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Bennington College History: Visual Arts: History, Philosophy & Pedagogy

A guide to the history of visual arts at Bennington College


Announcement for Fourth Year. Fields of Study: The Arts: Dance, Drama, Music. The attitude of the Art Division is liberal. The method is that of objective exploration, either practical theoretical or both, of the material of art, considering the latter as related to society. No attempt will be made to follow the procedure of the regular art schools. The method of classification of the arts used below may be taken as indicative of a broad interest in art problems, rather than of a narrow development of technical skills. 
The list of subjects available for study in the Art Division is as follows: history of art (all branches), art appreciation, forms and materials, design (architectural, stage and costume), painting, sculpture, graphic arts, weaving, ceramics, photography, drawing (freehand and mechanical), perspective, theory of color (light and pigment), chemistry of colors, elements of architecture, shades and shadows, costume and movement, lighting, dramatic criticism, dramatic literature, playwriting, directing, speech and voice, pantomime and improvisation and, in dance movement, form, content (meaning in the dance), accompaniment, improvisation, composition, group approach, individual approach, criticism, development of an individual point of view, development of individual style of dance. Bennington College Bulletin (4) 1935-1936 


Bennington College Bulletin 1938-39

The aim of the art major is to explore and to train the creative and the critical abilities of the student. No attempt is made to follow the procedures of the regular art schools. The idea that complete mastery in one specific field of art can be acquired within the four years of college is not held to be realistic. Creative work is undertaken to build up the kind of skill in the handling of content and techniques which will teach the student ultimately to be capable of an independent approach to new content and new techniques. This necessitates a correlated, critical study of art-forms of the present and past, of the social forces and of aesthetic and scientific factors which determine these forms. The need is also felt for the student who is more interested in the theoretical and critical than in the creative approach, to work in the studios in order to be fully acquainted with the technical and personal problems in the creation of a work of art. Thus the student divides her time between studio and critical work. The content of this work is determined largely by the student's own inclination and state of development.
Instruction is offered in the following fields: design: exterior and interior architecture, housing, furniture, textile design, book design; painting: easel and mural painting, oil, tempera, pastel, water color, fresco; sculpture: clay, wood, stone, casting, baking; graphic arts: printing, wood-cutting, lithography, etching, posters; crafts: weaving, dress design, ceramics; photography: camera work, dark-room technique. Related to the above are art criticism (history of art, formal analysis, critical writing), drawing, color theory, chemistry of color, optics and anatomy. Industrial design for machine production may be studied theoretically, as well as practically, stressing artistic integrity and honesty of presentation. The practical and theoretical instruction is supplemented by frequent exhibitions, in the College, of works of art from public and private sources. They serve as material for study, lectures and publications by faculty and students. Field work in museums, galleries, housing developments, etc., is expected of students whenever possible. There is an opportunity for a few students to get experience in teaching art as apprentices in connection with the nursery school or one of the neighboring public schools.


A brief summary of a discussion of the arts in the Bennington curriculum. Read


This is the syllabus/outline for the  introductory course for visual arts, called A Grammar of  Visual Arts taught by George Smith and Charles Holt. 

"I feel that great emphasis should be put on organization of form as I think that is important to creating or appreciating any work of art whether it is painting , sculpture or architecture - I feel that this understanding can be brought about (to some extent) by the study of certain simple forms and combinations of these forms...The course that I have in mind should be taken by all students interested in art - whether it is from the standpoint of doing it or seeing it." Charles Smith letter

"I am offering two separate courses in drawing, alternately in each semester. The first is an anatomical analysis of the bony structure of the human body. This course is planned to give the students a better understanding of the architectural perfection of its balance and interplay. The technical media best adapted for drawing may be pen and ink, pencil, or tempera. This course is an excellent preparation for students who may want to do scientific work in hospitals, or to assist in defense work that might call for such preparation. The second course for advanced students is one in Life Drawing. This furnishes an opportunity for the study of space relationships, and rhythm, and greatly assists in all courses in the entire field of art." Simon Moselsio letter


Bennington College Bulletin 1943-44

The basis of work in the visual arts is the studio. Here the student learns the skills requisite to creative activity, together with certain of the necessary principles and backgrounds. A continuous series of projects of increasing complexity, suited to the student's particular aptitude, is carried on. Work done in the studio is presented for individual criticism and group discussion. Constant use is made of readily available pictorial reproductions and other graphic source materials, supplemented by field trips and representative exhibits brought to the College. 

