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The New Old Masters

from the magazine

The New Old Masters

New Yorker Jacob Collins and his devoted students seek a radical reclamation of artistic tradition. Winter 2016
Arts and Culture
New York

The Lake Shore Limited comes up fast in Freedom Tunnel, racing up Manhattan from Pennsylvania Station along the old trackways of the Hudson River Railroad toward the Empire Connection, then on to Spuyten Duyvil and points north and west—Albany and Chicago. At 72nd Street, the passenger train appears momentarily through a chain-link fence, under the ruins of the elevated West Side Highway, before returning underground, entering a tunnel that runs more than two miles beneath Riverside Park to 123rd Street. Robert Moses covered over the Hudson River tracks in the 1930s with a public works project twice as expensive as the Hoover Dam, but he never imagined the massive graffiti gallery that would go up inside it, an epic blight to those who glimpse it through train windows. Two decades ago, whenever he felt like escaping class work at Tisch, Ted Minoff tossed his spray cans into a backpack and made for the tunnel by jumping the ballfield fence on 72nd Street. Minoff, like others, called the tunnel after one of its graffitists, Chris Pape, who was known as “Freedom,” but also for the freedom that came with its obscurity.

On a cold day in Freedom Tunnel, Minoff met Tony Curanaj, another graffiti tagger, known as Sub. Their conversation drifted to a backpacking trip through Europe. “I was like, ‘I love Michelangelo,’ ” Minoff remembers saying. To his surprise, Curanaj said that he loved Michelangelo, too. “It came out that we were both copying Michelangelo drawings when we were 11,” says Minoff. They rattled through the classical pantheon: “Van Dyke, Rubens, Leonardo, Rembrandt, Titian,” recalls Minoff. “We were both really interested in Prud’hon.” Over the next few years, Minoff and Curanaj cemented their street reputations as members of a graffiti gang called the DF Crew, while both took day jobs illustrating at MTV.

Then, in the mid-1990s, Curanaj heard about a night class at the National Academy of Art on the Upper East Side. Word spread that a young teacher named Jacob Collins was reclaiming the lost secrets of paint on canvas and taking in the most promising students for private study. Curanaj and Minoff enrolled, and within a year, they had started frequenting Collins’s home in Brooklyn. They soon quit their commercial jobs and left graffiti behind to paint with Collins full-time. Today, Curanaj and Minoff dedicate their lives to teaching and exhibiting alongside Collins as classical painters. Minoff specializes in seascapes; Curanaj incorporates his old spray-paint mask into meticulous trompe l’oeil on board. Few know about their Freedom Tunnel past.

The stories surrounding Jacob Collins all tend to go like this: a young artist, lonesome in a love for pre-modernist painting, stumbles upon Collins, who has built a life out of the premise that the twentieth century nearly ruined art. Collins opens his doors to those who feel the same.

A self-portrait of the artist (JACOB COLLINS, COURTESY OF THE ARTIST)

A year and a half ago, Collins opened his biggest campus in a converted warehouse on 11th Street and 46th Avenue in Long Island City—just a block from the Museum of Modern Art satellite PS1, he enjoys pointing out. At 12,500 square feet, the Grand Central Atelier is an art school, an art incubator, and an artist clubhouse for at least 50 painters who have come out of Collins’s intense multiyear program over the past two decades, along with hundreds of students who now flock to his classes and workshops.

The Long Island City headquarters is an outgrowth of the master-apprentice tutoring that Collins has been leading in increasingly large settings for years, expanding as his students graduate to become teachers in the programs themselves. Nearly a decade ago, when I started dropping by, the school was smaller, located on the ground floor of Collins’s Upper East Side carriage house (itself once the headquarters of a then-traditional school called the Sculpture Center). The visitor stepped off the Manhattan streets into a darkened, otherworldly space. Mixed in with the family minivan, a small library, and a student lounge with ratty couches were two painting studios—one for Collins and one for his students. Back then, Collins called his school the Water Street Atelier, after its even earlier incarnation in waterfront Brooklyn, where Minoff and Curanaj first joined him. Today, even as students have moved on to the larger space in Long Island City, the townhouse remains unchanged as Collins’s home studio. Cardboard and gaffer’s tape focus the spotlights. Rembrandt-esque portraits surround the visitor, floor to ceiling. Add to this fluttering tapestries, plaster busts of Franklin, Jefferson, and Homer, fragments of the David, sculptures of a horse’s head and a flayed man, and monographs devoted to nineteenth-century painters like Charles Bargue. Collins doesn’t just want to revive premodern painting; he wants to live like a classical painter.

