A Cheerful and Lively Little Oasis for Artists on the Island of Manhattan
December 1, 2015
One Last Cup of Wine We Will Pour -- "Changes" by Phil Ochs
Once there was a cheerful and lively little oasis for artists on the Island of Manhattan. It was embraced by the light of day, and it welcomed with open arms all who wanted to study art. With its steadfast skylight studios, this atelier-based school had attained a worldwide reputation for simply being what it was intended to be when it was founded in 1875, a place to make art and mingle with like-minded creative souls, "far from the madding crowd." The students had the freedom to come and go as they pleased and to change direction as often as they liked in the studios of some of the best professional artists in America.
It was The Art Students League of New York. It was the 1978-79 school year. And it was heaven on earth.
Here you could study with Rudolf Baranik, a famous abstract painter who studied with Fernand Leger and was represented in many museum collections; Will Barnet, one of America's most famous painters and printmakers, who was represented in many museum collections; Mario Cooper, the "dean" of watercolor painting in America, with countless honors for his work and author of popular "how-to" books on watercolor techniques; Gregory D'Alessio, a famous cartoonist and painter who studied with George Bridgman and had served as a Board Vice President;
Jose de Creeft, a world famous sculptor who created the Alice in Wonderland figural group in Central Park.
Thomas Fogarty, a highly regarded painter of portraits, still lifes and landscapes, who served on the Board for six years, and whose father, Thomas Sr., also taught at the League and influenced Norman Rockwell; Marshall Glasier, a famous drawing instructor who studied with George Grosz and Nicolaides at the League; Xavier Gonzalez, a famous muralist, painter and sculptor. with many prestigious honors and museum exhibits to his credit; John Groth, a famous World War II combat artist and successful illustrator, who was represented in several museum collections;
Robert Beverly Hale, world-famous authority on artist's anatomy, former curator of American painting and Sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, served as a Board Vice President, represented in several museum collections, author of "Drawing Lessons of the Great Masters," a classic in its field, translator of Dr. Paul Richer's "bible" on artist's anatomy; Joseph Hirsch, one of America's most well-known realist painters, represented in many museum collections. Ted Seth Jacobs, well-known painter of hundreds of commissioned portraits and numerous murals in famous hotels in the U.S. and Europe, trained several of today's top young academic realists, a painting guru now living in France.
All of the League's then-52 instructors had national reputations, earned from their experience as working artists, and most were represented in the collections of prominent museums. Here are the names of some of the other Instructors, who will be familiar to many of you: Morton Kaish, Nathaniel Kaz, Gabriel Laderman, Hughie Lee-Smith, David Leffel, Julian Levi, Vincent Malta, Leo Manso, Knox Martin, Frank Mason, Earl Mayan, Seong Moy, George Passantino, Robert Philipp-who studied with Chase, Michael Ponce de Leon, Gustav Rehberger, John Howard Sanden, Richard Seyffert, Sidney Simon, Isaac Soyer, Lisa Specht-Board President for 8 years, Theodoros Stamos, Joseph Stapleton and Vaclav Vytlacil.
The brilliant young American students attending the school at the time would have felt right at home in the Parisian ateliers of the 19th Century. They left their "graffiti" portraits all over the easels in the painting studios, and their general high spirits and precocious talent endeared them to their older fellow students, who weren't nearly as talented and were far less frolicsome. These young art students were among the best and brightest in the land, and they came to the League to study because they belonged here.
The keepers of the flame, Stewart Klonis and Rosina Florio, left the doors wide open for student's questions and concerns. It was Rosina's practice to stop by every studio at the start of the school year to wish the students another successful year of study. If a student needed a part-time job to pay the rent and still attend school, Rosina knew how to make that happen. She had many contacts in the art world and helped this chronicler land a job with the membership department of The Metropolitan Museum of Art while he was studying at the League full-time for two years..
