Mark Twain famously observed –
That getting old is a matter of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.
Though I realize, that I now appear ancient, I have only had the privilege of serving for half of Art Center’s 82-year history. As you know the original vision for Art Center was dedicated to training applied-artists and designers, who would primarily work in the publishing, entertainment, product and transportation industries. For the first half its history, there was little enthusiasm for contemporary art; and the few art classes that existed were there to teach visual foundation skills. What was shared was a willingness to work hard, a commitment to excellence and the satisfaction in doing things well. The curriculum was nothing if not pragmatic.
Those of you who only know Art Center in Pasadena, with this remarkable landmark modern building might finding it amusing to imagine the school that I first encountered as a young 19-year old, back in the Ice Age, 1964 to be exact. At that time, like many young college students, I was predictably clueless and uncertain about what to do with my life. At that time I was considering becoming either an architect, or a medical illustrator, or a cowboy - and I was advised that whichever I pursued, I would benefit from learning how to draw better, so I came to Art Center.
I can still clearly remember my first impressions of the Art Center School, as it was then called, and it certainly didn’t look like an art school to me. As originally conceived by advertising men, Art Center was intentionally quite different from a more typical bohemian art school environment of creative anarchy. By my student days, it was situated on Third Street, in a ritzy residential neighborhood called Hancock Park, and directly next door to the posh Marlboro School For Girls. Outside, the façade resembled a grand English Tudor manor, only with a vivid orange entry door, set back behind a large manicured green lawn and a circular driveway, where there were conspicuously parked stylish automobiles.
Inside, there were examples of the student work, though no actual art gallery, rather a hallway lined with cork walls, where one encountered push-pinned examples of impressive, remarkably well executed assignments – colorful graphic design, exquisite hand lettering and corporate logos, classical figure drawings and head painting, gouache illustrations and fashion sketches, amazing perspective drawings, advertising layouts, technically accomplished 8 X 10 photographs - mostly portraits and product still life’s, and of course remarkable automotive renderings. To me, the display emphasized exceptional ability, visual craft and good taste.
In keeping with this industry friendly anti-art school look, male teachers wore business suits, even life drawing instructors dressed formally with white dress shirts and neckties. Art Center also enforced strict dress codes and grooming guidelines for students: no slacks, jeans, shorts or mini skirts for the few girls, and no beards, side burns or long hair for boys. After a few terms, as my skills improved, I eventually came to realize what was missing in my education at Art Center was participation in the life and art of one’s time.
My student years took place in the sixties - a time of radical social change, particularly for young people - the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, a new sexual openness, growing opposition to the Vietnam War, race riots in cities, and student protests in schools, the tragedy of Kent State, political marches, and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther king and Bobby Kennedy. And the art world at that time was also changing radically – Andy Warhol and Frank Stella, Pop Art and Minimalism, Conceptual and performance Art were questioning received art values and rethinking art practice. Yet Art Center at that time seemed comfortably removed from all this, and fostered essentially established values and technical mastery. It began to seem to me like an isolated bubble of disciplined creativity and “good taste.” So when I reflect on what contribution, if any, I might have made in my 42 years of service to Art Center, I suppose one could say I encouraged the value of “bad Taste,” irreverence and perhaps an openness to the unfamiliar.
Marshall McLuhan once observed that:
“Good taste is the last refuge of the uncreative, it is the last ditch stand of the artist.”
The world has changed dramatically since those simpler times on Third Street. It is a commonplace awareness that in the 21st Century we are living in a world of accelerated change, unprecedented technological advance, instantaneous global communication, collisions of multiple cultures, political and social upheavals, and economic uncertainty. The old distinctions between idealism and pragmatism, art and design, making stuff and making meaning are changing. I’m genuinely proud that many of Art Center’s most successful fine art alumni – like Hiroshi Sugimoto, Mark Tansey, Jorge Pardo, Pae White and Doug Aitkin have been instrumental in blurring these boundaries. In my time at Art Center, I’ve tried to introduce a more open and complex idea of the role of art at Art Center, and what it can mean in our everyday lives - how it can contribute something vital to Art Center’s culture of professionalism, beautiful design, engaging entertainments and practical problem solving.