Within the broad field of the visual arts, majors are established in each important medium: painting, sculpture, architecture, graphic arts. The general aims for students majoring in any of these arts are, through the acquisition of appropriate techniques, to gain comprehension of the limitations and possibilities of a chosen medium, to develop a sense of the relationships among mediums, to place these knowledges and skills clearly against a background of the meaning of art in the culture, and finally, to focus them in creative performance. Where special prerequisites for graduate work exist, as in the case of architecture, these are met in the student's program.


Visual Arts faculty member George Holt describing the introductory course.

"As far as the general purpose of the course is concerned it would see to be pretty obvious that our very specific purpose, as well a general purpose, is to develop in students an awareness of visual form, whether architectural, sculptural, pictorial, etc., any of the mediums; and to try to develop students to the point where they actually do get esthetic experience from visual form. The second purpose is to give them, actually to instruct them in, some of the basic principles of plastic organization.

As far as the organization of the class is concerned, it's divided into two sections. They do two hours studio a week and meet with me for two hours a week. There's certain logic that we follow which runs through the studio practice and through the theory sessions. We start with simple elements of design such as the linear and pictorial and go on to organizations in value, without color, then onto questions of texture, color relationships, and finally actual consideration of sculpture in the round and actual spatial organization as you get it in architecture, whereas it's always illusionary in pictorial structure. In studio they do actual exercises and at the same time in class periods they look at things, using visual material, slides, reproductions, things of that sort which exemplify these principles that he has been talking to the about. "

Read more... Minutes of the Faculty Meeting


Bennington College Bulletin 1951-52

The focus of work in the visual arts is the studio, supplemented by studies in the history of art. The student learns skills by working on a series of creative projects individually planned. Each project provides the opportunity to increase competence and develop imagination. The work in studios is presented for individual and group discussion. Slides, reproductions and other visual materials are used and exhibits are brought regularly to the College.

The student majoring in visual art learns the limitations and possibilities of the various media through acquiring appropriate techniques; to relate her concrete experience of art to the art forms of past and present and, finally, to focus it in creative performance in a particular medium. Work in other fields which is prerequisite for graduate work in art is made part of the student's program. The basic course, Forms of Visual Art, which includes both theory and studio, is open to all students. It is normally a requisite for the Junior Division student intending to major in visual arts.


From an article in the Alumnae Magazine titled "Teaching Art at Bennington" By George C. Holt
From the beginning of this college, creative work in the visual arts has been judged to have equal standing as a discipline with the other fields usually found in the liberal arts curriculum....We believe that art, the active involvement in imagining, thinking and making, is an immensely important means in the pursuit of liberal education.
The activity itself is of prime importance in the total development of a person, combining as it does a large reliance on intuitive process with critical, analytical judgment.  It demands and stimulates resourcefulness, invention and independence.  It challenges individual choice and taste and a striving for aesthetic excellence.  It develops skills.  
Perhaps the greatest virtue of art as a discipline lies in this - that every aesthetic problem basically originates with the individual and can find satisfying solution only in the autonomous efforts of that person.  Others may indicate direction, encourage, criticize, stimulate, instruct as to techniques, but they cannot solve what is essentially a personal problem.  That has to be grappled with on one's own, and even partial solutions are valuable.
The uniqueness or near uniqueness in the position of art at Bennington lies in the fact that acceptance of it as an integral part of the curriculum is an operating and effective reality, not just a policy on paper. 


