faculty at the New York Studio School as a visiting artist during it’s early infancy. Not only was he an influential teacher, but he was also called upon as an administrator and was a constant confidant to Mercedes as she struggled to develop the curriculum, secure funding and stabilize the school as a whole.

Just months before the Studio School would purchase the Whitney Studio building on 8th Street, Mercedes wrote to Tworkov. In the letter dated January 21, 1967, she acknowledges the struggling school and thanks him for his continued support:

Dear Jack,

I want to thank you for helping the school by signing the statement about it for the Governor. It did move him to action – we got a ‘stay of execution’ – a prolonging of time that was essential. If nothing unforeseen happens I think we will get the building but I won’t be sure until the first of February.

In any case the days of feverish activity in connection with that are over. It is now in the lap of the gods or the Rockefellers – or whatever powers will decide our fate – but not in mine so that I can return to my own small life and try to pick up the threads again. And I can see my friends. May I come to see you at your studio one day? It’s been a long time.

Mercedes

Renate Ponsold, Jack Tworkov

Tworkov as teacher. When the young artist Christopher Wool moved to New York City’s Lower East Side from Chicago in 1973 he enrolled in the graduate program at the Studio School where he studied under Jack Tworkov. By this time, Tworkov had become one of the most respected artists of his generation and his presence at art schools around the globe was in high demand. Wool counts Tworkov as a vital influence on his own maturation as an artist.

In response to Tworkov’s resignation as a regular visiting artist at the Studio School, Mercedes wrote this letter dated April 26, 1974, which acknowledged Tworkov’s contribution not only to the school but his influence on its students and again acknowledges her ongoing struggles:

Dear Jack,

Having just had a meeting with – first several of your students and then all who studied with you. The first three were in a terrible state and had come to me because they had just found out that you were not coming back. One boy was actually crying – unashamedly. They felt they had failed you. They said you were the most marvelous person they had ever studied with or ever could. When the others came they all agreed and we spent several hours discussing what was wrong with the School – apparently more than I realized. I fell that not only from the outside (the survival problem – money, the building, etc.) – but at the center, where it counts, there is everything to be done.

[The School] badly needs someone strong, definite, with energy to get the School more in order and functioning. Do you know anyone?

But most of all I am writing to tell you how much it meant to me to have you here, how sad I am that you won’t be here next year and how heartbroken I am if what the students feel is true – that they did not give you enough feedback to make you want to be back.

Thank you, Jack, for all you have given.

Love,

Mercedes

Tworkov’s legacy at Studio School. Tworkov left a lasting legacy through his work and his inspirational teacher-student interactions. He would return to the Studio School as a guest lecturer. He accepted his final invitation in September 1981. Tworkov passed away one year later on September 4, 1982 at his home in Provincetown, MA.

In March 1983, a memorial gathering for Tworkov was held at the Studio School to honor his life and his work.

Reporting in The New York Times, Michael Brenson wrote:

Almost 200 painters, poets, dealers, museum professionals, friends and former students packed every corner of the second floor drawing studio at the New York Studio School to honor in silence or to bear testimony to a man described by the art critic Clement Greenberg as “exceptional for his decency, his sympathy, his modesty.(9)

Of the memorial service the magazine Passion reported:

They came to remember Jack Tworkov, the Abstract Expressionist painter whose quick-silver gesture had given way in later years to a measured stroke played within a various geometry.

[…] Linda Shearer of the Guggenheim Musuem told the story of Tworkov agonizing over whether or not to wear traditional black tie to the opening of his major museum exhibition at the Guggenheim. ‘He didn’t want to make his younger artist friends uncomfortable, but he also worried that others would want him to honor the occasion.’

[…] The poet Stanley Kunitz, a summer neighbor of the painter’s in Provincetown, spoke of Tworkov’s dedication to his art, the clarity and care of his immigrant speech, his propriety as a neighbor and the essential dignity of his manner.(10)

END

__________ (1) Grace Glueck. “New Art School Stresses Essentials,” The New York Times, January 11, 1965. (2) Ibid. (3) “Art School Buys First Home of Whitney Museum,” The New York Times, March 24, 1967. (4) Ibid. (5) Panel at The Club was held on February 22, 1952. (6) Philip Pearlstein. “The Drawing Group, Drawing Naked People.” via www.phlippearlstein.com. In his 1962 essay “Figure Paintings Today are not Made in Heaven,” Pearlstein analyzed “why the sophisticated art world rejected factual representational painting.” (Art News, Summer, pp.39, 51-52). (7) Ibid. (8) Mira Schor, ed. The Extreme of the Middle: Writings of Jack Tworkov. (Yale University Press, New Haven & London: 2009), p. 273. (9) Michael Brenson. “Memorial Gathering For Jack Tworkov,” The New York Times, Friday, March 25, 1983. (10) Passion, May, 1983, p. 4.