JACOB COLLINS with MARY ANN CAWS: Thinking About Ateliers
Upon occasion and in some places, reading and looking seem to interconnect geographically, textually, visually, and personally with a kind of intensity. It seems to me to happen especially in the atelier system. With this in mind, I set out to visit the Grand Central Atelier in Long Island City, founded by the right-now-contemporary painter and teacher, Jacob Collins, a contemporary realist, known for his championship of the classical art revival. In relation to his impressive and hard-working Academy, I’ll cite John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University, in which he points out “two types of universities, one in which eminent professors teach students who come to the university only to attend lectures and sit for examinations, and the other where there are no professors, no lectures, no examinations and no degrees, but where the students live together for two or three years.” In the latter, he says, when a mixture of young people “keen, open-hearted, sympathetic and observant […] come together and freely mix with each other, they are sure to learn from one another by day.” The latter kind of experience takes real place at the Grand Central Atelier.
In an interview of 2006 with Collins, James Panero describes him as “one of the most articulate artists out there today.” Jacob Collins is called a Classical Realist, summing up the two currents of his aesthetic and pedagogical practice.
Jacob grew up, as I did, with the feeling of something magical about art. I remember once whispering in the slide room at Hunter College—before we all used Powerpoint—and an art history colleague was remonstrating with me: Why are you whispering? I replied—perhaps a bit grandly as well as naively—that for me, anything containing such treasures of art had always been a sacred space. Still feels like that to me.
Mary Ann Caws (Rail): I’d like to know about the relation between your degree in history at Columbia and now your closeness to the classical in art and architecture, between art history and your history and relation to both.
Jacob Collins: That seems like a very good question. I’m interested in old things, different kinds of old things, and a lot of my intuitions are toward resurrecting or reclaiming things that feel valuable and are either lost or are getting lost. So reading about or studying history or things that happened in the past is something that I continue to do. I spend a lot of my time, probably too much of my time, reading history and about history, reading about all sorts of things from the ancient to the modern or the 1400s to the 1800s. I don’t know why I find that so compelling, but it maybe connects—because history is about text and about events extracted from texts from a very long time ago and then the pictures that I started to respond to as a very young kid, a teenager especially—to the faces peering from windows in a Vélasquez or a Titian or the early or paintings of Mantegna (of course that list goes on and on), and to the ancientness of those combined with their immediacy. I’m not sure I would have named it this way, but that paradox or that contrast between the ancient and inaccessible or the completely inaccessible because of it being so long ago and that inaccessibility is then belied by the obvious immediacy of the person depicted and the person depicting is right there, through all that time. That is one of the features of humanism that is so attractive to people who are drawn toward humanistic aspect in poetry and literature and art.
Rail: And that relates to the immediacy of your portraits, the feeling of your portraits.
Collins: Hopefully. And you suggest that it works also the opposite way, that those paintings that are so ancient are read as being from now and then my paintings which are obviously now are read as ancient, as manifesting that feeling of having been there always.. I am trying to focus a channel towards a world that is threatening to leave us. That is some part of my intention, which probably predates my thought of my intention.
Rail: On another topic, I remember James Elkins from Chicago asking “What is the first painting you remember shedding tears in front of?” and I just remember weeping in front of Robert Motherwell’s Red Open number one. I don’t know why, but of course that is part of the wonder of it, the magic of it, not knowing why. When the book came out, it seemed that most people remembered weeping in front of a Crucifixion or a murder: the narrative again. I can’t say why, but it is something about that I have always felt in front of some of your paintings. Emotion is probably the wrong word, certainly not sentiment, feeling is probably a better word, the ability to bring out in the observer some participation in the excitement of creation.
Collins: Thank you. That’s a pretty good description: if the artist was really excited in the making, it is possible that there is a chance for the observer. But there’s no chance you will be moved if he wasn’t excited making it. It’s not guaranteed, an artist can be excited but have no diction, no ability to speak, so if you are able to able to express yourself and the full excitement then it has to do with what you are excited about.
