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Art

September 2006

The new old school

by James Panero

On the rise of Classical Realism and its dean, Jacob Collins

An actual “battle of styles,” as for instance between realism and abstraction, is desirable only to those who thrive on a feeling of partisanship. Both directions are valid and useful—and freedom to produce them and enjoy them should be protected as an essential liberty. There are, however, serious reasons for taking sides when one kind of art or another is dogmatically asserted to be the only funicular up Parnassus or, worse, when it is maliciously attacked by the ignorant, the frightened, the priggish, the opportunistic, the bigoted, the backward, the vulgar or the venal. Then those who love art or spiritual freedom cannot remain neutral.
—Alfred Barr, 1949

If you like your story of art told neat, start to finish, be sure not to visit the Water Street Atelier. Once you open the door to this wrinkle in the storyline, the chapters of art may never fit together quite so well again. Here, behind the elegant brick facade of a carriage house situated along an exclusive residential block on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, an unmarked enameled door opens onto a room that resembles more an ideal vision of the artist’s studio than anything you might expect to see this side of the nineteenth century.

Tacked to the back of a bookcase, facing you upon arrival, a display of small portraits painted in a realistic manner repeats a similar arrangement found along every wall and on every shelf and propped up in every open space. Plaster busts of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, models of the human skeleton and human musculature, casts of angels, and a relief depicting the Three Graces: all are mixed in among the paintings and a dusty assortment of art books. Above, dark fabrics drape down from the ceiling, shielding and directing the light in the room onto a raised platform of plywood, used during studio hours for the display of nude models.

At any given time, a large easel or two may be positioned beside this proscenium. Here, half-imagined forms of naked flesh slowly take shape on canvas, one limb at a time. Throw out your assumptions about art world inevitabilities, about postmodernism and the ironies of John Currin. Through the anachronistic scenes that are now played out in dozens of specialized ateliers in the United States and Europe, the story of art just went up for a re-edit.

At the Water Street Atelier, only the Chrysler mini-van parked in the garage bay and the sound of the rock band Guns n’ Roses may betray the modern era. The atelier occupies the ground floor of a townhouse belonging to Jacob Collins and his young family. Collins is not just an instructor. He has for years been the in-residence master of his own small school, which began on Water Street in Brooklyn. Born in 1964, Collins has already become something of the elder statesman of Classical Realism, as this energized movement of traditional painting has come to be called. Collins’s best students have already become sought-after instructors themselves. As an artist Collins is now represented by the blue-chip Hirschl & Adler Galleries, after showing for years at Spanierman, another top-drawer space. Along with John Pence Gallery, Forum Gallery, Eleanor Ettinger, and Arcadia, these galleries have for a decade pushed the market of Classical Realist art.

Collins’s second solo show at Hirschl & Adler, following one in April 2004, will open on October 6 and run through November 4, 2006. Roger Kimball has written the show’s catalogue essay. He identifies Collins as part of a “counter-revolution in taste and sensibility.” In a matter of just ten to fifteen years, Classical Realism has positioned itself to become a serious player in the future of art.

Beyond a mere style, Classical Realism is a value system. For many, it borders on an evangelical faith. Foremost there is the belief that certain forces—modernism is among the usual suspects—have wrecked our understanding of art production as it was first conceived in the Classical period, resurrected in the Renaissance, and carried down through the academies to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There are now hundreds of individuals and dozens of ateliers dedicated to this cause. Through chapters titled “The Great 20th Century Art Scam,” “Bouguereau and the ‘Real’ 19th Century,” and “Abstract Art is Not Abstract and Definitely Not Art,” here is how the website www.artrenewal.org describes the philosophy:

For over 90 years, there has been a concerted and relentless effort to disparage, denigrate and obliterate the reputations, names, and brilliance of the academic artistic masters of the late 19th Century. Fueled by a cooperative press, the ruling powers have held the global art establishment in an iron grip. Equally, there was a successful effort to remove from our institutions of higher learning all the methods, techniques and knowledge of how to train skilled artists. Five centuries of critical data was nearly thrown into the trash. It is incredible how close Modernist theory, backed by an enormous network of powerful and influential art dealers, came to acquiring complete control over thousands of museums, university art departments and journalistic art criticism.