At his decidedly unaccredited school in Long Island City, a year of Collins’s four-year “core” instruction costs $10,500, with merit-based scholarships available to the most promising students. Collins’s own rigorous studies—starting with classical fundamentals and working up to the live figure—form the basis of the pedagogy. In the first year, students dedicate mornings to cast drawing and cast sculpture, and afternoons go to master copies, block-ins, figure drawings, and perspective. The next year, students spend mornings on cast paintings and afternoons learning figure grisaille and anatomy. Year three involves figure painting in color and color theory, and year four focuses on figure painting in color, figure sculpture, and still life.

The students file in at 8:30 each morning and make their way through a forest of easels. Advanced students make ébauches, grisailles, and other studies for painting the nude, which is, in Collins’s mind, their highest calling. “You have to break yourself,” he says of his process. Students are expected to work on a single drawing “four hours a day for six weeks, two or three months. Sometimes people have trouble concentrating. They are leaping about. It’s about keeping an intense focus.” On one of my early visits with Collins some years ago, Jason Boudreau, wearing a newsboy cap, blocked in a drawing of Donatello’s bust of Nicolò da Uzzano. Colleen Barry touched up a cast drawing of Hercules’ foot. In a corner, a pierced girl named Twyla stared at a fragment of a statue of Hermes. Guns N’ Roses competed with Bach for stereo time. Finney, Collins’s black Labrador retriever, knocked Stephen Bann’s thick book of Paul Delaroche’s paintings on the floor.

For the live sessions, a model drops a robe and steps up onto a small stage. Collins or another teacher critiques advanced students one by one, encouraging them to see the musculature beneath their painted studies. “That’s the trapezius curving behind the head of the humerus,” he explains to one student. “That’s the muscle over the latissimus defining the rib cage. I think that’s the erector spinae.” He steps over to the model. “If I plumb the pectoral, the sternal angle goes past it. Do you see the deltoid?”

In another space sit the freshmen, focusing on cast drawing—a grueling, boot-camp introduction to draftsmanship in which they depict plaster sculptures in charcoal drawings. Collins might add some marks to the curls of Homer’s beard in one drawing. “Accelerate into the foreshortened part of the turn,” he would say. “That’s what foreshortening is—always accelerate.” He claps his hands together at the revelation. “The illusion drifts away from your consciousness, and you believe you are carving. Your pencil reaches through the paper and reaches in space as a carving tool. It’s like a trance. A form dream.”

Collins explains: “My general feeling in terms of art making is the train got off the rails in the 1860s and 1870s, and my practical instinct is to go back to where it was, try to put it back, fix it up, and start going again.”

“Our culture,” he continued, “has inherited the idea that if artists are not avant-garde they cannot have a significant role. That’s a fallacy we’ve inherited from some Parisian nut-job radicals. The rejection of beauty is so accepted. It’s high time that we as a culture attend to our beauty position.” To much of the New York art world, Collins’s “beauty position,” which he applies to his own paintings of nudes, still lifes, and landscapes, might look embarrassingly retrograde. He enjoys the support of a small minority of critics and writers—most of whom, like him, regard modern art with skepticism. Novelist Tom Wolfe has called Collins “certainly in terms of skill, one of the most brilliant artists in the entire country.” But you would never find the Collins style in a commercial gallery in Chelsea, say, or in a museum survey of contemporary painting. Morley Safer of 60 Minutes, another Collins admirer, told me that he believed that the “current art establishment, the so-called gatekeepers, hate the kind of skill and craft and vision that an artist like Collins has.” Even among representational painters, Collins is a world away from fashionable realists like John Currin or Elizabeth Peyton, portraitists whom he sees as steeped in the ideology of detachment. Yet to a growing number of young students, Collins clearly satisfies a deep urge to reconnect with tradition. To them, he’s a radical artist in the true meaning of the word—“going to the origins.”

On one of my earliest visits, I ran into clean-cut, twentysomething Josh LaRock, then one of Collins’s star students and now a teacher in the atelier. LaRock told me that he had been working for the manager of the Dave Matthews Band and ran across the term “atelier” when reading about John Singer Sargent; a Google search brought him to Collins. I heard a similar story from Boudreau, who went to purchase a book about the outré nineteenth-century painter William Bouguereau at the Met; the clerk there slipped him Collins’s information.

