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December 17, 2021

School Watch: The Past Is Never Over: Cooper Union, Reuben Kadish, and the Education of Artists

Art & Education

Photograph of a construction crane, New York, 1976. Reuben Kadish Slide Archive, collection of Doug Ashford.

Parmigianino, Madonna with the Long Neck (detail), c. 1535. Reuben Kadish Slide Archive, collection of Doug Ashford.

Nok ceramic head, Nigeria, 500 BCE–200 CE. Reuben Kadish Slide Archive, collection of Doug Ashford.

Vladimir Tatlin constructing the Monument to the Third International, 1929. Reuben Kadish Slide Archive, collection of Doug Ashford.

Tantric painting, source unknown. Reuben Kadish Slide Archive, collection of Doug Ashford.

Luis Barragán, Jesús Reyes Ferreira, and Mathias Goeritz, Torres de Satélite. 1958. Reuben Kadish Slide Archive, collection of Doug Ashford.

Odilon Redon, Smiling Spider, 1881. Reuben Kadish Slide Archive, collection of Doug Ashford.

Filippo Brunelleschi death mask, 1446. Reuben Kadish Slide Archive, collection of Doug Ashford.

The Past Is Never Over: Cooper Union, Reuben Kadish, and the Education of Artists
a conversation with Doug Ashford and Owen Duffy

Doug: On the one hand, I have dream-like, unanalyzed associations with him and what he represented. On the other hand, the institutional context of art schools has changed so much in the forty years since I worked with him that there are impossible applications of what and how he taught. Schools today are so deeply enmeshed in the management of data-driven standardization and so governed by a system of credits and penalties. The learning he was able to provide would be almost impossible now. It’s easier to speak of his presence with me as an artist. His emphasis was always on what artists do, not on how they are consumed by the consciousness industry or presented as part of spectacle economies. His investment in interiority as a basis for expression meant that artists had the opportunity to build approachable vocabularies of shared value systems that could be autonomous—almost mystically so—from the conditions of society.

Reuben’s relationship to education was nonmaterial in the sense that he believed that the artist must work to become nonconforming to the institutional conditions of building knowledge—that we, by definition, had to become autodidacts, and that our withdrawal from the programmatic social planning and idealism of Europeanist “enlightenments” would make us better humans. I don’t think he would have ever described himself as an anarchist, but his rejection of the cultural values that were (and still are) lodged in teleological ideologies of history were predecessors of the decolonizing and open-learning movements that we have today. He insisted that an artist, by definition, must work outside of linear definitions of time (or at least outside of the fabricated “progress” of history) and therefore must derange and disambiguate all that is supposedly “finished.”

Owen: Here, at Cooper Union.

Doug: Yes, I remember him saying the second week of my first year as a student in 1976, “The past is never over.” It’s something I still try to bring into every student meeting, so many years later, either as an opening to the disobedience that aesthetics can present as part of social rebellion or to the internal reconciliation that is so often unseeable but may be yet to come.

Reuben’s use of slide lectures as scenes of remaking history was made real through how they juggled relationships between forms and images and the knowledge pools or dream narratives that they suggested. These were not random but shown as a model of how art might defy the instrumentalization of knowledge. They were radical “dream narratives” conducted often without speaking, which emphasized the phantasmagoric relationships between historically discontinuous forms. A typical slide lecture would present the art nouveau artist Aubrey Beardsley against the erotic implications of automotive design and lead into ninth-century Khajuraho temples. Another would begin with the Apollo program’s moon lander and David Smith’s Cubi series, reflect them against the public graphic designs of Rodchenko, Popova, and Kucis, and end with Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers.

Read more on School Watch.

School Watch presents critical perspectives on art and academia. Featured profiles, surveys, and dialogues consider education in fine art, curating, and critical theory, as well as the ideas and conditions that influence practice.

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