Top-Notch, Top Dollar: Columbia University School of the Arts MFA Program
David Everitt Howe
Columbia’s visual arts MFA program is so synonymous with the New York art world that it’s nearly impossible to discuss one without looping in the other. At perhaps the height of its visibility in the early 2000s, by some accounts 20 percent of the artists in PS1’s 2005 “Greater New York” exhibition held advanced degrees from the school. And if they didn’t receive their MFAs from Columbia, they probably taught at the university; or participated in the mentorship program established by former chair Jon Kessler; or were invited to lecture as part of the Visual Artists Lecture Series (VALS); or took a walk somewhere on campus; or slept with someone who wears an ill-fitting Columbia sweatshirt; or something.
What’s curious is that Columbia wasn’t really considered—along with Yale, RISD, and Bard—a “top-shelf, East Coast school,” as Jerry Saltz phrased it, until Kessler’s tenure, which began in 2000. Perhaps it was the mentorship program, where an eclectic, revolving group of visiting, established artists led weeklong intensives with students. Or Zach Feuer, who gave many of the program’s young artists their first shows, noting that “a lot of what attracted me to this group was how sophisticated the communication about studio practice was in their studio community.” Or Andrea Rosen, who has given recent alums David Altmejd, Mika Rottenberg, and Erik Wysocan their big, high-profile break. Or maybe it’s a matter of sheer proximity to New York’s galleries, dovetailing with the great success of the art market in the early 2000s, which tended to swallow everyone and everything, including the program and its students. Ever since, they must endure two years worth of collectors and curators trolling their open-studio events in search of the next-best-investment, for better or worse (and I’m not saying commercial aspiration is necessarily a bad thing. Or am I?).
Some students have mentioned this high-pressure, high-profile, high-expectation environment as a distraction from working. Unlike studying at a place like Bard, which is situated in a forest in the middle of nowhere (scary! trees!), New York City is the center of everything, and part of Columbia’s selling point is its situation within it. That, and its big-name faculty. As Coco Fusco noted in Modern Painters,
advancement in art fields relies heavily on professional networks, and your contact with influential figures while you are in school is likely to play a significant role in your survival once you get out—they talk you up, recommend you for gigs, curate you into group shows, and introduce you to people you need to know. This has little to do with the content of courses you will have to take, but everything to do with the mystique that elite programs enjoy.
I would be lying if I claimed that this wasn’t a main reason why I received my MA there in Modern Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies, in 2010 (otherwise known as MODA in Columbia parlance). A Columbia MFA is, if anything, the definition of an elite program, with an acceptance rate of around 2 percent. It’s also the poster child for all the drawbacks an elite education can provide: exorbitant costs, lack of career employment after graduation—since becoming a successful commercial artist is by no means guaranteed—high interest rate on students loans, etc. At a sticker price of $53,484 a year (for the 2014–15 academic year), it blows the tuition of Yale, SVA, and other comparable schools out of the water. So … is it worth it? It certainly was for Rottenberg, who noted over the phone that the Columbia MFA was an “excellent program.” One of her video installations sold for $150,000 at Frieze New York’s 2013 fair, which more than makes up for the tuition she ostensibly paid. Another former student noted that being privy to how an artist like Rirkrit Tiravanija made work and ran his studio was game-changing and indispensable to constructing her own practice. Sam Dakota (class of 2013) agreed: “By far the best and most educating experiences during the two-year program take place during mentor weeks when students get to spend days at a time, traveling and basically hanging out, with amazing artists such as Mark Dion, Aki Sasamoto, Dana Schutz, Matthew Ritchie, and Michael Joo.” This kind of access is not only beneficial in the networking way that Fusco mentions, but can also shed some much-needed light on the possibilities of who and how an artist can be. No doubt it can be huge for how a young artist perceives their own work, but for those who don’t wind up becoming Rottenbergs, or Altmejds, or Gedi Sibonys, for that matter, or Sarah Szes, the program may require more sacrifices than it doles out successes.
A first-year friend of mine sleeps in his studio illegally, since his scholarship was rather meager, and as everyone knows, rent in New York is expensive. When I visited him and another student friend of his at his studio in Watson Hall, killing time before the first-year MFA exhibition, I asked why the program was so unique, and why it attracted such high-caliber faculty. He replied that it wasn’t so, noting that the same faculty taught at all the other schools in the region, from Yale to Parsons to Bard. And when asked to identify the best thing about the program, his friend—who is a gay man—identified “the gym,” as a joke (it’s apparently a tad cruisey). About his first-year experience, he noted that it was tough to adjust to grad school, referring to course loads and academic expectations.