“This is not our parents’ art,” explains Will St. John, then one of Collins’s most outspoken students. “Their generation is not able to teach me to do what I want to do. You get some hippie teaching the class and she’s stressing that you need to loosen up, be free, express yourself, like therapy,” St. John says dismissively. “I was inspired by Michelangelo and Da Vinci, and my parents’ generation can’t teach proportion and accuracy. The moderns had their say. Now it’s our turn.”

“No one teaches like Collins,” agrees Barry. “Collins is like a lion—fierce, charged, ready.” St. John and Barry met several years ago in another of Collins’s schools, the Hudson River School for Landscape, a summer residency program in the Catskill Mountains, where the students paint up Kaaterskill Falls, in the footsteps of the nineteenth-century artist Thomas Cole. “It’s really this guerilla operation,” St. John says of the summer retreat, a cross between a commune and a canoe club. “All these crazy painters in these houses in the woods drinking beer and painting all day and partying hard and working hard.” St. John and Barry have studied full-time with Collins. He grew up in Virginia and attended the New School; she graduated from Dwight School in Manhattan and opted out of college to paint beside Collins. “Eventually, my dad trusted I knew what I was doing,” Barry says. “This isn’t anything like a bunch of guys with sticks up their asses,” observes St. John.

Indeed, if anything, Collins’s atelier can resemble a youth club, with group instructions tacked to the wall: “Grease trap cleaning; Music library maintenance—make sure classical music is playing 2/3 of the day.” His students often live hand to mouth, waiting tables, selling a painting or two when they can. They have little connection with students in mainstream university art programs such as Yale and the Art Institute of Chicago, where, they say, an MFA is the new MBA. Some come to Collins merely to learn lost technique, but most take on the movement’s paradoxical self-segregation. They become radicals by despising the avant-garde. They forgo the lingua franca of photography and of video, conceptual, and installation art while dismissing the celebrity of young art stars like the late Dash Snow. (“A complete charlatan,” St. John says, “like a magician who doesn’t do any tricks.”) Instead, they try to paint like the nineteenth-century landscape painter Frederic Church, or like Bouguereau, the French technician who depicted gamins and angels and became the bugaboo of the Impressionists. But, like Collins, they don’t just want to paint like the pre-modernists; they also want to live like them.

“Susan’s Back,” 2006 (JACOB COLLINS, COURTESY OF THE ARTIST)

Collins is not entirely alone in embracing this older approach to art. Today, you can find traditionalist schools in Florence and dozens scattered across the United States—such as the late Nelson Shanks’s Studio Incamminati in Philadelphia—with the largest clustering in the New York region, practicing what is commonly known as “classical realism,” a term for which few artists in the movement seem to care. In New York City, the Art Students League, the National Academy of Design, and the New York Academy of Art all offer master classes—though Collins purists would argue that these larger schools merely teach traditional technique for postmodern ends. Classical academies and ateliers connect with one another through magazines like Fine Arts Connoisseur and Modern Arts Quarterly, museums such as the Dahesh, and websites like artrenewalcenter.org.

Still, it’s a small world, and Collins casts a singular spell within it. No one else approaches classical teaching with such dynamism. Plus, Collins provides social space. “I want my world to be fun,” he says of the parties he throws at his home, “a Dionysian revelry built around really beautiful art.” Collins also helps students find representation at the few galleries in the country responsive to his classical mode—John Pence in San Francisco, Laura Grenning in Sag Harbor, Frost & Reed in London, Meredith Long in Houston, and Adelson, Arcadia, Forum, and Hirschl & Adler in New York.

But Collins is not about to become another bohemian artist. His largest paintings, of fleshy nudes and old-fashioned landscapes, lead the market among his peers and can command up to six figures. “I don’t think his style needs to emerge,” notes Warren Adelson of Adelson Galleries, Collins’s blue-chip gallery, now housed in the Crown Building, which also exhibits John Singer Sargent and Andrew and Jamie Wyeth. The latest exhibition of Collins’s work went on view there last spring. “It may not be a sensation of Sotheby’s, but there is a great propensity for people—a strong, silent majority—to like art that they can identify with.” What about the art establishment? “It’s almost easier to sell paintings by Collins to old master dealers and collectors and people trained in traditional painting than a curator of a modern museum,” says Greg Hedberg, a gallery director at Hirschl & Adler. Collins foresees creating a parallel world of museums, galleries, collectors, and schools to embrace his artistic vision.