Report from the Art Policy Committee titled "Art Education at Bennington"
Since its founding, Bennington College has given to the visual arts a central place in its educational program. It is a core subject in a liberal arts curriculum, and one that is vital to the growth of both perceptual and conceptual abilities that prepare the student for making and enjoying art throughout life . The Art Division offers a general training in art to all interested students, irrespective of previous training.  
In keeping with the aims of the College itself, the visual arts faculty has pioneered methods of instruction that stress participation in art rather than learning about art. The aim is to prevent a premature hardening of opinion into fixed styles or beliefs that a student must accept or imitate. A continual effort is made to keep an evolving environment for the performing of art in all its forms, and open to the most challenging ideas and personalities from either inside or outside the college environment. The visual arts faculty is composed of recognized practicing artists who with their own work and exhibitions serve for students as a constant presence of the standards, attitudes and methods of the professional world.  The implications of this approach are felt throughout the College. Art is an integral part of the life and atmosphere, and the experience of art is regarded as an important part of a complete education.


Bennington College Bulletin 1967-68

Instruction in the visual arts stresses participating in art as well as learning about it. The aim is to prevent a premature hardening of opinion into fixed styles or beliefs that a student must accept or imitate. The visual arts faculty is composed of practicing artists who, with their own work and exhibitions, serve for students as a constant presence of the standards, attitudes and methods of the professional world. 

The student's program in visual arts begins with a required diversity of study that precedes individual concentration on chosen areas. By giving close attention to elements common to all arts, the student is discouraged from identifying art exclusively with one craft. Art is approached as a continuum with many forms or aspects to be discovered and explored. Ordinarily art majors are expected to take Visual Arts I and II. Drawing is the discipline many central to all other pursuits. Every student's program is based on the study of both two- and three-dimensional drawing each year, taught by all instructors as an integral part of all workshops. As the student becomes increasingly aware, from personal experience, of the problems faced by the creative artist, she is asked to find meaning in the creative statements of the past. Concurrent with her own investigative studio efforts, she studies the history and heritage of art. 

The privilege of working independently is decided by the student's readiness. As soon as she demonstrates the grasp and maturity, she is encouraged to proceed on her own problems and ideas, on her own schedules, with an instructor assigned to discuss and criticize work in progress as required. This usually occurs after two years of supervised group studio work, but there is no obstacle if a student is ready earlier. 

The student completes her senior year with a body of work that is equivalent to a one-man show: fifteen to twenty major works in one medium, and sometimes an equal amount in one or two other media as well. The Annual Senior Show is a selective representation of each student's collected work presented to the College community.


Bennington College: An Introduction

The Visual Arts Division at Bennington has maintained the important distinction between "training" and "education," thus confirming the appropriateness of the position of art in a liberal arts context. This has eliminated the art school approach and has made courses in literature and science, for example, relevant to work in the Visual Arts.

The faculty are motivated by their passion for the subject they teach. Students work with practicing artists in architecture, art history, ceramics, drawing, painting, photography, printmaking and sculpture. The emphasis is primarily on studio art. Most classes are run as critiques in a workshop environment with student work providing the basis for discussion and analysis of issues and processes in art. Students develop the ability to assess their own work as well as that of others.

The recently completed Paul Feeley Art Center provides the students with extraordinary working space. The large workshop areas are simple and flexible in structure. Although there are specific locations for each discipline where equipment is stored and students gather for critiques, the shape and use of the space in the Art Center changes regularly with the changing needs of the students.

An integral part of the Art Center is the Usdan Gallery. Since its inception, Bennington has brought historic and innovative art exhibitions to the area. Jackson Pollack and Barnett Newman had their first retrospectives at the College. The Usdan Gallery promises to strengthen this tradition by enabling faculty to bring interesting and influential shows to the College. Students are given regular opportunities to exhibit in this and other less formal exhibition areas in the Visual Arts building. 