Both students professed admiration for the program, discussing how it balances more practical courses, like studio crits, with the critical theory course Critical Issues, both of which are taught by a rotating cast of writers and artists, from Fionn Meade to Fia Backström. The general tone of the program really varies then depending on who’s teaching it at any given time. The Critical Issues class can be particularly contentious; many artists find critical theory largely inapplicable to their work. As one former chair noted in the pages of Artforum, “you don’t need to read to paint.” This sort of anti-intellectual sentiment was shared by many of the students and alumni I spoke to.
But one alumnus loved the course. When he was at Columbia, both Johanna Burton and Gareth James took turns helming Critical Issues to different ends. Burton was the more academic of the two, preferring to assign very feminist, psychoanalytic readings in the October tradition. This is perhaps appropriate, considering the school; Columbia is widely credited with introducing French theory to the United States in the 1970s, via Sylvère Lotringer’s Semiotext(e) imprint, then based out of the school’s philosophy department. James, meanwhile, “was very captivating on the job,” the graduate noted. “He stormed the castle, and brought in Reena Spaulings and others he knew. He was less interested in building an intellectual program, and more interested in modeling it on a hipper Whitney ISP.” Still other faculty have offered more broad overviews of critical theory.
Regardless of teaching style, what’s most interesting about Critical Issues is what it says about Columbia’s pedagogical priorities, and how they may rub up against the working realities of practicing artists. Is an in-and-out knowledge of Michel Foucault, for instance, important for most artists? Perhaps for some, but I would venture for most others, not really. Though that point could be argued. Would it be more useful, perhaps, to offer a class in what Alix Rule and David Levine have termed “International Art English”? The term describes the kind of watered-down, pseudo-intellectual gobbledygook that, painful as it is to admit, actually constitutes the bulk of how art is read and received in press release form (I probably speak in IAE as I sleepwalk). After all, most artists will never get a PhD from Harvard, unlike Adrian Piper, God bless her.
The majority of the remaining coursework is simply studio crits, and the tone of these, too, really just depends. Blake Rayne would eschew emotional responses for more objective, analytical vigor. Others would do the opposite, encouraging free association and intuitive reactions, whether they were politely approbatory or outright animus.
Outside coursework, VALS is also an important part of the Columbia experience. Open to both MFA and MODA students, these talks by visiting artists, critics, writers, what-have-you, are located at Prentis Hall, which is situated on a ramshackle block of West 125th Street, north of Columbia’s campus proper, where there’s probably still a heroin mill somewhere, a charming relic from the eighties. During my time there, the intimate, often pointed lectures by people like Trisha Donnelly and Okwui Enwezor would always give way to a makeshift bar, music, and dancing until late in the night—then drunken chicken tenders at the McDonalds next door, followed by a long train ride home.
Watson, like Prentis, isn’t located on Columbia’s famous Morningside Heights campus, whose imposing neoclassical buildings, flanking a central quad, were featured in Ghostbusters and Gossip Girl (in the latter instance, as a bad stand-in for Yale, which looks nothing like Columbia). Rather, Watson is located on a side street, in an unassuming building of narrow halls and studios. It’s sort of the small, bastard child of the two studio buildings. Prentis is much larger and cavernous, with big, light-filled studios lining labyrinthine halls. One could easily get lost there; finding someone’s studio for the first time—for those unfamiliar with the building—is like trying to win the lottery, or actually finding that wardrobe leading to Narnia; it’s nearly impossible.
MFA exhibitions take place at either Schermerhorn Hall, on Columbia’s campus proper, or the Fisher Landau Center for Art, in Long Island City, Queens. Both openings are socially overwhelming, with Rirkrit Tiravanija, Clifford Owens, and other associated high-wattage faculty attending in support. This is inevitably why everyone hovers at the open bar, getting wasted (or stoned) as quickly as possible. At Schermerhorn, the first-year show takes place at the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, which is the most inconveniently located art gallery ever, and also one of the ugliest I can recall in recent memory—its walls are covered in beige fabric, which gives it the rather unpleasant look of a run-down conference center crossed with aristocratic living quarters.
