Professional Grade

Brian Sholis on student studios

New York

Left: Detail of an installation by Alex Singh at SVA. Middle: A studio at Columbia. Right: A sculpture by John O. at Hunter.

Art Basel Miami Beach déjà vu was inevitable at Columbia University’s MFA Open Studios on Sunday, as a flood of dealers and curators—even collectors—journeyed to the far Upper West Side in search of the next crop of bright young things. The fashionably interdisciplinary program has a who’s-who list of faculty (Kara Walker, Rirkrit Tiravanija) and consistently produces successful artists—this year’s Whitney Biennial, which featured alums David Altmejd, Sue de Beer, Banks Violette, and Barnaby Furnas, was practically a class reunion. So interest in the annual sneak peak runs high, to put it mildly. The studios officially opened at 3:00, and as I walked in at five past, P.S. 1’s Bob Nickas asked me, “What did you see?” “Nothing yet,” I replied, only to learn that savvier visitors had begun their tours hours before. I was on time and therefore late. The place was crowded: Dealers Scott Zieher and Andrea Smith, Andrew Leslie and Adrian Rosenfeld (in town from Munich), Zach Feuer and Janice Guy, among others, were on hand, as were Columbia graduates Dana Schutz and Kamrooz Aram (who had his first New York solo show last spring), and the expected family members and friends of some fifty-plus students. Amid the crush I glimpsed plenty of paintings, almost no photographs, and a number of video installations (called “immediate environment” work by one dealer) that focused on kitchens, bedrooms, and other domestic spaces in which the artists gave low-key, everyday-life performances. After trudging through the rain to get from one studio building to another, Janice Guy said, “I don’t know why I come here,” immediately adding, “Of course I know why I come here, but I often wonder if it’s worth it.” I was feeling a little jaundiced myself. The glare of this kind of spotlight eradicates what school is ostensibly supposed to provide: a space for amateurism. It’s difficult to freely toy with an idea in the studio when someone is hovering with checkbook in hand and power players are discussing you in the elevator in terms borrowed from the futures market. The temptations pressure students to become impresarios—P.T. Barnums whose main attraction is their own work—though one told me of turning collectors away at the door: “This husband and wife came by my studio four or five times trying to buy something. They wouldn’t leave me alone.” Having already participated in shows around the world, she’s savvy enough to know that anyone trying to buy from an open studio is more likely a speculator than a long-term supporter.

Sunday’s outing offered an interesting contrast to two events held earlier in the week: the School of Visual Art’s open studios, on Friday, and Hunter College’s MFA thesis exhibition for midyear graduates, on Wednesday. If Columbia’s open studios thrummed with the nervous tension of Merrill Lynch recruitment day at Wharton, SVA’s had a noticeably laid-back vibe. No one knew who anyone else was, and better yet, no one seemed to care. Village Voice critic Jerry Saltz, who teaches at SVA and Columbia and is an indefatigable cheerleader of student artists, made the rounds, and we played a game of “Name the Influence.” Formal and conceptual connections between students and their teachers and, on occasion, between students and recent shows in Chelsea abound, and matching them up is a bit like playing Concentration.

At Hunter, too, there was a refreshing lack of self-consciousness. For several years, the school has played second fiddle to Columbia in the minds of Chelsea opinion makers while quietly turning out graduates whose art is just as good as that of their uptown counterparts, though palpably different. Unlike Columbia, where students work in several disciplines and sometimes master none, Hunter’s program emphasizes a traditional concentration on a single medium. Even if I thought this year’s work was a little retrograde (floor-based abstract sculptures ready for Fifty-seventh Street; wall-size self-portrait paintings based on photographs taken on fishing trips), much of it had a certain self-possession that was impressive.

In an ideal world, all of these students would take what they’ve learned off to tiny studios in the outer boroughs, where they'd hone their ideas and edit their bodies of work before beginning to look around for a gallery. But we’re in the midst of a strong market and live in a terribly expensive city—not at all an ideal world for young artists—and it’s becoming more and more common for students to have gallery shows. Kevin Zucker, who had two Chelsea solos before he graduated (Columbia '02) and is now with Mary Boone, is the poster boy of the phenomenon. Obviously this kind of early success can create hype, dauntingly high expectations, and a context in which every failure is a spectacular one—to say nothing of an art world in which youth itself is a selling point. (This may partly explain then-21-year-old Rosson Crow’s sold-out SVA BFA thesis show last spring.) Most dangerous, it can lead artists into a catch-22 wherein they find commercial favor before critics and curators even know who they are. As word spreads through the collector grapevine, what the artist hears is: “Collector X wants a painting like the one Y has.” Satisfying demand becomes priority number one, and critics and curators write the work off instead of trying to contextualize it. I saw promising artists at all three schools; here's hoping they don't meet such a limited, if profitable, fate.