December 16, 2011

Notes to MFA students about Final Critiques

This week I participated in final critiques for the MFA programs at the Hoffberger School of Painting and Brooklyn College. I had a terrific time with Joan Waltemath, Raphael Rubinstein (who has a new article about abstract painting underway), Jennifer McCoy, Archie Rand and so many other interesting artists. Overall, the student work was excellent, but I remember how traumatic crtis were when I was in grad school (I was the worst kind of student--both arrogant and insecure), so here are some suggestions for students about the critique process that I wish someone had told me.

Students preparing for a critique at the Hoffberger School of Painting in Baltimore.

1. Critiques are collaborations, not debates or competitions. Most faculty aren’t out to skewer you, they simply want you to think about your work from all possible angles.  Faculty are invested in seeing you succeed: if you make good work, everyone looks good.  

2. Don’t approach critiques from a defensive stance. Crits are about helping you make your work better—which doesn’t mean it’s not already good. If a friend told you you had bad breath or your fly was down, would you argue that he or she was wrong?

3. Listen to what the professors and critics have to say. We might say something that gets you to think about your work in a new way. If you’re too busy defending the work in your head, you may miss important points. Faculty are simply throwing out ideas—not demanding changes—and many of our suggestions and comments don’t require individual responses. Think of the crit as a conversation, not an interrogation.

4. Introduce your work before the critiques gets started. As you make work, be thoughtful about your intentions. Take notes in the studio so you can use them later as you prepare a statement about the work. Writing a statement is difficult because you may not know exactly what the work is about, but try to articulate your intent or talk about your process. Beware of art jargon that’s seductive, but doesn’t mean anything. Even if it seems unfashionable, err on the side of simple language that everyone can understand--unless you are using a more creative approach like poetry or fictive narrative.

5.Take your time answering faculty questions, and remember there’s no right or wrong answer--just an honest answer. Faculty can spot bullshit a mile away even if you can’t, and that can be very helpful.

6. When faculty suggest artists you should look at, we aren’t saying your work is derivative. We are saying that you share a common language with another artist—go have a look. 

7. If you have made the work in earnest, be confident. Remember the conversation isn’t about you, it’s about your work, and the crit will help make it stronger.

9. If your crit is after lunch, bring cookies!

8. And finally, be humble. You may be the top student in your program, but remember that making art is a lifelong process. I hate to be negative, but early success doesn’t necessarily indicate, well, anything. It's about the long haul.



 The Hoffberger's 3-day critique schedule posted on a white board in the student lounge.

Homework assignment: 

Watch The Hustler 
"Paul Newman shines as cocky poolroom hustler "Fast" Eddie Felson in Robert Rossen's atmospheric adaptation of the Walter Tevis novel. Newman's Felson is a swaggering pool shark punk who takes on the king of the poolroom, Minnesota Fats (a cool, assured Jackie Gleason in his most understated performance). "

Watch Anvil
"In 1981, Canadian Heavy Metal band Anvil released their first album, Hard 'n' Heavy. Years later, the likes of Metallica and Slayer would cite Anvil as a key influence, but lead vocalist Steve "Lips" Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner struggled to keep the band alive. Documentary filmmaker Sacha Gervasi follows Kudlow and Reiner as they struggle to keep their ambitions alive despite 35 years of missing the brass ring in Anvil! The True Story of Anvil, which paints a sympathetic but warts-and-all portrait of the unexpected consequences of the rock & roll dream. " (Thanks Mario Naves for this great suggestion. Here's a post abut the film on his blog.)


Abstract Expressionist Grace Hartigan was the founding director at Hoffberger. Her old rocking chair is a great reminder of our rich tradition and legacy.

