Tomorrow's Art Stars Today: New American Paintings Presents the MFA Annual

Tomorrow's Art Stars Today: New American Paintings Presents the MFA Annual

By Steven Zevitas for New American Paintings

While raw creativity seems to be a function of genetics, today's most acclaimed contemporary artists have something in common other than the luck of the draw: many hold a Masters of Fine Arts degree.

There are now close to two hundred institutions in the United States that offer a Masters of Fine Arts degree, and thousands of newly-minted MFAs emerge from these programs every year. Not surprisingly, today's art schools differ radically from the academies that once served as the primary training ground for aspiring artists. Technical competence, once the sine qua non of formal artistic training, now shares equal importance with breadth of organized knowledge.

For many artists, the two-year course of study is a rite of passage that allows them to develop their technical skills, undergo an intense critical dialog with their peers, and learn how to best position themselves within the art world. Professional practice has become a key component of the contemporary MFA curriculum. The founder of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, suggested that "art is not a profession which can be mastered by study," yet there is no doubt that learning to effectively navigate an increasingly complex art world is, for right or wrong, a skill that can increase an artist's chances of success.

Today's art schools operate under the belief that successful artists can be made. Masters of Fine Arts programs are now firmly entrenched within a radically expanded and institutionalized art world where they function as both incubator and launching pad for emerging talent. Largely because of them, more individuals than ever are able to consider the job of "working artist" as a viable career path. 

While many U.S. art schools have seen alumni go on to achieve great success, certain programs have, at certain times, seemed to be virtual hot beds of creative activity. The Yale School of Art was such a place in the 1960s, when artists including Eva Hesse, Richard Serra, Brice Marden, and Chuck Close attended; Cal Arts had its turn in the late 1970s when, under the watch of a visionary faculty that included John Baldessari, artists such as David Salle, Mike Kelley, and Ross Bleckner emerged. In recent years, art world professionals and collectors have closely followed the art schools at Columbia and UCLA, as graduates including Dana Schutz and Analia Saban have come to rapid prominence.

Working with Randi Hopkins , Associate Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, New American Paintings reviewed the work of more than 900 current MFA candidates with a concentration in painting, from 125 schools, in search of the most promising emerging talent. The result of this review is the 2011 MFA Annual edition of New American Paintings, which will be released this week. The publication features the work of 40 artists and an incredible diversity of aesthetic viewpoints. Artists from 30 schools are represented, including Yale, Columbia, UCLA, and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. If earlier editions of the MFA Annual are any indication - Matthew Day Jackson and William Cordova are among past edition alumni - then a number of artists featured in this year's installment will be widely discussed in coming years.

For additional information and images from the MFA Annual, please visit New American Paintings.

NOTE: I, by no means, believe that graduate level education, or any formal training for that matter, can define an artist's potential. I am privileged to know, and work with, several artists who have little to no academic training, and who produce significant bodies of work. The MFA Annual is an edition of New American Paintings that explores a specific area of activity within the art world. It is not this author's, or this publication's, intention to imply that higher education is required for an artist to be successful.


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