Rail: This links onto an idea of narrative we were just talking about, because the ongoing development between those works that you engage in or many of us engage in is a sort of narrative. It is not always the narrative which fascinates us.
Collins: It fascinates some of us. I don’t reject it, but I am not one of those. I never really wanted to do it, to make the painting that shows the moment in an event, which is what a painter like me is supposed to do. A lot of the people in my corner of the world want to do just that. When you can do the dimensional, perspectival approach, then what you might want to do is what a French academic artist wanted to do: to paint the big picture, the narrative scene, to tell a story and I certainly respect that, it is so much of the art that so many want to do: it is the end game.
Rail: The whole idea of development relates to the parts of this wonderful space you have created here, and what I have been wondering about, in the Grand Central Atelier. Here we observe that development of the artist from statues and grisaille renderings. Can you say a word about that pedagogical development in the schooling of an artist?
Collins: What this school that I am somehow or other in charge of is part of this reclamation project. It started out personal for me. I felt a kind of pain from my own inability to draw and paint well, or in a way that I felt was respectable by historical standards—I would go to museums and see the drawings and paintings, that there was a base level and I felt that everyone could draw up to that point then. And I felt—this is even going back as far as 1980 when I was sixteen or fifteen—like I didn’t want to be part of the era when we had to all accept that it was over. And so my personal project was to not be a failure, a failure at historical painting, and that became a goal. I worked very hard and developed some abilities and ended up running a little studio where I could teach others what I had started to learn. This project, this school that I’m involved in is part of that outgrowth of my desire to make myself, and realizing I had that to offer other artists and that the artists did not work in isolation, but in groups and that seemed like an important thing to have; this formation of artists has to do with a formation of myself—where you learn to draw simple things, then you learn how to draw more complicated things, then you learn how to pay very very close attention to what you are looking at, to analyze the world by very close observation, and build structural frameworks onto which you can hang your observations so that your observations aren’t just hanging there. It was part of my development to then pass it on to others, so it became a philosophical part of a community overseeing, at least partially, a lot of other artists wanting to transform themselves as I did.
Rail: The whole idea of community is in close relation to why we are doing this interview for the Brooklyn Rail because it seems to me to participate in the kind of community that the Rail creates, which is of the association of writers and thinkers and lookers—all that you so rightly say one can do better in working together.
Collins: People can do all kinds of things alone. Astonishing things are possible but I found, while I was simply teaching people drawing and painting abilities, that a lot of people were very talented and stimulated. And when I was teaching in the beginning my teaching was very direct.
Rail: This was in the ’80s?
Collins: I was influencing people with philosophical ideas in the ’80s , no, even the ’90s, and I found as I had more and more students. I was successfully teaching people to have skills and method, and even a philosophical framework of how to draw well. Not just me but people around the world were reclaiming French and Italian and Dutch and Spanish and German drawing and painting—that thing that we know in the 14th and 15th centuries, and so on. We were twenty-four and twenty-five and the skills were so clearly absent, but if we could teach artists to have these skills then things might be a bit different. But the students would come out with skills and find that the world wasn’t waiting for them, to embrace them. Also, the skills are only something; making yourself into an artist is something you probably need to do in a group, with the shared energy of your peers and with the influence of other artists. In a way, I saw these young artists, these developing artists with instruction, teaching themselves and really each other—inspiring each other; that’s how people get so good at drawing, because their peers and themselves are influencing each other. That’s the way it has to be, or can be. They are friends and teachers, then they turn into their own thing as a group, and that is probably why artists have to have some kind of community project. It doesn’t have to be, but it works well. Imagine all those kids in the studios in Florence in the 1450s and 1460s. That’s what this project is about and what I’ve been doing for the last twenty years: having a studio where there is a lot of rigorous pedagogy while the other half of it is for the people who have really absorbed that. What could have struck me if I was eighteen and looked in here would be just dazzling—
Rail: And you would have flipped.