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9 comments:

It's so much easier to appreciate how valuable critique is after many years have passed since art school.... It's easier to see now that when someone takes the time to offer thoughts on one's work, even if it's not all positive, (actually- especially if it's not all positive)– that in itself is a compliment. Critical feedback is a great gift! :) (Well, there are exceptions to this, but hopefully my intention is clear)

Part I of a Comment sent by Christopher Moss (http://christophermoss.NeoImages.net)

In 2003 I moved to New York with the specific intention of attending a fairly cheap graduate school in pursuit of an MFA degree. As it turns out I got into my second choice school, Brooklyn College (Hunter was first on my list). I thought I was a pretty hot shit, if modest, painter and I spent my first year at Brooklyn making competent modernist figurative paintings. My heroes at the time were New York School second generation painters like Louisa Mathiasdottir, Leland Bell and Paul Georges. In turn their heroes were also my heroes, the first generation ab-ex painters DeKooning and Hoffman but also figurative painters like Balthus, Derain, Matisse, Bonnard. I was making paintings just like they did, and I was at grad school trying to figure out how to make paintings like that matter to the world, it was a stance I took against the last 50 years of art history, but I was fine with that, I was a “rebel”. 

I found some support for my beliefs at BC, Archie Rand and Patricia Cronin were hugely supportive. I liked Archie especially, he really understood what I understood about how important these artists really were. He was respectful, even reverent, in my studio. At the same time I was studying with Elizabeth Murray and William T. Williams. I'd met occasional resistance from both of them in personal studio crits but nothing I couldn't handle, I knew how to argue for an ideal beauty, I knew how to argue against how stupid and wrong minimalism and conceptual art were, I had moral high ground to stand on. (continued)

Part II of a Comment sent by Christopher Moss (http://christophermoss.NeoImages.net)

At the end of my first year I was confused but confident I was right, and it was with that confidence that I walked into my first year critique. Armed with some fairly large new paintings and tons upon tons of studies and small watercolors I was there to prove my worth as a painter, if not by quality at least by sheer volume. I was prolific, like Picasso, ya know? I made a lot of stuff, just look at my stream of semen, look at how well I paint! Look, will you? And if you don't see how great this particular bowl of apples is please look again, you have no IDEA how hard I worked on that pile of fruit, and it's grand, isn't it? 

The critique was vaguely praising, nice this, good touch here, lovely color, nice palette knife work there, etc. And then, the last person to speak finally spoke. Elizabeth Murray, who I'd grown to respect for an abundant amount of reasons and who had recently suffered through an unimaginably grueling session of chemo therapy on what turned out to be one of her last days with us on this planet but who also somehow felt well enough that day to crit me and my classmates, said:

“Your work is inane”.

Which was a pretty easy thing to brush off, I mean the whole rest of the room pretty much told me I was the genius I knew I was so fuck her. Right?

And then it was suddenly summer and I had what seemed like eons of time off from the pressures of grad school. I had one more crit with a visiting artist that summer, Kara Walker, who couldn't figure out why I liked dead white guys any more than I could explain what it was about art that I was so in love with. 

I went home and cried, I was obviously useless at the only thing I was good at.

I spent that summer making lots of paintings too, reams upon reams of paintings on paper. And I thought all of that work was shit, horrible, awful, terrible things, an amazing amount of paintings, a whole new portfolio. Paintings I cried on, paintings spat on, paintings I pissed on, paintings made from soap bubbles and ink, cartoon paintings, stuff I'd never made before, the stuff of fear and rejection and alienation from the only group of people I thought liked me for who I was. It was an awful summer and I didn't give a shit any more.

I spent my second year at BC making what are probably the worst, ugliest paintings I've ever made, but I was making them as a free person, I discovered I was really good at making bad paintings, I was good at having bad ideas and I was really good at ugly. I had never let myself do that, I'd never really let go, I'd never let myself into my work in the way I did that semester, and the results were horrifying.

Well, and then what happened? "Your work is inane"! Invaluable confession. Thank you. This applies to every creative endeavor of every day for not only art students but also for people slouching toward humility, which includes most of us.

