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Many of those who visit New York’s Museum of Modern Art (Moma) don’t realise that just a few blocks away, hiding behind an ornate 19th-century façade, lies another institution that has also been hugely influential in the country’s art history – only, it’s been a lot quieter about it. Established in 1875, the Art Students League of New York is the oldest independent art school in the US. The League, as it is known, might not be a household name to those outside the art world but to those who know it, it is close to hallowed ground. Mark Rothko, Louise Bourgeois, Man Ray, Frank Stella and Alexander Calder all studied here. “We have always been here but we haven’t always tooted our own horn,” says artistic and executive director Michael Hall. “We are really focused on just doing what we do best.”

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Sharon Sprung’s painting from life class

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Student in James Little’s non-objective painting class

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Plaster studio

The League’s big, airy studio spaces aren’t just a shrine to past artistic achievements. They thrum with students whose training is close to unique in the ecosystem of art education in the US. The focus here is on artistic skill, rather than academic knowledge, which traditionally dominates in master of fine arts (mfa) programmes at prestigious art schools and universities across the country.

“The effect that the League has had on New York over the past 150 years is vast,” says Hall. With its French Renaissance flourishes, the building that still houses the school was designed by Henry Hardenbergh (who built New York’s Plaza Hotel) and was conceived as the headquarters of a new kind of artistic education in the US. The League was established as a protest against the straight-laced, curriculum-driven schools that dominated art education in New York at the time. The result was a series of courses in the “atelier” style, meaning that students were taught in the studio, often one-on-one, by a practising artist. That same system remains in place today.

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Mariana Oushiro

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Painting from life class

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Pupil in Little’s class

“Our instructors are not really bound by a set curriculum and students can choose their own artistic path,” says Hall, standing in one of the League’s studios. Stacks of wooden stools line the walls, their legs marked with a muddle of dried paint smudges – the colourful leftovers of painting classes over the years. “That’s what’s wonderful; there’s no pretence. You come in with the desire to learn, you tell us what your interests are, how you’d like to study, and we’ll find you an instructor who’s teaching in that manner.” All teachers are masters in their fields, from drawing and painting to printmaking and metal and ceramic sculpting. “They live the life that they practise in their own studios,” adds Hall. “They show you how to be an artist as a whole; that’s what’s special. It’s that knowledge of the experience of being an artist.”

This approach still feels rare in this field. “mfas offer a different trajectory,” says Hall. “You’ll make a lot of connections; you’ll discuss art theory. But we offer artistic instruction that we find people can afford; you don’t have the onus of falling into debt,” he says. While mfa tuition can cost between $20,000 (€18,000) and $50,000 (€44,000) for a year-long course, here a month-long syllabus in anything from figure drawing to expressive watercolour costs between $130 (€114) and $290 (€255), plus an annual $40 (€35) membership fee. Scholarships are also available. “And you can study here for much longer,” adds Hall. “We have people who have been here for years.” There is no fixed term for how long a student attends classes. Abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock was a student at the League intermittently for 10 years. “They use the League a bit like their own studio. And that’s not to say that they’re not accomplished; they just continue to press and grow and collaborate.”

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Metal sculpture studio

The barriers to entry are far lower here than at any other US art school, where factors other than cost can also be hurdles. The League doesn’t have an application process; the key requirement is a serious approach to devoting time, effort and energy to learning, no matter what the student’s age or level of experience. “You can be a total beginner,” says Hall. Courses are also subsidised, funded by endowments and donations from supporters. “It’s a beloved place,” says Hall, who moved to helm the League from global fair Art Basel, where he spent seven years as head of operations and logistics. “Our classes are subsidised from 50 to 60 per cent,” he adds. “It allows us to make offers to anyone.”

In one of the League’s studios, portraitist Sharon Sprung is reviewing her students’ work, a study in paint of a life model. She has been teaching here for more than 15 years. “You get a degree at a college; you get the skills at the Art Students League,” she says, a bright white streak lighting up her black bob. “Many people who go to college to learn art have very spotty skills because they’re taught by people who are teachers predominantly and not artists. What’s taught is concepts, which is great and interesting, but it means that you have a very limited education.”

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Tools for metalwork

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Detail from above

Sprung was 16 years old when she first visited the League. “Jimi Hendrix was in the lobby, picking up women,” she says. “That was my first introduction to the League – just wonderful. Although I did not go home with him, which I still regret to this day.” Sprung’s style of portraiture was regarded as unconventional when she was a student but that did not matter at the League. “When I first started, my portraits were not traditional enough. They were too modern because of the colours and because of the approach.” Challenging accepted artistic tropes filters into her teaching, she says, as does instilling art’s less tangible qualities into her students. That can feel as important as teaching core skills and techniques. “Most people really don’t have the language of seeing,” she says. “The way the light might fall on something, the colour variation, what gives something form. It’s very special for me to help them develop how to see, what to look for. That’s my goal when I teach.”

