Yale School of Art community creates tribute to the late Robert Reed, ‘who affected so many lives’

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Robert Reed (center, left) in 1975, when he was director of the art division of the Yale Summer School of Art and Music in Norfolk, along with artist Phillip Guston.

The Yale School of Art has announced a named endowed scholarship fund and named classroom in honor of Robert Reed ’60, ’62 M.F.A., a professor of painting and printmaking at Yale for almost 50 years, who died last December following a battle with cancer. This is the first named classroom at the School of Art.

The endowment will support scholarships for School of Art students at Yale, as well as undergraduate study abroad and summer travel internships. A plaque, designed by Yale School of Art graphic design students Biba Kosmerl and Dora Godfrey, will be placed in Reed’s former classroom, G01, located in Green Hall at 1156 Chapel St.

“Robert Reed was a rigorously methodical teacher of classic drawing and painting techniques — a kind of drill sergeant of studio practice. And like most drill sergeants he ticked some people off and inspired others, but in both cases he got results,” said Robert Storr, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Dean and professor of painting and printmaking at the Yale School of Art. 

A plaque, designed by Yale School of Art graphic design students Biba Kosmerl and Dora Godfrey, will be placed in Reed’s former classroom.

According to Storr, the outpourings of support for the dedication of Reed’s classroom are a testament to his legacy as a teacher at Yale.

“Those who have supported it morally and materially include both disciples and erstwhile rebels, and all want to say what a debt they owe him. The school as a whole owes him that debt as well,” said Storr.

It was one of Reed’s students who first broached the idea of establishing a scholarship fund in his honor. The student, who wishes to remain anonymous, provided the first donation to launch the campaign, which garnered contributions from students, faculty, alumni, family, and friends of Reed. Storr was able tell Reed about the scholarship and classroom shortly before he died. He also let Reed know that the school would mount an exhibition of his work and produce a catalogue that includes an essay by Storr.

“The beauty of this is that Robert knew before he died,” said Samuel Messer, associate dean and professor (adjunct) at the School of Art. “He deserves to be honored in this way. Robert affected so many lives, and not just students.”  

Messer recalls a time he was on a train to Washington, D.C. to hear President Obama’s inaugural address. “A man walking through the train car noticed that I was from Yale and started telling me about his mother, who had been a nursing student at Yale during the ’60s, and had taken Robert Reed’s class. He affected thousands of lives.”

Robert Reed, “Antibes Vert,” 2004–2010, acrylic on canvas, 84 x 144 in., Susan Whetstone, Mark Reed and Dr. Lizbeth Jordan. Photograph by Danna Singer, 2015.

As a teacher, Reed was passionate about challenging his students. 

“A value he always espoused is that a class in the School of Art is as rigorous intellectually and conceptually as any course in any department at the university,” said Messer. “It was a class about seeing and thinking and being in the world, as much as technical skills.”

Téa Beer ’17 took Reed’s “Basic Drawing” class as a freshman and his “Introductory Painting” class as a sophomore.

“He was incredibly demanding, but it was because he believed in us so deeply and knew we could do more than we thought we could do,” she said. “He also had moments of incredible tenderness and kindness,” she added, recalling times when he would flash a peace sign in encouragement or put a blanket around a sick student.

Reed was also known for inventive assignments, which challenged his students and kept them engaged, according to Messer. One such assignment involved students making a sculpture out of cardboard — which had to be as tall as the student — that could be carried around, folded, and reassembled within two minutes. The cardboard sculpture was then used as a still life object.  

“I learned more from him than any other professor,” said Beer, recalling her first day of Reed’s drawing class. “He gave us an assignment to do 26 drawings of our closet, and they were 18 x 24 inches, so they were quite big. It took me two days to do them. By the time I got to his painting class the following year, he asked us to do 26 paintings of art installations we made. This time I could do it in 12 hours.”

Reed’s wife, Susan Whetstone, shared Reed’s own reflections on his role as an educator when accepting the William Clyde Devane Medal for teaching and scholarship in 2014: “As I think about my teaching, I was less interested in teaching drawing because that’s easy. The difficult part is trying to get young people to think about themselves,” Reed said. “I often think about an analogy of my teaching and that would be of a rubber band. And my job has to do with trying to stretch that rubber band to the point where people begin to realize what they are capable of, and once that happens, they begin to realize that there is wisdom when you find out what you can do and what you can’t do. And it is that particular goal that has characterized what I try to do in my teaching.” 

Téa Beer felt that impact as one of Reed’s students. “Today, when I walk through the world, I see it differently because of him,” she said. Beer and her fellow students have expressed delight that there will be a classroom named for Reed at the School of Art.

“It seems the natural thing to do,” she said. “I just had a class there last semester, and even though he has passed away, it still felt like his room.”

Robert Reed (1938–2014)

Born in Charlottesville, Virginia, Reed received a B.S. from Morgan State University in Baltimore before attending Yale in 1958. According to Messer, the State of Virginia paid three-quarters of Reed’s tuition so he would attend Yale, a common practice among states trying to avoid racial integration in their schools.  

While a student at Yale in the summer of 1960, Reed attended the art division of the Yale Summer School of Music and Art in Norfolk, a program he would go on to direct. Reed taught at Yale from 1969 to 2014 — the longest tenure of any Yale School of Art faculty member of his era — and was director of the summer program in Norfolk from 1970 to 1975.

Reed developed several intensive studio programs and was the founder and director of the Institute for Studio Studies in Auvillar, France, which is associated with the Yale Summer Session. He received numerous honors, including a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1980, an award from the National Council of Art Administrators in 2000, an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 2001, and the College Art Association’s Distinguished Teaching of Art Award in 2004. In 2009 he was elected to the National Academy Fellowship in New York. He was a lifetime member of the Silvermine Arts Center in New Canaan, Connecticut, and served on the Board of Lyme Academy of Fine Arts.

Reed’s own work — abstracts featuring bold and richly hued geometric figures — has been widely exhibited and collected. It has appeared in group shows at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, the Biennial of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C., the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and the Yale University Art Gallery. Reed had solo shows at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Bayly Museum in Charlottesville, the Washburn Gallery in New York, and the McIntosh Gallery in Atlanta. His work is included in the permanent collections of the Hirshhorn Museum, Walker Art Center, Whitney Museum of American Art, Yale University Art Gallery, and Bayly Museum.

Media Contact

Amy Athey McDonald: amy.mcdonald@yale.edu,