A second tenet of the faith, having to do with resurrection, maintains that over the past couple of decades a handful of artists have been able to recreate the lost practices of observation, illustration, copying from still life and the nude, and techniques like “sight-size.” This last term concerns the distances between painter, canvas, and subject matter, and the practice of using strings and mirrors to measure an object in space. Up until one hundred years ago, these methods were the standards of painterly reproduction.

Such lost arts have been gleaned from nineteenth-century drawing courses, like the series of lithographs comprising a cours de dessin by Charles Bargue and Jean-Léon Gérôme, and by the analysis and copying of art by masters like Michelangelo and Caravaggio, and rather more maligned fantasists like William Bouguereau and other academic painters.

In the pursuit of their practice, Classical Realists have fervently sought out the plaster casts of great art that once occupied pride of place in every museum and school. Another lost art, these copies have become central to the instruction of Classical Realism, where copies are built upon copies.

Finally, and most significantly, there is the belief that by training in the rigorous techniques of copying and observation for years as an apprentice, a contemporary artist may tap into the lineage of Western art and so learn the secrets of art through the ages.

It is this final belief that fuels Jacob Collins. In certain respects, he is less doctrinaire than his fellow forerunners, most notably the artists surrounding the Florence Academy of Art, which Daniel Graves founded in 1991 and which has grown to become the Harvard and Yale of Classical Realism. Collins is rather more eclectic than all that. He relies on less chiaroscuro than his contemporaries and employs a more colorful gradation of form. He does not use sight-size. There is no “Shaolin-temple thing,” as he describes it, of requiring students to graduate in stages from lithograph reproduction to still-lives and finally the nude.

Yet Collins has surrounded himself with students since his early twenties. Starting this fall, this influence will spread through a new institution he has founded called the Grand Central Academy, which seeks to become New York’s version of the Florence Academy. The GCA, as it is dubbed, will offer “three-year intensive training in classical drawing and painting,” as well as night classes and workshops around the clock. Collins, along with Michael Grimaldi, Kate Lehman, and Dan Thompson, some of his best-known Water Street painters, will serve as instructor and director.

On the day I met up with Collins, Grimaldi, and Thompson, they were about to review student applications. The location of the meeting was the building of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, where the school has leased space in partnership with the Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America, an organization “dedicated to advancing the practice and appreciation of the classical tradition in architecture and the allied arts.” The GCA will occupy three large rooms on the sixth floor of the building.

Upon our visit to the half-finished space, the rooms were newly painted and the lighting rehung, but Collins was far from satisfied. He arrived in painter’s pants and a fresh white tee-shirt. Everything about him, from his grizzled hair to the material of his glasses, was wirey. He moved quickly, starting in a room with towering wooden easels, $250 each, standing like sentries around an elevated stage. This will be Water Street times twenty-five: a space dedicated to the nude figure. Collins looked up at the box of full-spectrum bulbs called the drop light. “That’s low. This is going to be a problem.” He then looked over to the ring of ambient fixtures in the room: “These are misplaced! Dammit! Terrible glare. I’m looking at glare! They have to be overhead!” Back to the drop light: “OK, let’s decide now. It should move three feet to the wall at a thirty percent angle.” We walked quickly through the other rooms. “That’s going to be lectures and figures. That’s going to be the figures all the time: morning, noon, and night.” Collins injected a snap between each of the final words.