A champion wrestler at the Dalton School who has retained a wiry, bundled intensity, Collins comes from a distinguished New York family, and one gets the sense that his revolution, should it ever come to pass, would be a distinctly familial drama. His forebears embraced the modernism of their times. His great-uncle Meyer Schapiro, the Columbia University medievalist and Marxist intellectual, championed modern art. Collins’s maternal grandmother, Alma Schapiro, was a painter who once studied in Paris with Fernand Léger. Aesthetically, at least, Collins rejects them. “He repudiates me and my husband and everyone in our generation for our enthusiasm for the painters we thought were exciting—de Kooning and the rest,” Collins’s late mother, Linda, once told me. Today, Collins’s schools are partly funded through a family foundation named for Alma and Morris Schapiro, Collins’s grandfather, a highly successful Wall Street financier. (Collins has tacked a picture of Morris as a boy in knee pants, recently arrived from Lithuania, to his studio wall.)

Collins’s artistic drive seems all-consuming but not in the typical sense: his goal is not to compete with today’s artists but with those of a distant past. He aspires to be a “new” old master, and he has constructed his life—the studios, the apprentices, the dogged study, the old-fashioned style and subject matter—to approximate the conditions that allowed the old masters to create. In his quest for greatness, at least, he resembles his aspirational Schapiro forefathers, Morris and Meyer.

As a child, Collins developed a reputation for intense concentration, making meticulous copies of his bus passes and reproductions of his violin. “Collins was almost a prodigy,” Aaron Kurzen, his high school art teacher at Dalton, told me. He remembers entering the boy in an interschool art competition, though Collins didn’t win. “I suddenly realized that judges didn’t think a high school kid had done these things. They were not open to his style.”

When Collins enrolled in Columbia, he found himself bored by class work. “I went out dancing every night for two years,” he says. “I wasn’t a very serious student. I read. I knew what I was going to do since the age of 14.” One afternoon during exam period, he sat across from a student studying philosophy in Butler Library. He drew her portrait in his notebook and soon after invited her for a date at the Hungarian pastry shop. “At the end of the night he hugged me and said, ‘I love you,’ ” remembers Ann Brashares. “I said, ‘No you don’t.’ But 20 years later, I believe he meant it.” The couple dated for seven years and married in 1993; they now have four children. (Brashares, writing from the top floor of their carriage house, has authored a succession of bestsellers, including The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.)

After graduating from college in 1986, Collins set out to become his own painting teacher. “I was convinced there wasn’t anyone alive who could teach me anything I wanted to know,” he says. He began gaining recognition in the early 1990s, with an exhibition at Salander-O’Reilly Galleries and a teaching position at the National Academy of Art. That’s when the students arrived. “I remember going to the director of the National Academy and proposing they put me in charge of the place,” says Collins. They declined, so he has been taking in his own students ever since, teaching and painting to exhaustion. “I saw how he beats himself,” remembers Sabin Howard, Collins’s onetime wrestling teammate at Dalton, who also became a classical sculptor. “If he would mess up a painting he’d go into a rage and throw his paintbrush and paint across the room. There’s this self-flagellation.”

Good technique and great art are separate things, of course, and Collins has been criticized for willing his way to artistic enlightenment through an obsession with detail. “I could learn how to do it,” said the writer John T. Spike, describing what he sees as the classical movement’s flaw. “It’s like Berlitz.” One of Collins’s harshest critics is the dealer who put on his first exhibition in the 1980s. “After the show, I knew there was no chance we could work together,” Larry Salander told me, before his gallery went under in what proved to be a $100 million swindle of his artists (he is currently serving out a jail term). “This kid should go off all by himself where he has no acolytes and paint 20 paintings a day for two years, grow a beard, and never brush his teeth. His own fans are hurting him. He’s an important person in his own world. But he’s too good a painter for that.” Will St. John sees it very differently. “As it stands now, this is one of the most humble movements there ever was. Our generation still has a chance to do something. A youth movement doesn’t have an investment in anything but its teacher.”

One summer, I went to visit Collins in the Catskills, where he was running one of his retreats at the Hudson River School for Landscape. The weight of work and ambition showed in his exhausted face. “You push yourself so hard,” he said. “You get wrapped up in every detail. You go into some deep debt of confidence.” In a lawn chair beside Main Street in Hunter, New York, unshaved, letting his hair grow, he sat from sunup to sundown, painting sky studies. “Those people who never lose sight of beauty and power are attractive,” he said. “I’m trying to make things beautiful in a deep way. Poetic. Transformative. Mysterious.” He looked up to the mountains that inspired the Hudson River School painters a century and a half ago. “This is where it all began.”

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