Collins: I would have been dazzled and I wouldn’t have believed that there were people alive who could draw like this. I think, hopefully, that something will evolve in this scene of artists who have an exceptional ability to draw and paint and are trying to make something.
Rail: It seems to me that what you have here is the spirit of place, and what you point out as shared energy; that energy infuses itself, permeates the whole sense of place and space you have here.
Collins: I like it a lot. For me, it is a great joy to have people who are talented, passionate, and wanting to devote themselves to learning how to do this. It’s profoundly validating to have such talented people who want to throw their life away, and all those perfectly good prospects, to chase this project down.
Rail: I was thinking about the Romantic-sublime artists, such as Albert Pynkham Ryder all by himself doing his remarkable thing. Look at the American tradition. You are renovating or reclaiming that tradition in your way.
Collins: I would say about your first point: one of the fantasies that a lot of us have is to be that outsider who wants to perch on the edge and be the outsider. It is a curse for me that I could never get to be that person that the 1890s allowed. There was such an affirmative institutional framework you could rebel against. Even by making this I am making something for people to be at the edge of.
Rail: How wonderful: to be looking for a place to be at the edge of!
Collins: A lot of people are at the edge of this and enjoying that, and that puts me in a tricky place, in an opposition. I am certainly not a joiner or an institution person and my hand was forced, in some ways, to be part of an institution that has its own rigor and its own ways of being prescriptive in a way that doesn’t suit my character. But someone had to do it, and now in some ways I have to be the person which, by nature, I am not.
Rail: But you have managed a sense of informality, a kind of welcoming space—
Collins: That’s nice that you say that and many would not feel that, they would feel that it is constraining and formal, extremely prison-like. Some people would peek in here and feel like, “Let me out!”
Your other question: looking back at 19th century American art, I remember when Edna Ferber did the big Asher Durand show. I remember being very struck by his own biography and how he felt as if he was in a waste land, pulled in the way he was pulled, seeing a lot of talented people, and thought that there had to be an academy. He was looking across an ocean, a physical ocean—and I am looking across a temporal ocean—where there was a framework that you could build American art out of, and he sacrificed himself for that. I am not interested in sacrificing myself, but from where I stand (I know there are a lot of other efforts and would not denigrate any other efforts) this is crucial. For me, looking back, I felt like there wasn’t a home base and that person’s definition of art hadn’t left me. I still feel like I don’t want some twelve-year-old to come along and find there is nobody who wants to do the thing I want to do; there is no place for him, nobody is touched by this magic. People say they care about Rembrandt and they even go to universities and say that it is something great, but you won’t find someone to pat you on the head and say, “You want to paint like Rembrandt?”
Rail: I was interested in your Hudson River Fellowship. Reading Christopher Benfey’s A Summer of Hummingbirds, about other Americans—Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade – something in his writing is arousing, so that the whole American tradition came to mind, in light of what you are doing that I felt aroused by. Not just your work with ancient masters in Europe but here about Americanism also. There seems, to me, something about Heade, Church, and all of those artists, and what they did feels like community—in the occasional bigness of it also. Can you say a word about that?
Collins: A few years ago, I had a series of thoughts that started out like my own struggle in wanting to think about painting and landscape and the whole methodological frame of it. What I had known about Impressionism was that you stand there and you look and every brush stroke represents that impression. I wanted to recover landscape painting just before Impressionism, but the Hudson River School from the 1840s through the 1870s felt like that. What that meant to me was making very careful drawings and studies of nature without particularly trying to make artworks—almost making art works by accident—as you are studying nature. Learning about nature was a little bit of an epiphany, it shouldn’t have been, but it was; you can study nature the way you can study painting. I thought, when I was quite young, that if you are going to do a clothed portrait and you look carefully enough and have enough good brushstrokes, then it will look like a Sargent or something—then you realize he studied and painted nudes. They were all studying anatomy and painting nudes before clothed figures and drapery studies. They were learning about the dynamics of gravity and the brush on different textures. The nineteenth century did all these things.
