featuresStudio visits
Wednesday, October 1st, 2003

Saul Ostrow

Saul Ostrow, 2003, photo by author
Saul Ostrow, 2003, photo by author

I’m Saul Ostrow’s first official guest in his new apartment, and he’s happy to be cooking for someone other than himself. Saul has just transplanted from New York to become Dean of Fine Arts and Chair of Painting for the Cleveland Institute of Arts. His wife, the painter Shirley Kaneda, helped him move in, having just started teaching herself at the Pratt Institute after moving back from L.A. The couple maintains a loft in New York, and he returns there every three weeks. As he labored over his northern Italian version of pasta rustica and bean salad, we talked about his ideas for revamping the Institute.

“I’m still trying to figure out my job. My predecessor emphasized abstract painting, but figurative styles are the stick at CIA.” Billed as America’s only five-year college of art and design, the school is known for its industrial design and medical arts programs. “Cleveland has real world programs that actually lead to gainful employment,” he says. His goal is to sustain the prestige the school has earned in that respect, but to bring it up to date by incorporating more cutting edge art theory and techniques to the studio practice. “We’re still trying to decide whether to call it visual arts or studio arts,” presumably to get away from the stuffiness of “fine arts.”

When asked why the CIA chose him, he responds quickly and confidently. “Because they know that studio art is informed by criticism and theory. That has been my focus, and they are serious about rethinking their program along those lines.” So why did he actually take the position? “I like to accrue titles. ‘Dean’ and ‘chair’ were two that I didn’t already have!”

Eventually, he says, “I want CIA students to be coveted by graduate schools. I want to turn out students who paint because they have made the decision to paint, not because they view other forms of contemporary art as inauthentic.” As chair of painting, he teaches the fifth-year painting class and an elective course that includes third- to fifth-year students. He says, rather surprised, “these are really bright kids, and they’re hungry. I’ve completely confused them though, I’ve ruined their lives because I’ve made them think.”

He knows there are differences in approach among the faculty, but his ambition is to keep that diversity. “We’ll all know who the best students are, but for different reasons.” A big challenge is introducing technology into painting, “letting the painters know that [technology] won’t replace the painter.” Sculpture will also be a big focus. “I have fifteen fifth-year painting students versus six sculpture students. I want to know why sculpture is not appealing.”

“There’s a tradition of fiefdoms,” he says. “I want them to refer to themselves as visual arts students instead of ‘painting students’ or ‘sculpture students.’ Whatever direction we feel our culture is going, that’s the reality. The lines between disciplines are blurring.”

He speaks most emphatically about revising the school’s approach to art history. “The liberal arts program at CIA is good, but it’s not geared toward the studio. The focus is more geared toward connoisseurship or genealogy, whereas I’m interested in how the studio has been conceived. It is not always pristine, the relationship of artist to studio to the world shifts. Artists don’t shroud themselves in their studio and then deliver their gifts to the world. That’s a mystique that started in the fifties that still exists, and that why changing the approach is important.”

As we carry our feast into the dining room and sit down to eat, our conversation turns to his other major projects: the book series for which he is editor, called “Critical Voices in Art, Theory and Culture” (Routledge Publishing of London) and an exhibition he is organizing for the Paine Webber Galleries in New York, scheduled to open in the fall of 2005.

For his next curatorial project, Ostrow is looking at what he describes as “those artists caught between Greenberg’s formalism and minimalism. People like Ann Truitt and Lyman Kipp, really early Olitski, Ray Parker. Artists who were working in more of a pictorial formalist style rather than color field.” He explains further that unlike their color field counterparts, these artists still held onto composition. “These artists all used a really weird palette. Most of them appear to have chosen their colors from an interior decorator’s manual. Weird beiges, muted cadmiums, avocado greens,” he says with a laugh. “These are artists who were working from about 1956-1974. I wonder what these artists look like now? These artists couldn’t create a dialogue of their own, so they fell back into what they were comfortable with.”

There’s a lesson in this for his students. “I want them to understand that the internal dialogue an artist has isn’t always linear. They have to take risks. Pollock’s drip paintings were risky, but they also weren’t the only paintings he made.” This is the other problem with teaching art history to studio students, he explains. “They can’t grasp the concept of change.”