The creation of the GCA within the ICA has clearly moved as fast as Collins’s manic energy has allowed. Collins’s speed would seem to belie the stop-and-smell-the-roses pace one might assume from someone who endorsed the “Slow Art Manifesto.” This is a document that many Classical Realist artists signed at a dinner in 2005 hosted by Gregory Hedberg, the former head of the New York Academy of Art, another school with a classical component, and a promoter of Classical Realism in his current position as a director at Hirschl & Adler. Collins now has reservations about the manifesto: “I feel like I was driven so strongly as a child toward something… . It wasn’t only a patient attitude… . The reason I don’t like the slow art label is that we do have a real phenomenon on our hands… . We have something real, yet we are packaging it and pitching it like we’re making up another twentieth century modernist movement.”

Collins has often been the articulate spokesman of his cause, a gift of both his talent and his pedigree. A native New Yorker, Collins attended Columbia University, where he majored in history. His maternal grandmother, Alma Schapiro, was a modernist painter who studied with Hans Hofmann. His maternal grandfather was Morris Schapiro, a banker who gave tens of millions of dollars to Columbia University throughout his lifetime, financing everything from a new residential hall to a science center to the endowed chair of Rosalind Krauss, often in the name of his academic younger brother, Meyer. That’s right: Meyer Schapiro—the “multi-disciplinary critic and historian, galvanic teacher, lifelong radical and for more than fifty years a pre-eminent figure in the intellectual life of New York,” as The New York Times opened its obituary of the Columbia professor in 2001—is the great-uncle of Jacob Collins.

Such family connections have placed Collins in an enviable position. Through the Water Street Atelier and now the GCA, Collins has exercised his prerogatives to great effect for the cause of Classical Realism.

In one room of the new GCA we came upon dozens of plaster casts: parts of the Parthenon Frieze, a Centauromachy, a candelabrum attributed to Michelangelo— examples of every period of Western art. These were the treasured finds of Paul Gunther, the president of the Institute of Classical Architecture. In 2005, Gunther secured several hundred of them from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which for nearly a century had stored them in dusty vaults beneath the Henry Hudson Parkway and in a warehouse in the Bronx. As a board member of the Morris and Alma Schapiro Fund, Collins has become his own Maecenas. He seized the opportunity to use Gunther’s casts by underwriting the GCA. He also created a travel grant in his grandmother’s name with the ICA, where he now sits on the board of trustees.

Where will it all lead? One answer is that the art world has been conquered by far less than the forces now assembled in the name of Classical Realism. But it is the very rigors of the movement that may be its undoing. Classical Realism is enraptured with its urge to teach, but much of its best work can resemble a demonstration piece of technical abilities without a vision beyond the schools. Even Collins’s work can betray such sentiment, for example in some of his more posed, idealized, and faceless nudes painted along the lines of the French academy. For me, Collins’s best paintings speak to the empirical tradition of early modern America. The specificity of his portraits is a highpoint.

But then there are also artists like Graydon Parrish, who has adapted Classical Realism for more grandiloquent ends, such as addressing the international AIDS crisis. Parrish has just completed a commission for the New Britain Museum of American Art that allegorizes the attacks on the World Trade Center as two weeping men in loincloths. Judging from reproductions, the work appears to be yet another tragedy of 9/11.

The modernism of The New Criterion and the Beaux-Arts radicalism of the Classical Realists are responses to the same ruinous state of contemporary art. The schools—one must add the Harlem Studio and certain classes at the New York Academy and the Art Students League—can be a last refuge for art students hungry for formal training. But there may be no one funicular up Parnassus. As a former student of the classics, I wonder whether a classical education in itself can even supply the neccessary parts to build one. In one of Collins’s most eloquent letters, which he showed me for this article, he writes: “In the way that liberalism was co-opted by socialism, modernism was co-opted by anti-ism… . It is a reflex. It is a commitment to an attitude. It is the pervasive and unrelenting rejection of tradition.” Just as certain forms of modernism has become a perversion of taste, my hope is that Classical Realism does not become that unrelenting embrace of tradition, with similarly dire results.

James Panero is the Executive Editor of The New Criterion


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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 September 2006, on page 104

Copyright © 2014 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com

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