Read more...Bennington College: An Introduction


Bennington College: A Working Experiment

The Visual Arts Division at Bennington has always maintained the important distinction between "training" and "education," thus confirming the appropriateness of the position of art in a liberal arts curriculum. This has eliminated the art school approach and has made courses in literature and science, for example, relevant to work in the visual arts. Members of the visual arts faculty are professionally active in the art world. They are not merely teaching about something, but are sharing their profession in a serious way with students who are curious about the fine arts and willing to explore that field with them. The Visual Arts Division offers a concentration in a variety of disciplines including painting, drawing, graphics, sculpture, architecture, photography and ceramics, with courses in art history and criticism as well. 

Students of art at Bennington work closely with experienced artists and explore in great depth the various disciplines offered. A major in visual arts generally concentrates in two media and exhibits representative work in the Senior Show. The unequaled facilities of the new Visual and Performing Arts Center provide large classrooms and individual studios for advanced students. The Suzanne Lemberg Usdan Gallery holds exhibits planned by the faculty to bring current and historical work to the College community. Students are given regular opportunity to show their work in this and other less formal exhibition areas in the Visual and Performing Arts building. 

Read more ...Bennington College: A Working Experiment


The Bennington College Catalog 1984-86

The Visual Arts curriculum is designed to develop not only the student's proficiency in the technical skills of a medium, but also to develop the intellectual and imaginative skills necessary to produce challenging and meaningful works. 

The prospective major in art will normally take Introduction to Studio Art during the first year. By the time students submit a Tentative Plan toward the end of the second year, they must be able to demonstrate ability in at least two media. Plans for advanced study must include at least one year's study in art history or criticism and continued work in two or more media. 

Students are given numerous opportunities to exhibit their work. This allows both students and faculty an opportunity to study works at length and to render informed and thoughtful criticism. As partial fulfillment of degree requirements, all seniors must exhibit representative work in the June Senior Art Exhibition.

Introduction to Studio Art consists of two areas of concentration: one term in three-dimensional studies (architecture, sculpture and ceramics) and one term in two-dimensional studies (drawing, painting and printmaking). The Art Faculty focus not only on their particular crafts, but also on problems pertaining to art in general. Attitudes toward history, form, design and drawing will be covered.


Bennington College Perspectives 1990-1992

At Bennington, studio work is the basis for the intellectual, imaginative, and practical development of the artist. This education is based on the principles of how an artist "sees" or comes to an awareness and understanding of art and the world. The program strives to teach students to form their own thoughts and ideas while they also develop proficiency in the technical skills of a medium. Becoming visually articulate and capable of producing challenging and meaningful works is the goal of Bennington's Visual Arts program. At the same time, the Visual Arts Division is as concerned about the development of the knowledgeable amateur and appreciative audience as it is interested in the development of the professional artist.

The Division offers concentrations in a variety of disciplines including painting, drawing, graphics, sculpture, architecture, photography, ceramics, art history, and criticism. In keeping with a primary commitment to a liberal education, visual arts students are encouraged to explore the humanities, sciences, social sciences, mathematics, and performing arts, as well as work in the visual arts.


The Visual Arts Center

The Center for the Visual and Performing Arts (VAPA) is a dramatic expression of Bennington's incorporation of the visual arts into the standard liberal arts curriculum. As the largest wood-framed structure in the eastern United States, the 120,000 square-foot center is centrally sited on Bennington's 550-acre campus. It provides a rich array of supple working and exhibition spaces designed to provide maximum flexibility for students, faculty, and visiting artists.

The visual arts studios at Bennington College are the very center of the daily educational experience. The central feature of the working area is a vast two-story space, the Galleria, lit by large northern skylights and equipped with overhead cranes, which serves as a multiple function area divided by movable walls. Overlooking the floor of the Galleria, the working areas for sculpture and ceramics, are student studio spaces, the architecture studios, and classrooms. A wide exhibition floor, often filled with works in progress, bridges the Galleria. On the ground floor the Galleria is flanked by a large graphics studio, ceramics workrooms and kilns, and by corridors leading to the photography darkrooms.