Rail: And it worked.
Collins: And it worked in the way that is loaded with research, which is why those paintings look like that—with their balance between empiricism and rationality, very humbly observing the world and then processing it with a rigorous reason. It continues through Impressionism, and reason becomes de-rationalized into pure empiricism; that’s what I spent a lot of my time thinking about. The other side of landscape painting, being very analytical and very rational, is the study of trees, and how they branch out, and what type of trees they are, and at what altitude they grow, and how old the mountain is, and why there is that little dip, and how the hollows appear, and how a million years ago the rocks were softer, and how this is the windy side of a mountain, and all that is very different from standing in front squinting at it and trying to get the tonal values. I wanted to make paintings that looked like they were based on a good deal of knowledge, which became a methodological drive for me. It shouldn’t have been a revelation but it was: that landscapes were painted in the studio and they were based on a great deal of knowledge. But what also interested me was the kind of metaphysical drive.
They were studying a lot of nature with 19th-century American-Christian inspiration. It was Christian but for some of them part of a kind of deism, or perhaps both.
Rail: Something metaphysical?
Collins: The idea that the beauty of nature is some kind of revelation and that the beauty is meaningful. It seemed like a natural thing, not just the painting. The painting can be beautiful. But it’s natural, and it’s a lovely, lovely part of the life of an artist that you get out and spend the day outside where’s there’s a wind and a rain and you go out with your friends. And you read the accounts of the way Church and Gifford and Durand went out trips and that’s a nice thought, the way it was for them.
Rail: And that community and the one you create inside. I think of Eakins and what you know and paint inside, whether it’s medical, or academic in the good sense of the word, and then the experiential.
Another thing: was it you or someone saying you said, perhaps in an interview, that we were making a picture of ourselves. As the Egyptians were doing pictures of themselves and we are now doing pictures of ourselves?
Collins: Inevitably. Yes. We look at the pictures whose cultures have gone before, whatever the pictures are, that is a picture of themselves, of their world, what they have left behind and a picture of their stuff what kind of stuff they cared about or warranted getting represented or even the hierarchy of color or linear organization, you can feel some value system of some extinct group of people. The depictions, their posture, what their faces were like, the faces of the artists peering out, like Van Dyck peering out in that portrait we were just looking at. You recognize in a person’s face, that brow, how they held their mouth, what their concerns were, what kind of person, what kind of family, and what kind of town they belonged in.
Rail: I was wondering if any of those people you are training and training each other in your Academy will go out and be writers, will write a story or a novel which would bring in the observation that you can train. How magnificent it would be, to be trained like that.
How do you apportion your time between your own work: the portraits, the landscapes, the teaching of teachers, I mean by this a narrative question as well as how- in-the-hell-do-you-do-it question, a real one.
Collins: This project of this school or this community has been a twenty-five-year or more project and I try to hold on to the people around me, not more than they want, but what happens is the people who are important influences here are people I have had twenty years of conversations with, twenty-year-long conversation, and people I have influenced and who have influenced me, and it is a great way to be economical. I am not having to begin over.
Rail: Now you are doing it together.
Collins: Yes, I don’t have to be starting anyone from scratch. One of the great things about an atelier community teaching is that there is a whole pile of role models. Someone can come in blazingly talented and isn’t officially teaching, not old enough to be given that responsibility. But you show up, you are brand new, you are blazingly talented, and you are going to attach yourself to that person, and some of them are going to be desperately eager to explain things. Something that you just figured out, to clarify your own thoughts, is a pure joy to explain. That’s it: I taught the person and the person now teaches others. And I am not part of that conversation.
Rail: That’s a whole heritage.
Collins: Yes, they are teaching each other and then I have to have meetings, or I get to have meetings. I critique one morning a week, I like to be there. I work here with marvelous artists and we are in some ways breathing into some sort of atmosphere and that means that I am working. My own working and my own teaching don’t really pull away very much. Sometimes I have a tremendous deadline and it is probably normal, but I have a whole lot of trouble focusing until I am really focusing—like a switch and then I am working eighteen-hour days and am physically exhausted, something starts to go, my shoulder is bad or my back. And I am not teaching.
