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Abstract Expressionist School: Art Students League

Summary of Art Students League

The Art Students League of New York is an artist-founded institution that arose in the post-Civil War years in New York City, when many art students became dissatisfied with the lack of quality instruction in the basics of portraiture, sculpture and composition offered by New York art schools. During the Depression years, many young artists who would eventually define the Abstract Expressionist movement spent their formative years studying and even teaching at the League. The Art Students League continues to operate today in the same manner it always has: as a set of independent studios, run by individual instructors who have complete autonomy and creative control in the classroom, without any interference from higher administration.

Founding Principles
  • In a flier dated July 1875, the League's founding students declared as part of its mission: "To meet the want thus occasioned, the League will form and sustain classes for study from the nude and draped model, of composition, perspective, etc."
  • The League publishes a quarterly journal called LINEA, which references the school's motto: "Nulla Dies Sine Linea," supposedly spoken by the Greek painter Apelles, which translates to "No Day Without a Line." The motto emphasizes the importance of students practicing their craft daily, even if this means drawing a single line.
  • The Art Students League has never championed any single philosophy or pedagogy in the practice of art instruction; the school has hired successful artist-instructors based on their body of work, and has allowed them to apply their own individual perspectives in the classroom.
Origins of Art Students League of New York
The Art Students League of New York was established in 1875 when a rumor began circulating at the National Academy of Design (known then as the "National Academy," founded in 1825) that all art classes would be cancelled due to insufficient funds. Students at the Academy wished to continue their studio classes and courses of instruction, and came together to rent and convert a small 4th-floor loft in downtown Manhattan at the corner of 5th Avenue and 16th Street.

In a flier pinned to a bulletin board that was addressed to the Council of the National Academy and its entire student body, dated July 1875, a student representative wrote, "The students of the National Academy of Design, remaining in New York, have formed, with Professor's Wilmarth's cooperation, an Association called the Art Students League, having for its objects the attainment of a higher development in Art Studies."

American artists Thomas Eakins and Augustus Saint-Gaudens were among the League's board members who were integral in its incorporation.

In 1889 the League helped found the Society of American Artists, which constructed as its permanent home a French Renaissance-style building at 215 West 57th Street. The Art Students League has been housed in this building since 1892.

Pre-War Years
The Art Students League Pre-War Years In the two decades that divided World War I and II, many of the New York artists who would eventually define the Abstract Expressionist era received their formal studies at the Art Students League.

Barnett Newman enrolled in classes at the League in 1922. The following year, Adolph Gottlieb enrolled, and he and Newman became close friends; together they made frequent visits to some of the uptown galleries and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gottlieb also befriended the eccentric Russian immigrant painter John Graham, and sponsored him when Graham applied to become an American citizen.

In 1931 the American Social Realist painter John Sloan, who had been teaching full time at the Art Students League since 1916, was appointed the League's president. His students included Alexander Calder, John Graham, Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman.

The American muralist Thomas Hart Benton left teaching at the League in January 1933 to paint a mural for the Chicago World's Fair. One of his students had been the young Jackson Pollock, who had been studying at the League since 1929. After Benton's departure, Pollock began studying under Sloan, but this didn't last. Pollock wrote a letter to his father that read, "We have a substitute who I think little of, and I probably won't stay with him for long." Pollock quit Sloan's class after only a month, but later enrolled in night classes at the League, studying clay sculpture under Robert Laurent. Benton returned to New York later that same year, but by this time Pollock had permanently left the League.

The abstractionist and famed "jazz artist" Stuart Davis was also a teacher at the League in the early 1930s. His students included Mark Rothko, Jack Tworkov, Peter Busa and Pollock. Arshile Gorky, who was never an enrolled student at the League, was a frequent visitor to the school's cafeteria and would often be found embroiled in deep conversation with Davis. Gorky also sat in on several classes taught by Hans Hofmann, who briefly taught at the League from 1930-1933 before opening his own art school.

Many of the artists who eventually defined the Abstract Expressionist movement continued attending lectures and forums at the Art Students League into the late 1930s. Clement Greenberg was known to frequent lectures given by Hofmann. Additionally, the League was where Gorky delivered his famous "Blitzkrieg" rant, in which, according to an observer, "He made a big speech to all of us. He said the Blitzkrieg was wrong, and he didn't like Hitler, but he said the idea of instantaneous war was exciting, and that we should make art instantaneous. That's when Gorky started to give classes at the Grand Central Art School. He called them "Blitzkrieg Classes.'"

Abstract Expressionist Years and Beyond
With the growing popularity of Black Mountain College in North Carolina and the Hans Hofmann schools in New York City and Provincetown, MA, not to mention the abundance of new art galleries, small and large alike all boasting the work of abstractionists, many artists and teachers abandoned the Art Students League by the late 1930s and early 40s.

Of all the Abstract Expressionists who studied at the League, Jackson Pollock was arguably the school's most popular alum, and certainly the most famous to have ever studied under Thomas Hart Benton. Pollock was reportedly fond of commenting that Benton's instruction gave him something to rebel against. While Pollock's and Benton's respective artistic styles could not be more different, many historians have reconsidered the profound influence Benton had on Pollock's work, particularly when it came to Pollock's sense of balance and subtle symmetry.

Abstract Expressionist Years and Beyond By the time the Abstract Expressionist artists were showing regularly in any number of the uptown art galleries, a new crop of young artists were attending classes at the League, including Robert Rauschenberg, Al Held, Helen Frankenthaler, Donald Judd, James Rosenquist, Roy Lichtenstein and Cy Twombly.

The Art Students League boasted a diverse curriculum and a list of alumni unequalled by either Black Mountain or the Hans Hofmann School. The artists who studied and taught at the League have substantially shaped the vocabulary of 20th-century American art. The list includes Thomas Hart Benton, Alexander Calder, Helen Frankenthaler, Georgia O'Keeffe, Barnett Newman, Norman Rockwell, Winslow Homer, Man Ray, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Reginald Marsh, Red Grooms, Donald Judd, Roy Lichtenstein, Mark Rothko and Cy Twombly. Given this impressive group and their body of work, the Art Students League was integral in the evolution of artistic styles ranging from Abstract Expressionism and Pop art to "Combines" and Conceptualism.

"[Lemuel] Wilmarth the teacher of drawing at the Academy has combined with the students and established a 'League' whose prospectus preaches an uncontrolled hostility to the Academy because we do not go on incurring debt to educate these ungrateful students." - From the diary of Jervis McEntee, a member of the Council at the National Academy of Design, dated October 24, 1875

"The people I like to paint are 'my people,' whoever they may be, wherever they may exist, the people through whom dignity of life is manifest, that is, who are in some way expressing themselves naturally along the lines nature intended for them ... my interest is awakened and my impulse immediately is to tell about them through my own language - drawing and painting in color." - Robert Henri, Instructor at the Art Students League

"The people I like to paint are 'my people,' whoever they may be, wherever they may exist, the people through whom dignity of life is manifest, that is, who are in some way expressing themselves naturally along the lines nature intended for them ... my interest is awakened and my impulse immediately is to tell about them through my own language - drawing and painting in color." - Robert Henri, Instructor at the Art Students League

"Many intelligent people have accepted the false idea that accuracy in representing visual facts is a sign of progress in art. Such imitation of superficial effects has nothing to do with art, which is and always has been the making of mental concepts ... 'Looks like' is not the test of a good painting. It indicates merely visual similarity and shows that the artist has not put his brain to work." - John Sloan, Instructor at the Art Students League

Content written by:
  Justin Wolf


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