The 2015 first-year students’ exhibition contained the usual smattering of media, from painting to video to performance, starting off with Mike Hewson’s Curtain Hallway (2015), a vinyl print of an empty, banal brick room, cut into strips and hung like a curtain in the front doorway of the Wallach—a canny use of an overlooked entrance. Inside, Emily Kloppenburg installed a long strip of overlapping inkjet prints for Happy to Serve You (2015). Straddling a corner, they depicted one of those iconic New York “Happy to Serve You” cups zooming in and out of the frame. In an adjacent room, Serra Victoria Fels fucked with the wood floor, adding to it strips of wood such that floorboards seemingly twisted up in one large, sculptural knot. Other works flirted with utter ridiculousness, such as one student’s performance featuring a buff white guy in briefs, standing on scaffolding. Why? I don’t know. The video monitors beneath and their attendant headsets were always occupied, so I paid more attention to the paintings, which were underwhelming. Most of one’s time at these things is spent in the outside hallway anyways, where drinking is permitted. Thus, it was so packed with young, hot people that I felt somewhat intimidated.
Better was the scene at Fisher Landau Center for the Arts—where the more polished second-year MFA exhibition is held—because there wasn’t a single attractive person in sight, except myself. Actually, there wasn’t really anyone there save for some lingerers remaining after a performance by Sondra Perry, who spoke over her video work looping on the second floor, the speakers doubling as seating and props for books and performance Polaroids. The wall across from her supported huge, abstract mixed-media works by Jakub Milčák, which were perhaps too indebted to the loopy, vague anthropometries of Joan Miró to avoid allusions to the stylistic rehashing of “zombie formalism,” as artist and critic Walter Robinson phrased it. In the “actually good painting” category were other, more creatively abstract canvases, such as Cristina Camacho’s colorful and exciting graphic layerings of canvas, which resembled cut-up paper snowflakes but with an indigenous, Colombian spin on it. They were so eye-catching as to be practically edible. Dana Lok’s paintings seemed to abstract Pac-Man ghosts into simply a hand or a big set of eyes so large as to become ghostly portals. Flattened in space, they hovered over painterly mountain peaks or clouds, or in Enchanted Cel (2015), blocky eighties computer font rippled and floated in space, Matrix-style, over their own shadows, which were cast on flat, monochromatic backgrounds. Lok’s juxtaposition of old clip-art-like figuration with abstract, painterly tropes felt fresh.
In the so-mixed-media-I-don’t-know-what-it-is category was Talia Link’s My Bed (2015), which featured, well, her bed, with its headboard doubling as a shelf for lollipops and such, and a low table capped by an iMac, which streamed YouTube videos of the artist doing makeup, or making her nails like Monica Lewinsky’s. In the latter instance, Monica Lewinsky Nails DIY (2014), Link films herself in bed, holding kitschy coffee mugs with her nails—affixed with the former White House intern’s face on them—clearly visible. She then layers her own video and style tips with stereotypical internet detritus: cat videos; nail emojis; a forgotten Kelis single; an endless Google Image search effecting a weird, simulacral cross between press photo, meme, clip art, and emoticon, all in staged real-time—such that I wasn’t sure if the Google pop-up ads on my YouTube video were Google’s doing or, in fact, hers. Regardless, the work was equal measures cloying and funny—a good, if difficult, line to walk.
More cloying than funny was Bora Kim’s too-ironic fake/real boy band comprising the subject matter of her installation and ongoing performance I’m Making a Boy Band (2015). On display at Fisher Landau were her “documentary” videos of auditions and rehearsals for the stereotypically attractive performers, racks of pop-star clothing, and shirtless headshots of the “stars” framed above the front desk, like too-predictable sentinels of pop-culture beauty standards. Comparatively unassuming were Patrice Helmar’s photographs of New York City scenes and denizens, shot in such an intimate way that associations between her and Nan Goldin are inescapable. Upstairs on the third floor were expertly executed, very fine drawings and paintings by John Ganz, and some less exacting, blobby wax and paint abstractions on canvas by August Vollbrecht.
This is all to say that if one were to judge an MFA program by the work it produces, then Columbia is a mixed bag, like Yale is, or Bard probably is, or any other “top” program, for that matter. The same criteria could be leveled at Chelsea’s galleries, which are supposed to be the blue-chip arbiters of taste; or at museums like MoMA, which are not immune to failures. Actually, they fail all the time, and win a lot too. It’s sort of a moot point. What is of great value is the school’s brand-name recognition, big-name faculty, and Ivy League prestige. But is that worth $106,968? That’s anyone’s guess, and quite the gamble.
—David Everitt Howe
 Jessica Carew Kraft, “The Rise of the Columbia MFA,” Contemporary 76 (November 2005).
 Coco Fusco, “Debating an MFA? The Lowdown on Art School Risks and Returns,” Modern Painters, December 2013.
 Johanna Burton, “Review: Amy Sillman at Sikkema Jenkins & Co.,” Artforum, September 2010.
David Everitt Howe is a Brooklyn-based critic and curator. He is Online Art Editor at BOMB and Curator/Editor at Pioneer Works.