By Claire Cushman (MFA 2015)

On Monday March 24th,  Sharon Louden's Professional Practice Series presented esteemed art critics Roberta Smith  (New York Times) and Jerry Saltz (New York Magazine) in conversation with Randy Cohen for “Person Place Thing” in the Academy’s Wilkinson Hall.  The room’s walls, recently stripped of the ten “Big Picture” paintings and not yet adorned for Tribeca Ball, were, for once, bare. Guests outnumbered seats, and their excited chatter, along with live bluegrass music by Duncan Wilkel and Eric Robertson, filled the air.

For his unique spin on the one-on-one interview, Cohen, (former author of the New York Times “The Ethicist” column), invites prominent figures from various backgrounds to discuss one person, one place, and one thing they care about.

A hush fell over the room when Cohen introduced his guests, but as Smith and Saltz discussed their three items, (Donald Judd, the Met, and art), the audience often erupted into laughter. Though the atmosphere was generally light, some important lessons for artists emerged over the course of the conversation. Here are a few I believe are worth emphasizing:

Familiarize yourself with the Met (and art history at large).Before coming to the Academy, I knew very little about art history. I still know relatively little, but do feel that I have a much better understanding of the trajectory after History and Theory of Composition, and Art and Culture 1, which all Academy students are required to take during their first semester.
As the couple discussed their chosen place, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, they emphasized how important it is for artists to understand art history. They encourage all artists to really get to know The Met.  “It’s the greatest encyclopedic museum in the world,” says Saltz. “You have a responsibility as an artist to see how much there is, be humbled, and see what your options are.  And to know that you’ll never live up to it.”

You cannot see too much.

As we toil away in our studios, it’s easy to forget how much art is at our fingertips all over the city. Since I moved to New York for school, my friends have often asked me about living here, and my response is generally, “Well I’m usually at school…” This talk was a helpful reminder to get out more.
“We go to 20, 30 galleries a week, and museums on Sundays,” says Saltz. “Galleries and museums are ecstasy machines – you experience your autonomy while looking at an autonomous object, and it’s great.” The couple underlines the importance of going to see the things you don’t like, as much as the shows you do. “The bad shows teach you as much as the good shows, or even more,” says Saltz. “If you go to Chelsea and see a show and think it’s bad, figure out why.”

Copy, and Redefine Skill
In discussing Donald Judd, Smith explained how after emerging from the Whitney Independent Study program, she copied Judd’s writing extensively to better understand it, in terms of both craft and content.  Judd was a Renaissance man, “almost as powerful a writer as he was an artist,” she says. “He used words in a way that were unusual but legible.”
Copying to understand applies not only to writing, but of course also to art. Every Academy student is required to complete numerous Master Copies over the course of his or her two years at the Academy. To successfully copy a masterwork is to understand how the artist achieved his or her final product.
What’s challenging is taking the skills learned from copying to the next level.  “In this school, you’re learning time-honored skills,” says Saltz. “You need to reinvent them.” A common criticism most art students hear from their teachers is that whatever they’re doing has already been done.  “Don’t listen to ‘it’s been done’,” Saltz says. “Instead, do it again. Until you make it yours. Do the American flag until its not Jasper Johns’ anymore: Its yours.”

Follow your oddball nature:

What these critics are attracted to in art is a certain intensity. “I’m interested in a glitch, Saltz says. “In some pieces, you can see that the artist is focusing so hard that it herniates, and boom! That’s art.” Saltz compares the type of art he likes with what he typically sees in Chelsea galleries. “The Chelsea stuff can be so generic in its failures. What I like has a certain kind of blatancy to it. The failures are more flamboyant.”
“All artists are self taught,” says Smith. “So much of what we do is inborn- our handwriting, our voice… Artistry comes in many shapes and sizes.” Saltz advises students to “follow your oddball obsession,” to make all that art that we are specifically impelled to make. “Make your bad art. Honor that part of your work. Do EVERYTHING. Don’t make PRODUCT.”
In short, Saltz and Smith advise us to first understand the variety of options we have as artists, then to make the art that is most meaningful to us as individuals. Although they may not have known it, their advice lines up incredibly neatly with the Academy’s mission.  At the New York Academy of Art, “We believe that rigorously trained artists are best able to realize their artistic vision.”
Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? One final note, from Saltz: “it only takes a lifetime.”

To learn more about Claire Cushman (MFA 2015), take a peak at her bio and recent paintings.  Remember, your thoughts are welcomed. 
Please visit Person Place or Thing's website to download the complete podcast. Follow these links for more details about the Academy's Professional Practice series and it's creator, artist and faculty-member Sharon Louden.


  1. "Painting glitches" and "oddball obsessions" make great it. thanks for the great post, and the reminder!