School Is Out, Far Out

THE BORDER CAFE, AN ARTIST-owned restaurant-bar in Richmond, Va., is named after the nonexistent boundary between Texas and Wisconsin. To Paul Kosmas, a graduate painting student at Virginia Commonwealth University who's sipping a Rolling Rock, that makes about as much sense as anything about art. Next year, the strapping, ponytailed 28-year-old says, he'll stop painting and go to Saudi Arabia as an oilfield roustabout. At Yale University in New Haven, Conn., goateed graduate sculpture student Julian LaVerdiere, 22, sits confidently beneath an icy white vacuum-formed plastic sign he's had made bearing the name of RENULIFE, a defunct turn-of-the-century company that manufactured "electro-therapeutic" instruments. LaVerdiere bought the rights to the company's name so that he could eventually resuscitate it and have it manufacture--if that's the word--his conceptual art.

This is the world of the Master of Fine Arts degree, from which the next crop of significant American artists will come. More than 170 art schools and universities grant about 1,000 M.F.A.s a year (there's no official count) to aspiring artists who want an intellectual leg up in an increasingly theory-heavy profession. To earn their certificates, graduate students work independently in their campus studios for a minimum of two years, undergo their professors' periodic formal critiques and mount thesis exhibitions. But these programs are less like Ingres's 19th-century teaching studio than halfway houses with resident counselors. ingres told his charges, "We will begin by drawing, we will go on drawing, and then we will continue to draw." But nearly a century and a half of once scorned artists from Manet to Warhol achieving fame, if not greatness, has numbed schools' willingness to impose esthetic standards. Professors are loath to reject student work as too far out because, in galleries and museums, there's precedent for everything. So: better to let 100 little Jeff Koonses go free than to quash one future Picasso.

For a growing number of young artists, the action is in sculpture--defined by default these days as whatever isn't painting. (In many schools, it's sculpture's big tent that shelters installation. performance and conceptual art.) At VCU, sculpture chairman (and part owner of The Border Cafe) Joe Seipel wanders through the department (which is housed in a former automobile dealership), poking his head into his "kids'" ramshackle cubicles. He gives consultations on whatever they happen to be making. Tina Carton, 24, is fabricating what looks like a horse trailer with an overactive thyroid. "I built it from scratch," she says, "except for the leaf springs, and the wheels, which come from a mobile home." The piece isn't finished: a two-headed, cast-aluminum pit bull still has to be placed inside. The tall, tomboyish Carton grew up on a farm and went to art school in Maryland. She came to VCU for graduate work because its faculty of 10 diverse sculptors meant she'd get a variety of opinions. And opinions, she says, is what the trailer is all about: it's a symbolic voting booth with a built-in discouragement to vote. Carton plans to take it on the road to demonstrate how ordinary citizens are, in her words "empowered, but have no real power."

Is a rolling-metal voting booth a sculpture, or a work of art of any kind? Back in 1927, when Yale started offering one of the first M.F.A. degrees, things weren't so permissive. Sculpture in academe consisted of representations of real things, usually the human figure, carved in stone or modeled in clay or cast in bronze; painting was the same enterprise in two dimensions, with oil paint. In Yale's current M.F.A. sculpture program, the favored form of artistic labor is no longer carving or welding but research. LaVerdiere, a sculptor's son who attended an art-oriented Manhattan high school and The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, insists that he came to New Haven solely for its libraries, laboratories and scientists. He allows, nevertheless, that some of the feedback he gets from sculpture graduate-studies director John Newman and a couple of other faculty members "will help shape the direction and mission of my company." He says this without the slightest bulge in his cheek.

Not all Yalies are, as Newman puts it, "so cantilevered off the mainstream idea of art." Take Fatimah Tuggar, 26, and her installation of three galvanized steel tubs, each residing under three suspended funnels in three adjacent alcoves. She fills the tubs with--respectively--water, cotton and hot coals (which are slowly extinguished by water dripping from a funnel). Tuggar's installation is more than just a clever idea about whiteness and blackness. She's interested in what she calls "the psychological aspects of space," a concern that at least alludes to what sculpture over the centuries has been about. Significantly, the Nigerian-born Tuggar went through two rigorous undergraduate fundamentals programs (in England and at the Kansas City Art Institute) before she allowed herself the luxury of Yale's laissez-faire.

If it's tough for the faculty to pass judgment on an almost incomprehensible range of student work, it's also tough for students to deal with unartistic real life when they exit school. Four semesters of the M.F.A. program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago will leave painter Meriellen Johnson, 30, almost $16,000 in debt. Since all her daubing and theorizing hasn't trained her to do anything marketable, she'll probably have to get a clerical job to start paying off her student loans. Good studio space is scarce in any city, and materials are expensive. The art world is still in a recession; not many young artists can sell their work. And everybody knows that the '80s show-business-style art world--in which the one in 10,000 who makes it, makes it big--is long gone.

In the 1960s the M.F.A. was a teaching license for jobs in expanding college art departments. To start a teaching career now, a young M.F.A.-holder has to compete with established, exhibiting artists for even a part-time gig in the boonies. "Maybe 1 percent of M.F.A.s make it as artists," Kosmas complains, "and maybe 2 percent make it as teachers." Kosmas is thoroughly disillusioned by the whole system of producing artists in America. He says loudly that both teachers and students are long on dry strategy and short on artistic passion. His colleagues at a nacho-laden table at The Border Cafe shuffle their feet at his intensity and demur mildly. But they fear that he might be right.

Despite the desultory shortterm career prospects, however, most M.F.A. candidates love art enough to work as hard as anyone who ever carved a marble Aphrodite or painted a duke's portrait. Bridget Camden, 24, a talkative, energetic sculptor at Chicago's SAIC. says, "I'm at school by 9 and I leave here at 10 at night. In addition to working in my studio, I have seminars and I'm a teaching assistant one day a week for first-year foundation students. I take a class called Concepts, Proposals and Actions, and I'm doing a piece for it with the Field Museum: baseball cards about meteorites. That takes up a lot of MY time." Camden plans to stick around Chicago for a while after graduation. "There's a lot going on for the price that it costs to live here. And that's a factor, coming out with this degree...overeducated and underqualified."

For others, New York beckons. Meriellen Johnson says that even in a major art center like Chicago, talk at the end of the school year is predominantly about who's relocating east and when. Recently a Manhattan art critic started his slide talk at Yale with a photographic aerial view of New York City He pointed out midtown and Soho. Then he said, "And here's Brooklyn [the borough of somewhat cheaper working spaces], where you'll all move." That's not much of an exaggeration. Yale alumni (and talked-about artists) such as Boni Horn and Meg Webster have gained the school's sculpture department a reputation as a passport to the New York scene. LaVerdiere figures that in about 18 months he'll be living in New York and (as part of his ongoing conceptual art) selling bottled water--processed through those mysterious RENULIFE instruments. it'll be guaranteed, he says, to "cure" nostalgia. And who's to say it won't?

The art scene can't support all the M.F.A.s the system produces. But it does need a select few new artists from the group. They'll become the new gallery faves. Some might scandalize a future Whitney Biennial or two. A couple will eventually get museum retrospectives. And one might even set a new price record for a living artist at Sotheby's. Of course, most will remain unknown. But sorting the young artists who succeed from the ones who don't is the sometimes creative, sometimes cruel process by which the art world--and a large part of our culture--renews itself

Join the Discussion