See Saw

Marcel Duchamp and Me
50 Years of Art History and 17 College Students

Marcel Duchamp, artist, New York, January 31, 1958

The first image I showed them was Richard Avedon’s photograph of Marcel Duchamp rubbing his eyes. Duchamp, I told the seventeen artists-in-training sitting in front of me in the low light, was the most influential visual artist of the last century. He also, stunningly, did not trust eyes. Advocating visual art as a game for the mind rather than the eye, he declared himself “anti-retinal.” Just as he rubs his eyes in Avedon’s photograph as if to get a clearer view, we would also be striving for a clearer view than the one we’d get just by looking. This class would not be based solely on looking, but equally on looking, reading, thinking and talking. Participation would be half the grade. No laptops allowed. No napping. Minds — and eyes — open.


I remember what I sounded like that day, almost exactly fifty years to the day after Avedon shot Duchamp on January 31, 1958. I sounded like a teacher. Friendly, with strict overtones. I modeled myself on my mother1, a toweringly gifted teacher (now retired) who was New York State’s Teacher of the Year in 2000. But there were clues, even as I tried my best to sound comfortable, that this was my first time in front of a class of college students, teaching a full course dedicated to the history of contemporary art.

The most obvious clue was that I wasn’t wearing shoes. I’d come into the classroom that Friday afternoon in January and felt strongly that I had to take off my shoes. I have no idea why I taught that first class in socks, because I taught the rest of the fifteen weeks in shoes, like a normal person. Maybe I thought a bunch of artists wouldn’t accept strictness unless it was backed by eccentricity? All I remember is that my narrow-toed cowboy boots2 felt wrong. Once I removed them, I started teaching.


The first question I asked my students was about their backgrounds: What are you studying? Some were art majors3, but there were also theatre and music majors taking the class to fulfill a requirement. Also: Did you take the overview course in art history that precedes this one? At Cornish College of the Arts students are required to take four classes that, strung together, sketch the history of art from antiquity to today. One class per four-month semester; three hours of class in one meeting per week.

I know: it’s a lot to learn in very little time. But these students aren’t in school to become art historians. They’re in school to become artists. There’s no art history major at Cornish. The sequence of history classes runs ancient and medieval, Renaissance to romanticism, modern, contemporary.

The class before Contemporary Art History (AR 441), which I taught this past spring, is Modern Art History. Modern roughly covers the period from post-impressionism to the end of World War II. It’s an incredibly important, rich time. Think of cubism, dada, surrealism, futurism, early abstraction: it’s all there.

About half of my students raised their hands to say they had not taken modernism. If my mind had been a horse4, it would have reared up right then, thrown off its rider and galloped away.

I’d been told that my students had this background. How would it ever be possible to teach contemporary art to students who didn’t know about modernism? About the way that collage brought the “real” world into the picture frame, changing the possibilities of representation itself? How cubism introduced the element of time to painting’s fixed space?

About the desperation, protest and self-destruction of dada? And about abstraction’s dual existence in the first half of the century as an emblem of reformed spirituality and a tool for utilitarianism?

Jackson Pollock, Sea Change, 1947, oil and pebbles on canvas, gift of Signora Peggy Guggenheim, Seattle Art Museum

As these questions5 flashed at me, they became their own answers. I couldn’t start right out with the theme I’d planned for my first lecture: 1950s abstract expressionism versus the concretism of early pop — basically, the difference between an artwork that represents or translates something else in the world (an artist’s emotions and movements, as in the case of Jackson Pollock) and an artwork that represents itself in the world (Jasper Johns’s target and flag painting-sculptures).

Jasper Johns, Thermometer, 1959, oil on canvas with thermometer, partial and promised gift of Bagley and Virginia Wright, in honor of the museum’s 50th year, Seattle Art Museum

I needed to deliver the history of abstraction first, preferably in fifteen minutes or less. My students needed the background of Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich and Tatlin. But I had no slides by these artists in my queue.

This was my first test. I turned the lights back on and started talking. The students started shooting questions at me. That’s when class really began.


Back up to August 2007, four months before I walked into the classroom. I was crouched down in the basement of my house looking for a hardback notebook6, black and slim as a slice of bread. I felt like this notebook was my talisman.

