Art Students League of New York

The Art Students League smells of oil paint.

The building is an absolute gem on 57th Street.

I have taken two Saturday classes there over the years. They’ve been taught by these wonderful  women of quite an advanced age, (one of whom Hilda Terry is no longer with us.) Last month’s watercolor class was taught by Dale Meyers who is still creating, teaching, thinking, and sharing. The other students’ work can be amazingly technically proficient or incredibly primitive (mine falls into the latter category).

It is exceedingly relaxing to be in a room where everyone is painting. My watercolors tend to be an embrace of negative space with a loose and splattered messy style. It’s hard to summarize. But fun to make.

I’m taking a Literature of Art Class with Ephraim Rubenstein on Thursday nights – he is so passionate, smart, provocative about the history of art. On Thursday we discussed the difference between Nude and Naked. We had read (or in my case, skimmed) Kenneth Clark’s “The Nude.” The Greeks, Rubenstein said, had a love of nakedness. Their gods were big and beautiful, not like a formless Yahweh.

We talked about how beauty in art gives one a shiver. That innately and physically we respond to art. We talked about philosophy — how when you think “bed” you have an ideal of “bed-ness” in mind, according to Artistotle. Is that “bedness” more ideal than the artist’s interpretation or an actual bed itself?

We discussed idealism. How, as Americans, we have a love/hate relationship with idealism. Is the nude who comes to model for art class a disappointment? Is he or she any less perfect or ideal than the Victoria Secret airbrushed model?


When I had inquired with the Eastern European woman security guard at the art school on Thursday whether class was cancelled due to snow. She told me that the school’s motto is Nulla Dies Sine Linea or “No Day Without a Line.”  “We are always open.”

The classes at the Art Students League are so cheap and so good. My daughers took a kids’ class with Martha Bloom. They just had a show in the gallery and the hallway outside of the cafeteria.

Yes, there’s a sweet, funky, good cafeteria and a tiny art shop in case you need supplies. The Art Students League has it all. Everyday.

Admiring Starry Night

If only Vincent could have had a thicker skin. If only the church valued his contribution. If only there was medication for his manic depression. If only there was a support group for self mutilators. If only he’d hung on a little longer.

If only.

He was so young, so passionate, so troubled, so smart, so hard-working, so confident, so insecure, so religious. Vincent van Gogh was such a good writer as well as a great painter.

For my Literature of Art class at the Art Students League taught by Ephraim Rubenstein we read Vincent’s letters to his brother Theo. They break your heart. He writes to his brother with enthusiasm about the first sermon he preached. Yet the strict religiosity of his father failed him. He did not have the proper degree and could not obtain it. His father was an arbitrary, withholding, judgmental preacher. Vincent converted his religious zeal into his art. This schism of art and religion is a theme in his life and letters.

Vincent became itinerant. Though he lived in extreme poverty; he was always hopeful that the next place, person, teacher would help him. That good was just around the next corner. He died at 37. His best work happened in just 10 years.  If only he had hung on a little longer.

The savior of his work and legacy was his sister in law, Theo’s wife, Johanna Gesina van Gogh. She kept his letters and his paintings together. Would you do that for your husband’s mentally ill brother?

I doubt I would. There was so little to indicate that his work had value.

A current running through van Gogh’s letters is a desire to help mankind. To be useful.

And another theme is the way he prods Theo to admire other writers and painters. It’s true. We do not admire each other enough.

Admire as much as you can; most people do not admire enough.” God. So true. I admire van Gogh for his writing and his art, but not for his life. I do not admire him for giving up on himself.

I was at the MoMA last week. After reading his letters, it’s amazing that his work persists. His Starry Night, (see above) it can suck you in.

In my water color class, I tried to paint like him on Saturday. The teacher told me, “That tree or that bush, or whatever that is, that’s too big.” She did not see the resemblance of my work to van Gogh’s. But I see it.

Train your eyes to see and to admire.