A History of the Whitney Independent Study Program

By Singerman, Howard | Artforum International, February 2004 | Go to article overview
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A History of the Whitney Independent Study Program

Singerman, Howard, Artforum International

In memory of Joe Bishop, ISP 1976-77

I'd like to think this essay has been written at the suggestion of Thomas Crow, who singled out the Whitney Museum of American Art's Independent Study Program in his examination of the "new art history" in the second of Artforum's special issues on the '80s last spring and proposed that there was more to be said:


  One American crucible where social art history and the theoretical
  approach associated with October came together lay in the estimable
  Whitney Independent Study Program (long may it flourish) under the
  direction of Ron Clark. The ISP welcomed representatives of both
  tendencies and fostered an environment where their overlapping
  implications were put into play for cohort after cohort of beginning
  artists, curators, and critics. (The radiating effects of this unique,
  ongoing experiment merit a sustained study in their own right.) But
  here as elsewhere, critique and license lay only a hair's breadth
  apart from one another: Can one forget that the young Julian Schnabel,
  a totemic figure of the '80s dark side, was an early ISP graduate? (1)

Schnabel is indeed the ISP's best-known alumnus, but Crow's brief mention only hints at how we might understand him as its product, or how his ability to "exploit the analytical intelligence then floating around the art world to strategize an ultimate move into ... fashionable celebrity" points to the tension between critique and career in the program. Crow may well be right about the nature of Schnabel's success--and of artistic success in general in the '80s--but there's an odd temporal slippage here: The program Schnabel attended was not yet the ISP Crow describes, and he is not a product of the historical conjunction Crow wants to map. The ISP is older than the intersection of social art history with the journal October; founded in 1968, it is older, by eight years, than October itself. And if one takes the emergence of Robert Herbert and T.J. Clark as the marker of a new social art history, as Crow does, then the program is almost the same age. It certainly predates Clark's clarion "On the Social History of Art," the opening chapter to his book Image of the People, which was published in 1973--the year Schnabel entered the ISP.

Crow is right that the ISP is in many ways Ron Clark's program, or, in the words of Hal Foster, former head of the program's art-history wing, "the life project of one person." (2) (Carnegie Museum of Art director Richard Armstrong, who preceded Foster in his post at the ISP, puts it differently: "Ron's inflexibility is paramount.") Hired directly out of the Ohio State masters program in sculpture by Doug Pederson, the first director of the Whitney's fledgling education department, Clark has been involved with the ISP since its inception. The program opened its studio wing with Clark as its only faculty member at 185 Cherry Street, on the east edge of Chinatown, far from the Whitney's new Madison Avenue home. It was separated from the art-history half of the program, which was run uptown, first by Pederson, who would leave early on, and then by David Hupert, who would replace him as director of education. The studio section shared its building, which the New York Times described as an "art mission," with another new Whitney outreach program, the Art Resources Center, a workshop for neighborhood youth. In the museum's initial vision, ISP students would be working directly with the kids. Pederson "invented a number of programs, but it turned out the programs didn't have the same purpose," Clark recounts. "There was the hope for some kind of interactivity, but they came from very different backgrounds and social classes. Those programs did not survive." The Art Resources Center folded in the mid-'70s; its last director was Laurie Anderson.

The ISP's studios moved twice in the '70s, to Reade Street in 1971 and to Old Slip in 1978.

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