DISTURBING ART LESSONS
A Memoir of Questionable Ideas and Equivocal Experiences
The Art Students League, 1954-1955
While I was in high school I went every Tuesday evening to the Art Students League on West 57th Street to study drawing with the illustrator John Groth. I was his youngest student. The first week, a paunchy old guy who was drawing next to me said, “I see you’re not afraid to put in the nipples.” I looked over at this drawing. He had left them out.
The breast is basically a sphere and, aesthetically speaking, nipples are little more than local color. It is easy to overemphasize them when working in black and white. Forget form. Content-wise, they have their place.
Groth taught the Nicolaides Method. We all bought Nicolaides’ book The Natural Way to Draw, which was popular at the time. It’s a great title, but there’s nothing natural about the Nicolaides method, which is based on an obsession with gestures and contours. At first I was intrigued by trying to scribble an action pose in one minute or less. More frustrating were the painstaking meandering outlines that we tried to inscribe without looking down at our pads.
Since then I’ve seen hundreds of students and even mature artists repeating these useless mannerisms. With gesture and contour one never learns structure, shading, anatomy or composition.
Nicolaides had the poetic idea of drawing trees from the trunk up, “naturally, as the tree grows.” I tried and tried, but the branches always ran off the top and sides of the page. Finally I realized that if I started with the crown of the tree and went down, I could get it all in.
John Groth was a true master of the gesture drawing. He insisted that we carry sketchbooks with us at all times and do at least five gesture drawings a day. He checked our sketches. I filled 20 sketchbooks, 100 pages each. My drawings were almost indistinguishable, scribbly depictions of people in subways and coffee houses.
Better if I had made studies of specific things: types of clothing, architectural elements, vehicles, things that I could use to give veracity to future paintings.
John Groth loved Daumier. Daumier is practically the only artist who did pure gesture drawings. Other Groth favorites were Heinrich Kley, Thomas Rowlandson, Tintoretto, and Hokusai. These artists have a restless use of line that suggests movement.
Exemplars of the other Nicolaides obsession, pure contour, were also rare. Ingres was the master, impossible to emulate. Others were the German Nazarenes, early Degas, Picasso in his Classical phase, and a few Calder drawings that looked like bent wires.
While gesture is Romantic and Expressionistic, contour is a more Classical approach that distinguishes figure from ground and establishes proportions.
Groth’s strong suit as a teacher was that he taught us to compose. This was not Bauhaus, but rather its antithesis, illustration. Groth gave a homework assignment each week. For instance: “Draw a composition including someone working,” or “Draw several people in the street.”
After we had been drawing the model for a couple of hours we would line up our homework on a long ledge. For the third hour of class we listened to Groth’s criticisms and voiced our own thoughts.
Critiques can be painful but are essential feedback. No matter how self-involved artists may be, they should at least be aware of how others react to their work.
My first composition, “Someone Working,” inspired by Eugene O’Neill’s play The Hairy Ape, depicted a man shoveling coal into a furnace. I was pleased with my picture until Groth pointed out that it was “too static. You’ve spaced out the components evenly across the page: coal, stoker, oven.”
Halfheartedly, I ventured that “I was trying to express the social immobility of the worker.” This was the kind of leftist sentiment that my folk-singing friends and I shared.
Of course for John Groth if it was static, it couldn’t be interesting. Action was his gospel: diagonals plunging into depth; figures overlapping and swirling, clusters opposing voids; gestures culminating in an apotheosis of movement.
From Groth on, I’ve heard endless references to movement in works of art. What is it? Are various elements in the picture supposed to be in movement or about to move? Or is the viewer’s eye supposed to move around the picture, the artist somehow having directed its path? It is possible that a viewer will look at a picture sequentially. Most artists wouldn’t want some insignificant detail to be the first thing to catch the viewer’s eye. But there are so many kinds of pictures, and so many ways to read them. In many paintings it is the general impression that is paramount.
John Groth introduced us to a peculiar book, Cezanne’s Compositions, written by a man named Lorenz. In it, dotted lines and arrows are superimposed over Cezanne reproductions. The accompanying text then explains Cezanne’s seemingly illogical distortions as devices intended to move the viewer’s eye around. I studied the book assiduously, but Cezanne’s compositions continued to appear static to me, and awkwardly drawn. Even if I thought that my eye could be made to follow some predetermined course, I would prefer the flow of Rubens to the faltering broken pattern of Cezanne.