It’s the notebook for the best art history class I ever took, way back in the spring of 1995, called Philosophical Art of the Twentieth Century. It was taught at Stanford University, not by some detached academic, but by the visiting artist Yair Guttmann, who, I didn’t even know at the time, is half of the active duo of conceptual artists Clegg + Guttmann.

Clegg + Guttmann, Möbius Strip Library, 2004, wood bookcase, pedestal, text, folders with Xerox copies of original books

Over the years, every time I’ve looked at the notebook from this class, it’s made my brain move. It contains scribbles like this one: “Art must distinguish itself from the technical application of skill, therefore it creates anti-art & other forms of rebellion. Art completes its definition of itself by defining anti-art. If A, then opposite B. But how much A is in B, and how much B in A? Which comes from which and why?”

I realize this sounds like a mind maze7 that is at best irrelevant and at worst self-parodying. But substitute the word “life” for “anti-art” and you begin to see why these are compelling and enduring questions about the nature of art’s place in the human condition.

What can art really do in the world? What is it for? This was the subject of modernism and of early postmodernism, too.

I needed my notebook now.

Here’s something important to know: There is no textbook for contemporary art. Academicians don’t even agree on how far back “contemporary” goes. So, basically, when I was assigned this class called Contemporary Art History I was left alone to sculpt a history out of a whole lot of rough material.

Which artists should I include and which should I leave out? How could I structure a broad but rigorous class — and make it enjoyable? I don’t remember learning anything from professors who bored or alienated me.

My teaching this class had happened accidentally. One spring day I was visiting Cornish casually. I was interested in writing about the way students there critiqued each other, how they talked about their work, whether they had the power to help each other improve.

Asked to talk to an upper-level digital media class about a story I’d just written, I fell into a debate with the students about how art should be taught. The conversation was so good that I don’t think any of us noticed the class period slipping away. The interim chair8 of the art department was in the room and after the class he mentioned an open position to me. I jumped at it.

I am the sort of person who regularly signs up for things I don’t have time9 for and don’t know how to do yet. You could even say I’ve built a career on this habit.

At my first job, when I was twenty-one, I covered the arts for a daily newspaper in a small Texas town. But I wanted to learn how to cover crime, so I pulled a once-a-week shift on that beat. The regular crime reporter liked the relief but didn’t like me: she was a big-haired woman who carried a gun in her purse and called me a “commie red” at a women’s book club. I cried.

At my next job, writing about art in Tacoma, I volunteered to be embedded with the U.S. Army for two weeks in Kandahar, Afghanistan. I’m not sure what could have prepared me for interviewing angry widows and freshly limbless civilians or for a dinner party of kebabs and Coke at the local warlord’s, but I did those things, too.

So while I was daunted by the prospect of teaching, I was also thrilled and excited to have an excuse to learn.


But panic set in when November rolled around and all I had to show for myself was a dining room overrun with books full of essays that might or might not make it onto my syllabus. I dragged the books, my black notebook and a bottle of wine10 over to an artist friend’s house and told her: What I need is a structure, a scaffolding from which to build something that my students can stand inside and wander around in.

I told her about Philosophical Art of the Twentieth Century. Guttmann had taken Duchamp’s revolutionary ideas and looked at them in the context of each twentieth-century movement, from “antique” realms like cubism and dada up through the still highly influential pop, minimalism, feminism, performance art and land art. Every class meeting connected new artists to older ones, as if the avant-garde were less a march forward than a good long back-and-forth debate about art with no real end or beginning.

What I admired about twentieth-century art, I told my friend, was that it was about ethics — not just about what art should look like, but how it should behave in the world. She encouraged me, so I kept blabbering.

Art in the twentieth century was about arguing. The best possible way to revisit it in the classroom would be to have one artist show up and challenge another in person.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could just get Jeff Koons, the master of the art market (in several senses), to face off with establishment-mocking provocateur Andrea Fraser? The next best thing, I supposed, would be to argue on behalf of the artists, as if we were their lawyers or something. To choose sides and run the debates ourselves.

Jeff Koons, Puppy, 1992, stainless steel, soil, geotextile fabric, internal irrigation system and live flowering plants, © Jeff Koons

That’s how the “smackdown” course was born. I titled the class How to Win at Art: Competing Models Since 1950, and from that point on, the syllabus wrote itself.

