I taught 2D Design as my first post-graduate school teaching job. All of those kids probably deserve their money back. If you’re honest with yourself as an instructor, you know this is true for the first year or two that you taught. Oh man, the poor kids I taught while I was still a graduate student. Oh man. I’m not going to give the money back to them, but the state of New Jersey and commonwealth of Virginia might want to consider it.
I taught 2D Design without really having ever taken it myself. My undergraduate transcripts record that I did earn credits for “2D Design” but my teacher didn’t know what they were doing either. I was taught by a graduate student who apparently had no supervision or advisement as to how to what the class should be. They ran it like a drawing class. When I say they “ran it like a drawing class”, I simply mean that we drew the whole semester, charcoal on newsprint. Albers was nowhere to be found. When it came time for linear perspective, they said, “Who here knows two-point perspective?” Some of us raised our hands and the instructor said, “OK, well if you know how to do it, then go out in the atrium and draw it. Those of you that do not know it, stay here.” Can you imagine teaching anything else in that way? “Who here knows the proper medication to prescribe to a 6 year-old for an ear infection? Cool. Go do it. No, no, no, don’t tell me what it is. Just go do it.”
Keep in mind, I was also taking a basic drawing class in addition to this 2D course. I guess everyone in there was as clueless as me because none of us ever thought to ask, “Does anyone know why we are taking two classes that cover the same material?” Somehow, we all survived. As an art student, you realize that you’re there to learn how to teach yourself. If you don’t figure that out, then you go study something else. I assume my students survived me. If nothing else, they learned the golden ratio.
I started teaching long enough ago that we were still using slide projectors to look at images. It’s not really that long ago but to some younger people, that seems impossible. Like I read online last week, a guy said, “I told an 18 year-old that I used to get Netflix delivered in the mail and he called me a liar.” There are a lot of things in this life that I am desperately nostalgic for, but a slide projector is not one of them. I don’t miss the jammed slides, the bulb that burned out at the most inconvenient time, the carousel that spontaneously would drop half of its load out of the bottom. Most of all, I don’t miss slide libraries and having to keep lists of slides from semester to semester to assemble and return over and over again to teach the same presentations from one semester to the next…and have all of those images be compromised versions of what I really wanted to show. Slides of the wrong painting or slides so old that they predate a major restoration of a piece, etc. Some of you justifiably reject Powerpoint while sipping from your Edward Tufte coffee mug, because it’s not a perfect tool for every situation but for art history it is no worse than a slide projector, makes my life easier and makes it possible for me to show anything I want in class- which my students will tell you is a blessing and a curse. If you want to know what that means, ask my Intro to Art students why I waste their time talking about abstraction in relation to what a male turkey will attempt to have sex with. The answer is: because I can.
If nothing else, I got a thing or two out of teaching this class. After all, my first time teaching it was my first time taking it as well so I couldn’t help but learn something. For some reason, we had to teach the students the Corel Painter software. Not Photoshop. Painter. If I had to guess, a school subscription for Painter cost a lot less than Photoshop at the time and that’s why we used it. It didn’t really matter because I had never used either before, so I was out of luck either way. My school couldn’t even get me a copy of the program to use at home so that I could teach it. I reached back a decade into my brain for inspiration and said, “Who here knows how to use Painter?” Someone answered, “Well, it’s a lot like Photoshop.” I then said, “Who here knows Photoshop?” Half the class raised their hands. “OK, if you know how to use Photoshop or Painter, get started on the assignment. If you don’t know how to use Painter or Photoshop…sit next to someone that does know how to use it and ask them.” Years later, I would read a David Sedaris book where he talked about teaching a writing class, but not really knowing how to teach a writing class, so they watched his favorite soap opera instead. I can relate.
It sounds selfish to say this, but one of the most profound shifts in my own work came from teaching this class. (Thanks, kids! I got a lot out of it!) In an effort to illustrate positive and negative space, I spent a lot of time looking through the slide library at the school. I think I started with Robert Longo charcoal drawings and Franz Kline paintings then worked my way back through the drawings and prints sections of the library, eventually coming to something I’d never seen before- the Albrecht Dürer ink study for his Adam and Eve engraving. I’m talking about a 10+ year old slide of this drawing that was probably a copy of a copy of another slide, so let me simulate what I was looking at before showing a clearer version of the drawing:
Looking at it this way, as a slide held up to the light, made the piece look so graphic and modern. The quality of the slide was so bad that it even looked like this when it was projected onto a screen. High contrast. Deep black shapes. No subtlety. It didn’t look 500 years old. It looked fresh. Sometimes you get a bastardized version of an original that gives you a different perspective than what other people are going to get. One of my favorite albums is The Grifters’ Ain’t My Lookout. My only copy of this for years was taped from someone’s vinyl. Unbeknownst to me, it played slightly faster than the original recording. That was the version I knew in my head. It took a year of listening to it on CD to forget my taped version.