The League’s full-time students often take eight hours of classes in the studio a day and are expected to hone their skills after hours too. While pupils run the gamut of technical artistic ability, from amateurs to professionals, this isn’t the place for casual hobbyists. “Everybody that walks through my studio door knows that they better be full-on with this,” says Sprung. “This is not just a class that you take and then you go out with your friends. This is serious. I expect work to be done independently. And most people are very responsive to that, no matter their craft level.”

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In the League library

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Painting from life class

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Materials at the ready

You can pick up the effect of the League’s teaching methods in the work of one of its former students, Brazilian abstract expressionist Mariana Oushiro, who graduated last year. “I like things that I don’t understand; things that I can be fascinated by,” says Oushiro. She was inspired to enrol at the League after encountering Pollock’s work for the first time at Moma in 2014. “Later on I found out that he had studied at the League and that’s when I decided to stay.” Oushiro works on expansive, room-sized canvases. “The League is fascinating,” she says. “It was the food I needed for my thoughts. It’s a place that you can’t believe still exists. It’s classic. Maybe it’s because of the history of this place, because of all the artists that have been here before. It changed me profoundly. But the place itself has never changed, which I love.”

The League’s roll of former students and teachers reads like a chronicle of recent art history in the US and further afield: Norman Rockwell, Helen Frankenthaler, Cy Twombly, James Rosenquist and Ai Weiwei are among the notable names who have passed through these ateliers. “It really helped me to see art in a different light,” says 28-year-old painter Ezra Cohen, who studied under influential American-Colombian artist Knox Martin for 10 years. Martin, who is now 99, is renowned for his symbolic, colour-block work. His 12-storey mural “Venus”, which he painted in 1970 on the outer wall of a prison near the West Side Highway, remains a familiar landmark in Lower Manhattan. “He’s the reason I didn’t go to a conventional art college,” says Cohen from his studio in the Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood. His energetic, abstract canvases evoke the textures, the tempo and the grittier qualities of life in the city – and are clearly informed by his time with Martin. “I was lucky enough to find someone that I really clicked with,” he says. “The League is so vast; there is someone for everyone there. It gives you the freedom to come and find yourself, to be different and to make a mess.” 

The League’s influence has long been woven into the city itself. Sculptor Stirling Calder (Alexander’s father) taught at the school in the early 1900s – and made one of the George Washington statues on the Washington Square Arch in 1918. Public artwork by the League’s artists graces some of the city’s subway stations and the beloved bronze statue of Alice in Wonderland in Central Park was created in 1959 by José de Creeft, who became a teacher when he immigrated from Spain. Works by the League’s artists are fixtures of the permanent collections in New York’s major museums: Moma alone has pieces by more than 150 of them.

“We’re all outcasts of the art world. You have no professors giving you assignments – you have to do it for the love of it”

“I feel as though everybody who went to the League, we’re all outcasts of the art world,” says Devon Rodríguez, a 25-year-old painter who attended the school on a scholarship in his teens. He is best known for his hyper-realist portraits of passengers on the New York subway. “None of us did it for fame or to become a successful artist. It’s just what we love – whether it was hip or not. You have to be very self-motivated: you have to work every day. You have no professors giving you assignments; you have to do it for the love of it.” Rodriguez is among the League’s more high-profile recent graduates; he was signed to the prestigious United Talent Agency artists’ agency last year. But successful careers as professional artists aren’t a rarity. “Everyone told me for years, ‘How are you going to sell your work? Nobody in New York has space for this’,” Oushiro says of her large, expressive canvasses. “But I kept going.” She is now represented by Vito Schnabel Gallery, where her first solo show runs until the end of April.

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Portraitist and teacher Sharon Sprung

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Instructor James Little

For some of the artists who join the League with established careers, teaching here is about contributing to a storied part of the US’s artistic pedigree. “I like to say that the legacy of the Art Students League is, to me, where American art was born,” says James Little, an abstract painter and collector who was invited to teach non-objective painting here five years ago. “You can’t turn down the League – it’s that kind of place. If they ask you to teach, you go and teach,” he says between reviews of some of his students’ brightly coloured canvases, one painted in sharp tapering angles of orange and white; another in bright, multicoloured free form. “If it was good enough for Georgia O’Keeffe or Jackson Pollock or Roy Lichtenstein,” he adds, smiling, “then it’s got to be good enough for you.”

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