Art can speak to parts of our consciousness that may be somewhat neglected – our openness to things that at first appear strange, bizarre and difficult. In a world of conflicting tastes and values, this is increasingly important. It promotes tolerance for the unfamiliar. Art can connect us to other minds and other places, and allow us to feel less alone and isolated. Indeed, art may be most valuable when it stimulates confusion and fails to confirm what we already understand, when it sends us away, momentarily bewildered and exposed to ideas and emotions we don’t immediately comprehend. The history of modern art can be seen as a series of irreverent individual acts of imagination, initiated with no general consensus, sometimes offering us new languages of expression that can eventually alter our way of looking at and thinking about the world we inhabit, and the way we represent it to ourselves.
New art requires people to make value judgments without the comfort of rules and familiar systems, to embrace uncertainty, and contemplate seemingly absurd expressive gestures. It asks us to abandon the security of tradition and established skills, and to stop looking only for utility of purpose. Indeed one of art’s purposes is to offer new worlds and new ideas, different from what we already know, and this can sometimes be unsettling. But if one is open to the unfamiliar, one may discover things one never imagined, things that may one day become surprisingly satisfying and provide meaningful variety, richness and depth in one’s life.
In this year’s (2012) political campaign we’ve heard calls to strengthen our educational system and the necessity of promoting more math and science curriculums, and education that leads to employment. These are unarguable goals, but the arts – visual, literary and performing arts – I would argue are vital too. One can have a perfectly happy life never having a read a Philip Roth novel or an Alice Munro story; attended a Bob Dylan or Philip Glass concert; seen a Stanley Kubrick or Michael Haneke film, or experienced a Tadao Ando building, or a Richard Serra sculpture – I know I’m dating myself by these examples, but without knowing about the art of one’s time, life is in some ways a little diminished, because there’s such meaning, feeling and beauty there. The arts have the capacity to make your heart race and give you a deeper sense of being alive, as well as an understanding about what is distinctive in one’s own moment in time.
John Gregory Dunne has written about “the remarkable journey from steerage to suburbia in three generations.” So my family’s personal history in America is not unusual. My grandparents were poor Russian and Austrian Jews who immigrated to America early in the 20th century. My grandfathers were both skilled craftsmen and worked with their hands - David Dreiband was a meticulous tailor, and Hyman Tall did fine upholstering. My grandmother Rose came to Ellis Island from Vitibsk, and traveled alone across Europe and the Atlantic as a young teenage girl. She worked at a sewing machine her whole life, and never learned to read or write. My parents, Sylvia and Manny, born in New Jersey and New York respectively, were also ambitious and hardworking. And I was born in Manhattan and grew up mostly in Los Angeles. There were few books in our house, there wasn’t much time to read, and I was the first in our family to go to college. I was basically a shy kid who when not working, liked to draw and read, so coming to Art Center was close to heaven for me.
As a department chair I’ve had the honor of meeting and learning from extraordinary individuals. For example: I remember Buckminster Fuller, who was on campus creating a geodesic dome with students, and who explained to me a water saving device he created for China that allowed people to shower with just one gallon of water; and I remember one night arguing with film critic Pauline Kael about the merits of Ingmar Bergman’s film Persona, I liked it, she didn’t; and I remember the day I took Margaret Mead on a tour of the college, the cultural anthropologist was at Art Center for a lecture, at that time she was in her 70s and carried a formidable walking staff, and her only requirement was a full 8 oz. glass of single malt scotch whisky; and on another day listening to Frank Gehry and his acoustic designer Yasuhisa Toyota over lunch, explaining the relative sound characteristics of various concert halls around the world, as they were completing the Disney Concert Hall, and on another afternoon discussing the writings of Primo Levi with Richard Serra when he was on campus to install his steel slab artwork in the Sculpture Garden. So you can see why I say – “I truly feel that I’ve not given my life to Art Center, Art Center has given me my life.”