Yes, Chris- what happened? Is it that you embraced inanity & made it your own, or... are you still horrified? Maybe you're comfortable with where you left off in the story.
Either way- thank you very much for posting.

I respond deeply to what you are saying. Right now the question is where is it in me that I am painting from? Is the work generated from the ideas or is there a real connection inside with what is real in the moment- no matter how it looks on canvas. Trust is the key word. There is a short time for each of us to explore and make art. Working towards authenticity seems a worthy way to spend one's time.

So I just made ugly art for a few years. I remember my second year crit was nearly silent. Quite a few of the undergrad faculty who sit in on the crits couldn't figure out what had happened, or why. I had murdered something precious, my own “taste” I guess, whatever it was that was preventing me from speaking from my own experience. Fear was part of that thing I'd just killed, fear of making a bad painting, fear of saying the wrong thing, etc. The thing was I didn't even recognize my defense mechanism as fear, I was proud of that mechanism.

I spent a lot of time in my second semester reading artforum from the 70's, I figured I'd go to at least one of the sources of the rhetoric I was hearing. I read Don Judd's reviews in Arts magazine, the ones he wrote about the scene around him. I discovered young Jerry Salz's paintings were heavily influenced by Jasper Johns. I began actually liking a lot of stuff I'd rejected before, not just liking it but thinking critically about why it was made and why it might be important.

Best of all, for my own work, I did get comfortable with making ugly things, and those ugly things became less ugly to me, because I'd made them. Making work became a way of working through this sudden crisis that had been handed to me by Elizabeth Murray. I never want another person to tell me that my work doesn't need to exist, and I'll likely never have the opportunity to have someone tell me that again in my life. But that's what grad school is for.

I remember saying one thing in that final crit, when the notion that the new paintings were less than pretty came about I remember answering “yes, and I should have been making paintings like this years ago”.

I admire your purity, however, I beg to differ on a couple of points.

Crits can be valuable. However, as in life they are not necessarily fair nor driven by the altruistic... but are more likely worthless paternalistic dribble, or to use your word.. "bullshit".

Let me say that a mature, serious graduate student can also spot "faculty" tripe a mile away. By "faculty", I am primarily referring to visiting artists, distinctly those that swoop down from Mount NY to crit grad-student work.


First let me say...as a graduate of Mount Royal Graduate School of Art, I am indebted to Babe Shapiro, Sal Scarpita and Grace Hartigan. They forever remain in my heart.

Now, where I part with you 360 is in the following :

"7. If you have made the work in earnest, be confident. Remember the conversation isn’t about you, it’s about your work, and the crit will help make it stronger."

If the art is indeed " made in ernest" ...it is most likely a creation generated deep from within self. On that basis alone, of course the work is about "you". the artist/creator who submits to his inner being, the sub-conscious to lead him in the creative process and allows his heart and guts to guide him, it most certainly is about "you".

I say the obove for the simple reason that the artists I admire are those whose lives, passions, pain, sorrow and triumphs are reflected on thier canvasas; artists like Francisco Lucientes Goya, Chiam Soutine, among others.


Years ago, Sal Scarpitta in a studio visit said words that remain fresh to this day. Inches from my face and tapping on my chest, Sal whispered..."Federico, Federico, there is a Federico crying out to get out...LET HIM OUT". He then left the studio leaving me stunned but questioning self.

Later, after leaving Mount Royal, Grace advised..."fuck the viewer" ..."fuck the critic". I have taken hers and Sal's words to heart. I missed my Thesis crit. It was taped. I was drunk and in jail. The crit was a reflection of my work which was a reflection of me.

This is great feedback from the other side of the room. Thanks for coming to Brooklyn's crits on Thursday-- I was one of the students you critiqued. I feel it's important to have people there who don't know you, who have not seen the work develop over the semester, and who have to take it at face value, because this is how most viewers are going to experience the work and rarely do we get to hear back from the audience.