The newly appointed Director of Princeton University’s Program in Visual Arts discusses creativity, teaching, her artistic practice, and what’s next. Conducted & edited by Maddie Meyers ‘17.
What sorts of techniques, approaches, and philosophies inform your teaching? Can art even be taught?
Martha Friedman: I’ve always been drawn to arts education due to its complexity and all the inherent contradictions in the practice of teaching art. Art’s knotty relationship to subjectivity makes it impossible to teach using a rigid academic method because judging, assessing, and evaluating art is such an equivocal process. How you value art is a moving target. So, in some ways teaching art is impossible, while in others ways there is something profound about the insights that bubble up in an art class, and I think a good art teacher is able to be honest about that. An art professor who lends delicate attention to student work can help their students puzzle out what is subjective, what is stylistic, why we value certain things conceptually or formally, and how one’s own personal situatedness comes into play as part of those judgments. Meanwhile, one is also trying to impart to the students the depth of the history of art making, and the conversations that have long existed around aesthetics, both philosophical and personal, conversations that students can choose to lean into and embrace or dissect and reinterpret. I think in this day and age a good art teacher can pivot between process issues and theoretical conversations, teaching concrete methods, allowing students to master technique, then freeing them to experiment and go off-road. It’s a subtle balance between letting students fail as they try to invent new things, while also engaging them in a larger conceptual and psychological framework. A teacher also has to be honest that their ideas, opinions, and judgments about art are just that, their ideas, and they are really no more valid than anyone else’s. So, it’s quite messy and I think you have to be sort of courageous about jumping into that ring. Especially with Princeton students, who can be incredibly sophisticated, analytical, and industrious. Most classes are not comprised primarily of art majors, as they might be at an art school, and this allows for myriad intellectual perspectives to enrich the classroom. As a teacher in this environment, you’re asked to field these big questions about what art is for, how it functions in the larger economy, and what a life in the arts might look like, while at the same time dirtying your hands, with the students, in the trenches of materiality and object-making.
Even though my specific approach is unique to each student, I generally try to destabilize a student’s relationship to process and outcome. Students tend to come into my class subordinating process to outcome, and I help them question that normative dichotomy. Often this means releasing them from a mindless, automatic relationship to language. I have different methods for sparking this. One is to give students, in their first exercises, challenging structural and technical limitations in their projects, which forces them to access often ignored parts of their brain and perceptive abilities. I encourage them to embrace a kind of visual idiom rather than relying on verbal language to explain and analyze their projects. But to ask someone directly, or consciously, to disengage from a deeply intellectualized relationship to language is almost impossible. So, I set up situations that force the student to stumble and lurch, frustrating their automatic, linear, cognitive modes of thinking. I try to guide them to an almost otherworldly place where what they want to make, what they imagine the effect of the final outcome will be, what their materials are capable of, and their actual technical abilities, all come smashing together. That moment of impact, when expectations, analyses, and hopes converge in unpredictable ways can be both thrilling and terrifying, so I always aim to travel that journey with the student, helping them work through complexities, leaving space for mishaps, and always encouraging their own resilience and persistence. This process generally helps students see what they actually have, not just what they were hoping for. Not a cliché of what constitutes good art, but the actuality of their piece reflected before them, and what it has to offer their potential audience, be it themselves or someone else. As students learn to confront, more honestly, the reality of their pieces, I then spur them to examine the choices available in order to move forward. One technique for this is to speed things up, forcing them to stop outlining, rendering, or projecting, and quickly, almost reflexively, figure things out at a faster, more dynamic pace. Then, after they’ve loosened up, they can manipulate time in almost the opposite direction, profoundly slowing their process down.
What do you find unique about the art that Princeton students make? What do you find unique about teaching Princeton students?
MF: Typically, Princeton art majors are not coming from families of artists, and aren’t familiar necessarily with what it’s like to live a life immersed in art, and they may not yet know if it’s a path they’re ready to commit to, say in the way you might find at traditional art schools or with graduate students. Rather, one finds an amazing mix of chemical engineers, sociologists, music majors, and so on, alongside students who have decided to major in visual arts. So, you get this thrilling intermingling of students coming from different parts of the University. What tends to unite this incredible mix of students is a kind of yearning to explore meaning and processes that fall outside of clearly defined rubrics. This is an opportunity for students to step back from discourses where one must understand the rules and then produce results within those strictures. In our program, they’re encouraged to question those rules. What are they? Why are they there? How can we break them? We do this by experimenting and making a mess, both literally and figuratively. This mess functions as a kind of liberating force, which is hard to find anywhere else in the University, and it’s carried back by these intrepid students to their other classes and departments, hopefully giving them tools, or ways of thinking, that allow them to more fluidly explore global and meta questions in whatever academic framework or discipline they’re engaged in.
Is that why you teach at Princeton?