I saw The Sixth Sense in the movie theater when it was released, not knowing that it had a twist at the ending. The scene immediately after Bruce Willis is shot shows a collection of rowhouses with the text “the next fall” laid over the top. I didn’t read this correctly because the “l”s in the word “fall” are white text laid over bits of a white house. I read it as “the next day”. It’s like when my wife misheard “cash rich, time poor” as “cash bitch, time whore”. Stuff happens between the ear and the eye and the brain. But since I saw “the next day”, I immediately thought, “Oh, he’s a ghost” and spent the entire movie with that perspective. But it’s not like I was having a conversation about this with the other 200 people in the theater, so I thought everyone around me had that perspective. I thought we were all sitting there thinking, “Man, it is really cool how he structures these scenes with his wife, so it seems like they’re communicating but they’re really not”, etc. The revelation that Willis is dead came at the end and then I became the only one in the movie confused as to why this was such a surprise. I walked out and asked my wife, “Why was it such a big deal when he figured out that he was dead at the end?” She looked at me, justifiably, like she had made a mistake in marrying such a moron. Seeing a less-nuanced version of the Dürer drawing gave me a different perspective on it than if I’d seen it in person first. The questions I was asking about it were the wrong questions.
A few years later, in 2006, the Morgan Library renovated and expanded their facilities, relaunching with an exhibition from their drawing collection: From Leonardo to Pollock. This show provided me the first opportunity to see the Dürer study in person. The drawing that had always been so modern and fresh to me now became even more so but in a much different way. Here is a better image of the drawing, close to what it resembles in person, next to what I saw so you can compare the differences.
My first encounter with this piece was that it was flat and graphic. It seemed appropriate because it was a study intended for a print. But this drawing is a true working study. It’s not a drawing, it’s an assemblage of drawings. Dürer set these figures up as examinations of his theories of human proportion and scale. Beyond that he knew that their placement had be just right for the Garden that would eventually fill in the negative shapes. What you can’t see in my original experience is Dürer’s mind and hands at work. When you finally see this drawing, you see that it is two figure drawings that have been cut out of separate sheets of paper and gently nudged into position, then glued down to a third piece to fix their spatial relationship.
Here is a rough illustration of what is happening. I’m sorry if it’s not 100% on the money but I’m doing this from memory. My best memory is that the yellow lines I have drawn represent where Dürer cut the figures, at least Adam’s, in order to experiment where it would go in relation to Eve. The blue arrows reveal a lot of correction. There are white highlights in the piece now that show where he changed Eve’s elbow, adjusted Adam’s calves, tweaked hands, etc. Not that he would have cared, but these would have been less obvious during Dürer’s life. They add to the piece now, not unlike old Robert Crumb drawings where correction fluid remains a cool white even though the paper has aged and dulled.
The background is not deeply saturated black like the slide suggested. It’s mottled and gestural, slow where it needs to protect the edges of figures, faster in the larger sections, such as the space between the figures’ feet. His methods for hatching and cross-hatching are quickly-rendered (by his standard) to study line direction, light and volume necessary for the final engraving.
The differences between the drawing and final composition are notable. The figures are roughly the same height and will remain so, but Eve will be lowered in the picture plane. That move activates the bottom corner, whereas Dürer feels like he needs to pepper the bottom left with rocks to anchor the space. The move also drops her extended hand from the middle of Adam’s bicep down to the bend of his arm, taking advantage of the shape of her curved fingers and the divot of his arm. The one piece of fruit simultaneously in Eve’s hand, in the serpent’s mouth and touching Adam’s arm, placed near the center of the image creates an X of limbs that marks the spot. Dürer connects every central dramatic element. Where is The Fall? Right here is The Fall. If Eve had not been compositionally lowered that half of an inch, the center would be lost.
Adam holds a piece of fruit in the drawing but is empty-handed in the print. In the drawing, the vacancy of the negative space allows this action to indicate the two figures are equally complicit. There is not much drama in “equally complicit after the fact” especially when you still have a serpent to work into the final plot. Instead, by the end, Adam is empty-handed, but reaching out. He wants the fruit that Eve holds behind her, although there seem to be other implications. She’s already physically succumbed to temptation, and even though he hasn’t taken ownership of the object, he has still fallen victim to the same trap. Between the tail of the parrot, Adam’s arm and Eve’s left foot, Dürer draws one axis of the X from the top left to the bottom right. Adam’s bent leg, the serpent and its branch and what seems to be a suicidal goat in the upper right draw the other axis.
The drawing gets some of the X, but Dürer glued it down too quickly and missed connecting the dots by “that much”. He realized the error before the burin started cutting. It’s a working drawing for him, not a final product. For me, it was a missing link. The years between seeing the slide of this drawing and the real thing were incredibly fruitful. I taught myself how to draw by looking at books of Dürer etchings and engravings. I needed no other teacher for what I wanted. It severely limited my range, but I don’t regret that. Most artists will eventually limit themselves anyway. Instinctively, I started composing images by working from photos or working in Photoshop (I eventually learned enough of it) to arrange compositions. I superimposed Xs and grids to help order the picture plane. I nerded out occasionally and dropped a golden rectangle into the mix. It hearkened back to my childhood with superhero Colorforms. This pursuit of a constructed image is what I was subconsciously taking from Dürer while I was learning how to properly hatch, crosshatch and stipple. Seeing the construction and assembly of that Adam and Eve drawing in person made me want to drop to one knee, stare at the ground and say, “My liege!” It was all there. What I had been doing for a few years and would continue to do in one form or another was all there. I can still follow the same methods and use all of this work behind-the-scenes to compose a final image. But I will also pull back the curtain and make work intended for public view that shows this assembly or collage or whatever you want to call it. Do I look at Cubism or any other offshoot of it or Dada for tips on collage or assembly? Of course. It would be silly not to take advantage of those resources. Do I need them? This drawing would suggest that I do not. The rules are the rules and they have been for centuries.