Nell Painter's new course, Art School at African American Studies, combines actual making with art criticism. It is an examination of the circulation of contemporary art, particularly the of work of black artists, structured around fundamental art concepts such as line, color, illustration, abstraction, multiples, beauty, and meaning. Given the historical centrality in African American art of representations of black bodies, the course pays special attention to figuration and portraiture. Its aim is not to make skilled artists, but to provide a materials-based, tactile experience of art making and its evaluation.
AM: What made you pursue an MFA after retiring from teaching at Princeton?
NP: I’ve had the happy good fortune to be able to pursue both my passions, history and visual art. My mother, who wrote and published two books after retiring, inspired me to start something new in my maturity, and my husband supported–still supports–my new education and vocation. I started painting in 185 Nassau Street, the very building where I’ll be teaching my new course. So the short answer to your question is, I wanted to, and I could.
AM: Many people know you as a historian. Is there creativity involved with being a historian? What outlets for creativity did you have in that career?
NP: In my biography of Sojourner Truth, Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol, I wrote a chapter on Truth’s use of photographic imagery and loved working in Marquand Library, a true Elysian Field of abundance. In my history book,Creating Black Americans: African American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present, all the illustrations are black fine art. That research gave me a mini-course in black art history. By the time I was finishing up my most recent book, The History of White People, I was in art school and actually made the images on page 26. That book is also very visual, paying strong attention to questions of beauty and appearance.
AM: What gave you the idea for a course called Art School at African American Studies?
NP: A sense of incompleteness! After a BFA at Rutgers and an MFA in painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, I still had so many questions about making art, seeing and thinking about art, and learning how art gets from the studio out into the world, particularly when artists are black and/or female. I’ve taught myself some of those answers, which I’d like to share with Princeton students. CAAS is interdisciplinary, which is perfect for my approach. And we’ll be paying special attention to the concerns of African American artists.
AM: What kind of art can you imagine students creating in your new course? How will their art be linked to African American Studies?
NP: Students will be drawing, painting, making prints, and showing their work in 2016 in a new art space in Newark, but I don’t aim to make artists out of them. Their art will be their art, growing out of their own visions and the issues we confront in the course, some having to do with process, some having to do with being seen. Our work grows out of the experiences of black artists, notably around representation, portraiture, and self-portraiture.
AM: Who are some of the contemporary artists you can envision students making art in the style of?
NP: We won’t be self-consciously making art in the styles of other artists, though we will look at a lot of art and experiment with drawing (Kara Walker, Julie Mehretu), painting (Robert Colescott, Glenn Ligon), collage (Romare Bearden, David Bradford, Mickalene Thomas), and printmaking (Margo Humphrey, Iona Rozeal Brown). These are just some examples off the top of my head, not at all meant to be limiting. The big thing is that I want students to gain tactile experience of the materials and a sense of how materials make particular sorts of imagery.
AM: Name three black artists, of any time period, that all people should know about.
NP: Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence. This is hard, because there are several more that even a cursory knowledge of art history should include. I’ve named 20th-century artists, though several contemporary artists already belong to the art history canon (Kara Walker, Charles Gaines, Glenn Ligon, David Bradford, Julie Mehretu, Wangechi Mutu), and I could go on.
AM: There are few classes like this at Princeton. How will this inform the way you approach teaching your students who may not have ever taken a class like this before?
NP: So far as I–or other faculty I’ve spoken with here and elsewhere–know, no other such course combining process, discourse, and art infrastructure exists. This will be a first, so students will have to be serious in their freedom and flexible enough to make art as well as read and write about it.
AM: Which course book from the syllabus are you most excited to teach?
NP: Gosh, that’s really hard. But if I have to chose just one, I’d say David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., eds., The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume V, Part 2: The Twentieth Century: The Rise of Black Artists, 2014. This collection of recent essays gives a nice overview of the issues, along with fabulous images. Unfortunately, it costs the earth, as do other art books. So students are going to either do their reading on reserve in Marquand Library or spend a f**king fortune on art books. I prefer they use the library.
AM: What do you hope students take away from the course?
NP: I’d like them to take away self-confidence in dealing with visual art, a basic knowledge of the issues, and a grasp of how art gets seen and distributed. During the course, I’d like them to enjoy making art and talking about it. Afterwards, in January 2016, I’d love them to bring their friends and family to the opening of our show in Newark, a festive occasion of the sort routine in the art world.
How often have I heard people express the fear they know nothing about art, a fear that keeps them from seeing and enjoying art! This won’t be a problem for students who have taken this course, even if they never pick up a pencil or brush ever again.