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Under the Influence

Nathan Oliveira, “Standing Man with Hands on Belt”, 1960

Now if anyone happened to dial up the title of this post hoping to see me (or anyone, for that matter) reach down deep and start talking about making art and/or teaching after a few martinis, well, I apologize in advance. I’ve had some experience on the art making side and it doesn’t work very well even though we’re all geniuses for the few moments it is happening. As for teaching in that state… um… no. That’s insane.

What I wanted to talk about this week is actually quite simple and I’m sure many of you can relate.

Since 2002, on a spontaneous visit to the Neuberger Museum, I’ve been regularly returning to the work of Nathan Oliveira, particularly his “Standing Man with Hands on Belt” pictured above. I have been blissfully influenced by this surprise steamrolling of a retrospective almost a decade ago that quietly left a thumbprint on my approach to painting and making art. It also left an impression about the value in surprising myself as a teacher and taking the time (aka planning) to see new art in person. Today more than ever, with the immediacy of image searches and online overload, it’s crucial to make real time for seeing art and engaging with it.

Visiting the Neuberger galleries during the Oliveira show, I decided on my 2nd walkthrough that I had to purchase Peter Selz’ sensational catalogue, if only to be able to return to these figures and continue some of the conversations I started. And just as predicted, I’ve been returning to it ever since. That catalogue has made its way from my home to the studio to school many times and has even been on a few vacations. During that time I learned that Oliveira had a brilliant career teaching at Stanford for over 30 years. I continue to find it easy to open the pages and begin sharing how Oliveira’s figures, in some ways, made me see myself differently at a tipping point in my personal and professional career. More than once I have shared Oliveira’s work only to watch a student look into the painting instead of at it. There’s just something about his work, particularly his figurative painting and monotypes about conflict, that makes me look again. And I try to inspire this in my own students: Make work that makes people look again, look closer, and ask questions.

Many of us have been lucky enough to see some great exhibits over the years, whether or not they made their way into our classrooms or studios. I think about shows such as Marlene Dumas at MoCA; Kiki Smith at the Whitney Museum; Mark Bradford at ICA Boston; Yinka Shonibare MBE at Mass MoCA; Spencer Finch at Mass MoCA; and even Francis Bacon at the Met in 2009. But sometimes a spontaneous visit to an exhibit or checking out an artist you’re unfamiliar with can provide a different inspiration. I often think about how close I was to missing the Oliveira show and how easy it would have been to say, “I’ll look him up,” vs. getting off my ass and driving into the splendor of SUNY Purchase.

This spring and summer create some openings. Allow yourself to be surprised. While Nathan Oliveira may have passed away back in November, his work continues to inspire me. His influence is something I continue to cherish.

I think many of you can indeed relate. Feel free to share some of your own surprises that consequently put you under the influence.

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