I received an email today. My phone had beeped, I quickly glanced at the subject line. “Bertram Katz- The Memorial Exhibit”. I put it away, aiming to check later. But it didn’t make sense to me. Memorial Exhibit? What did that mean? That only makes sense if something had happened. But no. Bertram Katz, my professor. I wrote about him recently, the colloquium committee he was a part of. I never emailed him the post I wrote because I knew, before this blog started, that the class I took with him would become its own post, worthy of detailing because of the difference it made in my life. I would write it, email him, hope it pleased him and we would stay in touch. In the years that I would move forward in my career, I would update him periodically, every few months or so, maybe grab coffee and talk about art. That’s how it was supposed to be.
Bertram Katz, taught Drawing and Painting, a class I took in Spring 2011. At the time, I didn’t know I would be pursuing art as an actual possible career but I saw an opportunity and took it anyway. Regardless of what I wanted to do professionally, I knew I wanted to get better at drawing. I would be lying if I said the class met my expectations by the end of the semester.
The semester was laid out cleanly by Professor Katz. We would begin in charcoal, and gradually move onto acrylic paints, painting either still life (or objects depending on what was laying around in the room), or nude models that would often come in as the semester continued. At the end of each class, we would put up what we had made and get critiqued, not only by him, but by the other students as well. In the meantime, the professor would assign us galleries and exhibits to visit, often in Chelsea. By the end of the semester, we were expected to have a one on one meeting in the classroom, with our work laid out in chronological order and talk about our progress from day one. That’s how we got our grade.
I wasn’t happy during the first half of the class. I wanted to be better at technical drawing; Professor Katz didn’t teach that. I wanted to recreate on my paper what I saw with my eyes. Professor Katz’ criticism was specifically that I was painting “too close to reality.” The various gallery exhibits I saw mostly consisted of modern art, abstractions, brushstrokes, objects, simple-colored items that I found myself scoffing at and criticizing. The part I enjoyed most about class was writing our one-page response of each exhibit where I expressed my distaste for this art; the challenge was explaining this dislike beyond my personal taste. I always wanted feedback but never asked for it.
During a specific class, after I was tired of hearing Professor Katz praise another student for what I thought was a poor, if any, painting depicting what we were being shown, I decided to paint in the manner I thought he wanted. I looked at our nude model, she was a middle-aged woman leaning on a few objects. I simplified the image in my head to mere shapes and laid them out on my paper. I picked colors and filled the shapes in, made sure to keep a black outline of each shape, and thought I was so smart because I knew what the professor liked and I would show him how easy it was.
Then I realized something.
It wasn’t easy. I had decisions to make. Is this circle orange or blue? How thick do I make these black outlines, and do I keep them uniform? What color should this triangle be? What about the one right next to it? Should it be the same or different? I never had a confident answer and hope I made the right decision. When it was time to hang up our drawings, I was nervous.
Professor Katz immediately picked up on the big change in style I had undertaken. There was no anatomically correct figure here, no shadings, no tones or colors one could match to the scene in reality. Here were shapes, lines, and colors.
I was stupid to think I could do what artists sought all their lives to do. And to be honest with myself, I just wanted praise. I wanted a little pat on the back, a mere “good job” in class, to feel like I was doing something. I got the praise I wanted, but not without feeling completely foolish first. What turned to be a calculated exercise in being an asshole, I learned humility and, firsthand, what it means to get things wrong.
The next few classes (there were about three), consisted of me trying to combine the two styles of recreating reality and literally objectifying it to create something that’s specifically mine. Professor Katz saw that and commented on it. In our last class of Drawing and Painting, where we had our one-on-one meeting, I laid out every piece of drawing and painting I created and saw the change. We spoke about how I originally just wanted to create things realistically and I told him how I didn’t like many of the exhibitions he sent us. With the wisdom of a man who’d heard it all, he listened and calmly told me what he thought. This exchange of thoughts has been invaluable to me and still sticks by me to this day. When we spoke about my "abstract" painting, we both agreed that I had progressed from the beginning of class to the end, in the best of ways.
I often tell this story in a condensed version to many of my friends, colleagues, even people I’ve just met. We butted heads, I arrogantly thought I could recreate abstract art, I failed, and realized that it never is just that easy.
Drawing and Painting was the class that specifically led to my rationale topic and colloquium discussion (detailed here) which led to my college graduation. Beyond that, the class itself affected me and taught me things I never thought I would gain from class. I have Bertram Katz to thank for that.
It’s interesting how people affect you. I’m sure that, barring the odd email, I would never have popped into Professor Katz’ head. But his class, and his teachings have stuck by me, and without them I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be writing this blog, I wouldn’t be trying to become an illustrator. And that’s how you know a person is important. He changed the world, my world at least. And I know if I could every change someone’s world, no matter in how small a fashion, then I’d consider my life worth it.
I did not know Professor Katz passed away. The first I heard of it was today, in the email I received. He had passed away October 28th, 2012. But until today, to me, he was still alive. I would still think of him, his class, our colloquium, his jovial nature. He’d speak to me in Spanish every now and then, having a slight Spanish accent, as opposed to a more common South American one.
I regret not speaking to him one last time, picking his brain for his thoughts on art, especially commercial art. We disagreed often, and for that I considered him invaluable. Everything I do, everything I have done, since Spring of 2011, has a part of him in it.
I will miss you Professor Katz, you taught me things I don’t even know yet. I’m sad that you’ve gone, but so happy that I’ve met you.
Thanks for reading,