The story of art history has its own narrative tension, and all I had to do was bring it out. For every lecture, I’d choose two artists who have been cast as antagonists. On their bones11, I’d hang a certain way of thinking about art. Supporting characters would flesh out a context for the slide lecture. With Warhol, for instance, comes Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist and others.

Then, when the lights came on, each student would pick a side, even moving their chairs so the room reflected the division. At the end of every class there would be a debate. The purpose was not to declare a winner but to help the students learn the nuances of various positions by defending and questioning them as if they were their own, not mine or some dead or distant artist’s.

I had only one niggling concern: I’m a critic, someone who relies on firsthand experience, which is often more complicated than written history. The central problem of teaching art history is that there are no real art objects in the room. I worried that my class would be too theoretical, separate from real looking12.

I wanted to teach art history, but I also wanted to complicate art history. I went to other art historians and asked their advice on this, among other things. I asked them to look at my syllabus, to look at my ideas, to criticize me. They all said the same thing: make sure you get out to galleries and museums. I added three field trips to my plans — to Seattle Art Museum, to Olympic Sculpture Park and to the nonprofit space Western Bridge, which would be showing a survey of video art from the last ten years.

This was the plan.


Did it work? you ask.

We met for three hours every Friday through the beginning of May. I conducted the usual tests of student success: listening to them in class and assigning midterm papers, observing their presentations at a museum and giving a final exam with slides to be identified, terms to be defined and essay questions to be answered. From a grades perspective, they represented your typical curve, with nothing that went too low. It’s fair to say that they learned what I taught them.

But is what I taught them the right thing? Will it make them better artists? Better thinkers13? Because that’s what I really wanted. There was a teacher evaluation at the end of the semester, but the results haven’t been handed out and I’m too sheepish14 to ask.

I can only take my cues from my memories of what happened. I remember great debates. I remember moments when students became suddenly aware of their own convictions. I remember one session that seemed to blow all of our minds.

It was the only session that deviated from the “smackdown” format, and it came last. Everybody had something to say and something to ask. We covered a history of major ideas in twentieth-century sculpture. Our back-and-forth conversation-lecture (that’s how we usually ran it, very informally) went over the three-hour time limit, with no break. Students brought up examples from our past classes, from the ready-made bottle rack (Duchamp) to the minimalist box (Donald Judd) to holes cut out of the desert (Michael Heizer) and fake scientific laboratories installed as sculptures (Mark Dion).

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1967, painted steel boxes with brass tube, Gift of Anne Gerber, Seattle Art Museum

Mark Dion, Neukom Vivarium, 2004 – 2006, mixed media installation, gift of the Neukom Family, the Olympic Sculpture Park Art Acquisition Fund, American Express, Seattle Garden Club and Committee of 33 in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the museum, ©Mark Dion, Seattle Art Museum

On that afternoon, the quietest student in the class asked the best question. I was stumped. I wish you were less smart, I told her. We all laughed and I thought how I would miss this oddball group, from the guy who argued with almost every work of art I showed to the girl who, on a field trip to the Seattle Art Museum, was so observant that she solved the mystery of why (finally — I’d never been able to put my finger on it) Dan Flavin’s fluorescent tubes have never looked good there. It’s because there’s space between the wall of the gallery and the floor, which breaks up the silence of corners that all of Flavin’s work depends on.

This summer, the quiet student sent me an e-mail to say that she’s changing direction because of my course. I’m now applying to graduate schools that focus on art theory and criticism instead of design, she wrote. I cried when I read that. I am a commie red; I am a sentimental softie.

I can’t compare my students with others, but to me they were close to perfect. They got involved. They were funny. They didn’t complain when I woke them up by name if they happened to drop off. And once, they were so absorbed in what we were talking about that they forgot to ask for a break.

What happens in a classroom of people who spend three hours together every week is surprisingly intimate. If all of us came back together, maybe we could reconstruct certain moments and habits. For instance, the room we met in had impossible light switches. They were across the room from each other and each one had multiple options that never failed to confuse me. Only these students know how I like the lighting when I teach. Every week somebody would help me.

Next spring, with a new set of students, it will be trial and error again for me. Anyone know what I do with these lights?


The visual footnotes originally published in this story have not been added to the archives. Just in case you were wondering why those strange numbers keep interrupting the text. We’ll get around to adding that feature, eventually.