In 1967 one of the MFA group seminars was suddenly to have a surprise guest. We were told a day or so in advance that a noted Artist would review and critique our work. The MFA candidates that were wired into the gossip channel quickly learned that Frank Stella was to be town and the likely reviewer. He and his work were ‘on fire’ in all the Arts magazines, but very few of us, out in the sticks (Seattle), had seen any actual work. It was an east coast fire. Soon enough there would be Stella works and various rip-offs everywhere. Hotel lobbies, airport walkways, gallery shows consisting of one or two enormous pieces soon abounded. I had seen little 4” reproductions in the magazines and found it puzzling. By and large we at the ‘U of Dub’ were completely out of step. The first we knew of Pop Art was when the Life Magazine hit the stands a few years previous. Minimalism was just beginning to be dabbled. We were still struggling with deKooning and discussing Arshile Gorky.
I was a TA teaching a drawing class and working nights in a machine shop, slogging away at Art, trying to get the right amount of slosh and drool distributed across 5’ canvases. Looking back I marvel at our innocence. It had not dawned on many that this so-called opportunity of a MFA as ‘certification and authentication’ that would inaugurate the select few into the inner sanctum of the Arts was more of a kindergarten of low keyed delights and approvals. We were hot shit in a cooky factory. The UW was barely a third class arts facility with a faculty of losers.
We all brought in our ‘best work in progress’ and it was a shoulder to shoulder display. We sat quietly in anticipation. The guest artist showed up half an hour late. As rumored, the international star – Frank Stella – appeared in ratty peacoat and scruffy slacks. He was not a giant, but perhaps 5’6”, assertive and a bit odd looking. He spent a few minutes walking past our works, pausing here and there, and then informed us that it was all crap, every last single bit was just pastiche of bygone and discredited stylistic flourishes. He proceeded to run us into the ground for a few minutes and then summarily disappeared with his entourage of fawning arts councilors, gallery owners, museum curators, and professors.
Aside from a few momentarily bruised egos, life and art continued as usual. There was no intellectual discussion in my presence, no meaningful dialogue with professors – after all they were all fakers and phonies, accidentally serving life sentences while preening their privilege. It was an amusing experience, but not funny. Out of it came little of value, no major insights, no business wisdom. We all proceeded to obtain a worthless degree signifying endurance in self-amusement. The only survivors that thrived were those that abandoned ship early and found a hole in more prestigious institutions.
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