All students have access to large group studios; many juniors and seniors have private studio spaces, some of which have direct access to outdoor work areas or open Lo outdoor decks and balconies. VAPA also includes the Suzanne Lemberg Usdan exhibition gallery, modeled after the fourth floor of the Whitney Museum, where the works of guest artists, faculty members, and students are displayed.


Work and Criticism

All students begin working in the studio immediately. Beginning students are required to study one term each of two-dimensional and three-dimensional disciplines. Introductory courses are designed to provide direct experience and familiarity with the depth and range of many media. Concentration is not only on studio practice, but on problems pertaining to art in general. Studio work is supported with lectures, slide presentations, and study in art history, and all faculty members are available to discuss and review one's work.

Class instruction centers on group critiques of individual works, when individual progress is assessed by both faculty and students. Current issues in art, as well as historical viewpoints, emerge during discussion. Students are given numerous opportunities to show their work in formal and informal settings. This provides both faculty and students an opportunity to study the works at length and to render informed and thoughtful criticism.

 Individual and group tutorials are available to advanced students for special projects or subjects. 

As part of the degree requirement, seniors hold a week-long exhibition of representative work.


The World of the Artist

Bennington graduates are well known throughout the art world as painters, sculptors, photographers, and ceramicists; as gallery managers and as directors of significant art collections; as curators, critics, and historians; as practicing architects; and as informed collectors and viewers. In 1988 alone, seven Bennington graduates were awarded prestigious National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships.


Art and the Liberal Arts

Becoming an artist is a life long process. Although many Bennington graduates go on to graduate programs and pursue professional careers in the visual arts, not everyone who paints will become a painter. Not everyone who takes photographs will become a photographer. Bennington students have the opportunity-and the encouragement-Lo discover their own creative talents and energies, to develop self-reliance and the capacity for critical thought. These are essential tools, whether a student becomes a world-famous architect or a biologist with an informed appreciation of the arts.


The Book on Bennington 1992-1994

From the start students at Bennington are taken seriously as potential artists, by their faculty instructors as well as by fellow students. They are asked to immerse themselves directly in the creative core of the visual arts, to discover for themselves the discipline and commitment needed to achieve artistic expression. 

Becoming visually articulate and capable of producing challenging and meaningful works is the goal of Bennington's visual arts program. At the same time, the Visual Arts Division is as concerned about the development of the knowledgeable amateur and appreciative audience as it is interested in the development of the professional artist. Studio work is the basis for the intellectual, imaginative, and practical development of the artist. This education is based on the principles of how an artist "sees'' or comes to an awareness and understanding of art and the world. The program strives to teach students to form their own ideas while they also develop proficiency in the technical skills of a medium. 

The Division offers courses in the following disciplines: Architecture, Art History, Ceramics, Drawing, Graphics, Painting, Photography, and Sculpture.

First-year students begin by enrolling in the year-long lntroduction to Studio Art, which includes work in both two-dimensional and three-dimensional fields. Introductory courses are designed to provide direct experience and familiarity with the depth and range of many media. Concentration is not only on studio practice, but on problems pertaining to art in general. Studio work is supported with lectures, slide presentations, and study in art history, and all faculty members are available to discuss and review one's work. Students who decide to explore majoring in art-or foresee combining visual arts with another field to create an interdivisional major-continue with additional studio courses in preparation for application to the Visual Arts Division as a major. 

Class instruction centers on group critiques of individual works, where individual progress is assessed by both faculty and students. Current issues in art,as well as historical viewpoints, emerge during discussion. Students are given numerous opportunities to show their work in formal and informal settings. This provides both faculty and students an opportunity to study the works at length and to render informed and thoughtful criticism. Transfer students with a previous background in art can take courses at the intermediate or advanced level after presentation of a portfolio and discussions with faculty members. Of course, any students interested in the arts can continue on to advanced levels while concentrating in another field altogether, and any student can take beginning courses in several of the arts disciplines. All visual arts students may show their work informally in the exhibition spaces in the Visual and Performing Arts Center (VAPA). More formally, second-, third-, and fourth-year students mount regular shows and reviews of their work, either in VAPA or in locations around campus.