I did make a vow that if I felt like my teaching was making me any less of an artist I would stop teaching. But imagine where I would be if I didn’t have the influence of all these people I have influenced pulling me along, and such a high level of skills. Each little mini-generation escalates in skills. Back in ’95 or ’96, when people started to come around me because I had something to teach, what I did wouldn’t be presentable today. This thing has pushed me forward and so I have needed to be better and better, but a lot of it has to do with the fact that I teach somebody something and then they unwind whatever tangled thing I presented them. They being really smart, what I only half understood, they would turn into something deeper and fuller, and then they totally outstripped me and without that I would just be like the way I was when I was very young. All alone. Now they are all competing with their friends, and I got to be part of that thing that is this project.
Rail: Do your students go out and copy the way everybody used to get trained?
Collins: Some are copying a lot, but not everyone. Sometimes I go on a binge and panic and think some might be art-historically illiterate and then I get a little over-heated about that, but many are deeply knowledgeable about art history and then there are a lot who don’t care about it. I don’t want to be part of a group of slavish pedants.
Rail: I didn’t see a lot of slavishness when I was looking around.
Collins: You weren’t looking for it!
You know, I have this role, but when it comes down to it the thing that matters is that I am a painter.
Rail: It seems to me that the fact that your father is a philosopher might have something to do with your approach.
Collins: I think that’s possible. I try to think about the way we are as people, about our relation to the world.
Rail: Right now you still do portraits, landscapes, and sculpture? Do you know what you are going to do before you do it?
Collins: Right now, I am sculpting. When I was starting out, I sculpted as much as I painted, but there are fewer shows of sculpture. I stumbled on to a model and started sculpting. I almost feel guilty, since there is no reason to do it.
Rail: Why would you have to have a reason?
Collins: Oh, there are commissions and shows and to be making something that is so hard for anybody to sell feels like a guilty pleasure.
Rail: I love guilty pleasures. Do you say to yourself something like: today, I would prefer to do a still life?
Collins: It’s a kind of problem, I can get a little bit slack, maybe I can work on this or I can work on that. Unless there is a lot of pressure…
Rail: Pressure helps?
Collins: Pressure forces me to make the thing. It’s kind of bad, not quite totally free, but because the transition from not working to working is like the next minute you are crossing into somewhere, like you are in the real world, answering your phone and being with your kids. It’s a kind of chasm you are crossing. It’s almost like if you can avoid it you will. You will do anything that comes up—a crossword puzzle or something that needs to get cleaned—something will leap forward and offer itself as more important than the better thing to do, which is also the best thing to do.
Rail: And do you ever paint in the middle of the night?
Collins: No, I just work late, until three or four in the morning.
Rail: I want to tell you a story. When I was preparing my Modern Art Cookbook with recipes and paintings across from each other, to show how delightful it is to prepare a dish while looking at a painting of the elements, believing in the interconnections feeding each other, to show the whole relation between the recipe and the painting—you know, that book in which I put your Bread and water of 2011 across from Merwin’s poem “Bread,”—I asked Julian Merrow-Smith, an English painter in Provence, if I could use his paintings of fish, of plums, and he asked me, “What painters are in your book?” “Ah,” I said, “Cézanne, Braque, Picasso, Manet, de Chirico, Gauguin, Roy Lichtenstein, Jacob Collins,” and having not reacted before this, he leapt at the name: “JACOB COLLINS! Oh fine, of course you can use my paintings.”
Do you love it?
Collins: I love it.
ContributorMary Ann Caws
MARY ANN CAWS is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature, English, and French at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. Her many areas of interest in twentieth-century avant-garde literature and art include Surrealism, poets René Char and André Breton, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group, and artists Robert Motherwell, Joseph Cornell, and Pablo Picasso. Conceptually, one of her primary themes has been the relationship between image and text.