These days I’m feeling so fortunate. I have an adorable and supportive new French wife - the beautiful Claudine, a psychotherapist who left her life in Paris to be with me. She is a masterful chef who lovingly prepares healthy organic cuisine and helps me keep trim and fit, and this year she has begun learning how to play the cello. We share many of the same enthusiasms - art and music, hiking and gardening, reading and movies, and we get to live in a modern minimalist home of my design with spectacular views, high in the hills near Mulholland Drive – with plenty of light and space, old growth cedar and pine trees, the sound of running water, surrounded by beautiful gardens, visited by an amazing variety of birds. I’m so lucky - where I live feels like being in the country, only with all the cultural satisfactions of life in the city. I’m also the proud father of Eliot Rose Dreiband, a gifted 22 year old, who recently graduated from UCSD, and plans to help children in need. For the past five years Eliot has been volunteering for The Painted Turtle - A Serious Fun Organization for Children with life-threatening/debilitating illnesses. I also have good friends to thank for my happiness – dear Paula Goodman who introduced me to her French friend - the lovely Claudine; and Whitney Sander for helping me to realize my dream house. I would like to thank my dear friend Thessy Mehrain, an Art Center graduate who flew in from New York to share this milestone with me, and I’d like to acknowledge another Art Center alum, my good hiking buddy Dennis Carmichael, I taught him art and he taught me how to play, racquet ball.
I have come to know and admire so many gifted students and alumni, and had the undeniable pleasure of working with great faculty and dedicated colleagues who’ve taught me so much. Since I first began teaching at Art Center, I’ve been absorbed with how gifted students with imagination, become artists of originality and accomplishment. I believe that a great school, like Art Center, helps students enormously with their individual journeys of self-discovery. It requires a respect for diversity and a free flowing dialogue with dedicated teachers, aided by infusions of thought provoking visiting artists and scholars. It also helps to be learning amongst similarly serious and ambitious students. In my time at Art Center, I’ve strived to provide this kind of stimulating environment. Teachers are what matters most, and one of the crucial responsibilities of a chair at Art Center, is to identify and assemble an outstanding faculty. The Fine Art Department teachers are recognized and articulate artists, with quite different conceptions of art making, and yet collegial and dedicated to their student’s growth and becoming. I’m so proud of this team of outstanding artist/educators- they include, my deer friend Tom Knechtel, and John Millei, Tom LaDuke, Dave Bailey, Mason Cooley, Laura Cooper, Kevin Hanley, Katie Grinnan, Jean Rasenberger, Kerry Tribe, Mungo Thomson, Rosetta Brooks and Tony Zepeda. I’m also proud of other talented artists who I first recognized and hired, and who have gone on to contribute so much to the college in influential positions beyond the Fine Art Department – David Mocarski, Stephen Nowlin, and of course, Fred Fehlau. I’ve had the privilege of working with four of Art Center’s five presidents, and though today we face many challenges and opportunities, I believe that with the inspired educational leadership of Lorne Buchman, Fred Fehlau, and the dedicated department chairs, the college’s brightest and most innovative days are ahead of it. I feel considerable pride in having contributed to Art Center’s extraordinary growth and progress since it was that way too tasteful, but aspiring school on Third Street where I first began. Most satisfying, of course, is knowing how well Art Center educates, prepares and enriches the lives of our students.
I would like to thank Lorne, David, Tom, Michael and Fred for their warm, amusing and generous tributes, and thank you all so much for being here tonight.
I leave you with the words of Mahatma Gandhi –
“Live like you will die tomorrow, learn like you will live forever.”