I, the chronicler, had found the League a few years earlier, studying drawing Saturdays with Anthony Palumbo and part-time in the evenings with David Leffel while still working as a writer and copy editor in the business news department of The Associated Press, the last stop in my desultory newswriting career. I was ill-suited for writing business news, and was fired for insubordination one day, a blessing because the negotiated severance pay enabled me to pay for my studies at the League, along with the G.I. Bill I was eligible for, having saved the world for democracy as a journalist with the Army in Vietnam.
The League didn't literally save my life, but it made life much more than just bearable. For the first time I was in the company of people like me who were not consumed with "getting and spending." Inside our sanctuary, in the studios and in conversations at the cafeteria tables, we lived for our art and knew that it was the highest calling we could ever hope to find in this crazy, market-driven world.
In addition to Palumbo and Leffel, I studied with Frank Mason, Robert Philipp, Ray Goodbred, Thomas Fogarty, and John Howard Sanden. After my studies, I painted portraits nearly every Saturday morning since 1980 in the members class in one of the 4th-floor studios, only withdrawing this year when we lost our natural light from the skylights. I continue to draw several times a week in the late-afternoon sketch class, which is free for members.
I never spent a lot of time thinking about the way the school was run. Stewart Klonis and Rosina Florio controlled the members' proxy votes for the Board elections, so that ensured a continuation of the League's original mission as an independent and self-governed art school. Maybe not so democratic, but they kept it "no frills" simple, as our founding artists intended. Rosina was tough and could appear dictatorial. She brooked no dissent with her decisions. But it was apparently no fiefdom for the Director by any means, from what I have heard. She often complained to her staff members that the Board didn't do what she wanted it to do once her choices were installed.
Rosina might have unintentionally placed the Board on its current corporate track by picking men like Ghazi Aita for the Board in hopes of getting some big-money donations from them. Ghazi is described variously on the Internet as a flamboyant Syrian-born middleman, hotel owner, and investor, a "shadowy businessman," and ambassador to the U.S. from San Marino. He was Board President from 1989-92 and again from 1995-96. I could never understand how he came to be President. He discovered the "joy of painting" and is said to have his work hanging all over the walls of his dwellings, the latest in Monaco.
Putting the fascinating Ghazi Aita aside, The League had survived through the years on tuition fees and generous donations from wealthy former students. The bills were paid and the landmarked 1892 school building was owned mortgage free. Shortly after the current Executive Director took over, he described the school as "thriving" in school catalogs.
But shortly before Rosina died in 1996, the big real estate developers came calling. A former instructor said Rosina was getting phone calls daily from real estate developers wanting to purchase the League's air rights, and she would just hang up on them. After Rosina's death it was different story.
First came that shocking renovation in 2003, announced, to my surprise, in an article in The New York Times. Instead of spending more money on a historic renovation, the League chose the bargain-basement route and stripped the League of its classic character. The "improvements" came with many negative aspects -- traffic jams caused by the new bathrooms being placed adjacent to the elevators, HVAC vents blowing air on the models and the system cranking noisily on start-up, replacement of sturdy doors, plumbing fixtures and other appurtenances with "Home Depot" quality items.
The League's new managers soon after could not resist the temptation of millions of dollars in "easy money" and sold off 88 percent of the League's air rights in 2005. Yes, they asked the members, but the contract was already signed and the vote was a mere formality. The League didn't need the money to operate, and the promises made to convince members to accept the air rights deal remain unfulfilled. Then along came the cantilever and all hell broke loose.
One of Mr. Barbieri's dissidents was allowed to take notes of internal Board meetings over a period of years surrounding the 2005 air rights deal. I had a chance to read his notes, and was struck by his last notation, from the Executive Director's Report dated March 15, 2006:
"I was invited by Gary Barnett of Extell (the purchaser of our air rights) to a movie premier of "Thank You for Smoking" at MoMa last Saturday night. Extell paid for the event, and used it to promote their current real estate projects ..."
I could go on, but my tour of duty is nearly over. I was a good soldier, at least at the League.
Me at my Saturday Models' Exhibit