MF: Yes, that is exactly why. I find it exhilarating. It’s hard too, because often Princeton students ask foundational questions about art that I might, at first, think are very simple questions, but then realize the complexity underlying the inquiry. Princeton students are asking foundational questions that I should, as an artist, be asking myself every day. Questions like: What is art doing? What does art represent? If art is about freedom, what is my relationship to teaching that, especially at a place like Princeton? Who gets to make art? Who gets to look at art? These are questions that, as a professional artist, you can’t spend all your time on because if you did, it would be hard to complete any pieces. It can be agonizing to find a flow as an artist if all you’re doing is asking weighty existential questions. But they’re really important questions, especially to have with budding artists. Contemplating these concerns with students helps them become attuned to the significance, urgency, and potency of themes such as empathy, doubt, and personal expression. And, as a more seasoned artist, it allows me to not fall into a complacent or rigid perspective. In practice, it’s a mutually beneficial, messy, complicated pedagogic space that is rather unique within the larger University.
What are some of your goals for the program? Are you considering any changes?
MF: I’m taking over from Joe Scanlan, my predecessor, who did an amazing job bringing the Visual Arts Program into the 21st century. We’ve recently had graduates enter top MFA programs, such as Yale and Rutgers, as well as travelling across the world to the Slade School. It’s really exciting to take on a program that’s been growing at such a breakneck pace. I’d like to continue to develop Joe’s vision and push it even further into the future. To that end, we’re addressing the role of digital technologies in the arts, and collaborating with different departments across campus that are interested in media studies, design thinking, maker spaces, and exploring how the junction of materials and technique can lead to innovation. While laser-focusing on current technologies, I simultaneously want to reexamine the historical precedents that have led to our current aesthetic moment. One of the most exciting things for me to continue to build on is the incredible roster of visiting artists that have come through the program. I’ve been astonished by the level of talent that we’re able to bring in to interact with the students. Because we are so close to New York City, we get some incredible working contemporary artists who generously share their practice and thoughts with our students. Furthermore, because the program is so small, the students get a chance to really interface with those people and learn from them. I plan to expand our course offerings to take advantage of the proximity of this impressive pool of artists.
What do you like about the Princeton Visual Arts faculty
MF: The faculty members are an amazingly diverse group of practicing artists with exciting and very unique careers. Each brings a distinctive perspective and set of skills to Princeton. Whether they are exhibiting at MoMa, installing at the Venice Biennale, or staging solo shows in the city, they bring to the classroom the thrilling excitement and vulnerability inherent to being an exhibiting artist. It’s important to me that students probe the divides, as well as the bridges, between art history and contemporary visual arts practice. As a working artist, when you are making art, you are carving out your own path, and no one can tell you what you need to be making. To devise your own trajectory, in the trenches alongside professionals who are a generation or two or three ahead of you, who are in the trenches in that way, can make the struggle of setting and following your own course meaningful in both intellectual and emotionally poignant ways. It allows students to recognize that they can think like an artist, and that thinking like an artist means thinking like nobody else before you. There’s no better way to glean this knowledge than by working alongside faculty who exemplify these ideals.
How do you think the program should be interacting with the Princeton community?
MF: I think at times there is confusion in the community about what the art program is for. By that I mean, it’s not something that students should be doing at the end of their tenure at Princeton as a reward for working hard and finally letting loose, blowing off steam, and playing. While I think there is an aspect of play in making art, and a time and place for that, I don’t think that’s what our department is about. I like to compare the Visual Arts Department to a lab where we are conducting rigorous experiments. Students here explore and analyze the structures that underlie our experience, the meaning and motivation of our behaviors, and how to illuminate the junction of society, culture, and progress. These are weighty questions that shouldn’t be an afterthought appended to the end of one’s “real” or “serious” academic career. They are the key questions of life and the Visual Arts Program allows students an opportunity to clarify the answers to those questions, both for themselves and the entire community.
What are you working on right now?
MF: I’m currently working on a solo show at the Henry Museum in Seattle that opens in the summer of 2018. I’ll be exhibiting a large series of sculptures that are comprised, in part, from molds that I’ve pulled from a choreographer and dancer, Silas Riener ’06, who I regularly collaborate with. I cast these molds in rubber and concrete, and then assemble them with various other materials, as well as scraps and detritus from previous projects to form a kind of disjointed assemblage. These assemblages gesture towards classical figurative sculpture while being infused with an eerie sci-fi quality. Interspersed within a grid of these assemblages will be another series of sculptures based on ancient Egyptian two-finger amulets. These amulets were believed to mystically seal the seam exposed after the final embalming of a deceased pharaoh. I’m in the midst of a one-year-fellowship at Urban Glass, a fantastic glass foundry in New York City, and the focus of my residency there has been to fabricate, in mold-blown glass, large-scale renderings of these amulet fingers. Earlier this year, I exhibited a show at Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York City and participated in a symposium on gender and the digital haptic at Barnard College.
What are looking forward to in the coming year?
MF: I’m looking forward to settling into my new position as I learn and listen to what the students and faculty need and want, while also forging new connections with other departments across the University. I hope to do my best to facilitate the growth and prosperity of what is already such a strong and exciting program.
Video: Silas Riener’s performance on the opening night of Martha Friedman’s Pore exhibition at Locust Projects in Miami, February 2016: