‘The discourse is wide open’ — Robert Storr reflects on a life in art
As dean of the Yale School of Art, Robert Storr was a regular presence in the school’s studios and classrooms, teaching the fundamentals of painting and drawing every semester while also conducting graduate seminars and participating in critiques of students’ work. A practicing visual artist, he enjoyed helping his students hone their craft. And he valued what they taught him in the process.
“I learned so many things,” said Storr, who retires from Yale on June 30 after leading the School of Art from 2006 to 2016 and serving as professor of painting and printmaking in the five years since he stepped down as dean.
Through teaching, he gained insight into the way students perceived the school’s academic program and what parts of it required strengthening. Students provided him a window into the zeitgeist, helping him to keep abreast of new currents and ideas. Occasionally, they taught him tricks of the painterly trade, such as new methods for layering paint or priming canvases.
“These are very gifted young men and women, and some of them knew how to do things that I wanted to try,” Storr said. “But it wasn’t so much about the craft, although the craft was important. It was about the way the students think about things; how they assimilate the general discourse and how they do so differently than me due to differences in our backgrounds, generational experiences, and individual needs. It was a reminder that the discourse is wide open at all times and in all directions, which is something teachers, scholars, and artists should never forget.”
Storr arrived at Yale in 2006 as a prominent art-world figure whose experience bridged the artist’s studio, museum galleries, and academia. He came to campus from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, where he was the first Rosalie Solow Professor of Modern Art. Prior to that, from 1990 to 2002, he was a curator and later senior curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, organizing numerous major exhibitions as well as reinstallations of the museum’s permanent collection.
A few years before becoming dean, he was named director of visual arts for the 2007 Venice Biennale, making him the first American to organize the grand international exhibition where critics, curators, artists, and a cosmopolitan cross section of art enthusiasts converge every two years to assess the state of contemporary art.
Soon after coming to the School of Art, Storr realized that its program needed updating.
“We needed to innovate to provide our students the skills and knowledge to enter a fast-evolving art world,” he said. “The program needed to become more international, more culturally diverse, and more diverse in terms of artistic mediums.”
He didn’t try to overhaul the program overnight. It was a long endeavor — one that provoked resistance at times — but gradually people embraced the need for change, he said.
“I was transparent about my ideas, and I never gave up,” he said.
A diversity of perspectives
Storr devoted his deanship to diversifying the school’s faculty, student body, and curriculum. He expanded the course offerings beyond the traditional disciplines, blending new forms, formats, and technologies — such as video and digital imaging — into the curricula of the school’s four departments: painting and printmaking, photography, sculpture, and design. His successful fundraising efforts enabled the school to expand financial aid and provided much-needed resources and stability amid the 2008 global financial crisis.
He created an in-house exhibition series that presented artwork from around the globe in the school’s Green Hall galleries as well as a gallery at 32 Edgewood Ave., which opened in 2009 adjacent to a new studio building for the school’s sculpture program.
“The art world is no longer centered in New York or, for that matter, anywhere in particular,” Storr said when the new gallery opened. “[The new gallery] will break out of the North-American/East-Coast-centered view of the art world, bringing to our students, staff, and the public ‘breaking news’ from a diversity of international artists.”
The exhibition series provided students firsthand experience in exhibiting art in a manner that fulfills its potential to express meaning both socially and aesthetically. The exhibition’s openings and associated events encouraged dialogue with noted artists, critics, and thinkers from the United States and abroad. Those events were attended by literary and artistic luminaries, including Salman Rushdie, Fran Liebowitz, and Jasper Johns. Working with Emily Coates of Yale College’s Theater and Performance Studies program, Storr organized workshops with famed choreographer and dancer Yvonne Rainer and performance artist Marina Abramovic, as well as a 2014 installation by celebrated dancer and choreographer Deborah Hay.
He recruited talented artists of color to serve as critics on the school’s teaching staff and oversaw the appointments of Rochelle Feinstein and Anoka Faruqee ’94 B.A. to direct the school’s Painting and Printmaking Department, the first and second women to hold the position, respectively. He led the recruitment of multi-media and performance artist Martin Kersels to direct the Sculpture Department.
Storr’s initiatives made a difference, deepening and broadening the school’s profile and visibility while increasing diversity, said Faruqee.
“Rob has had a significant impact on countless individual artists within the programs, many of whom are now leaders within the field of contemporary art,” she said. “Through his seminars, studio visits, and presence within critiques, he brought keen observation and analysis that could only be brought by someone who is a simultaneously an artist, a writer, a curator, and an educator.”
Something to learn from everyone
Sam Messer ’82 M.F.A., professor adjunct emeritus at the School of Art and an associate dean there during Storr’s tenure, had his first phone call with Storr, then the new dean, while walking in Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn. The conversation was awkward until Messer offhandedly mentioned Walt Whitman, he said. The two instantly bonded over their mutual admiration for the great poet.
“Once I mentioned Whitman, everything was fine. We understood each other in a human way,” Messer said. “Rob moves through the world as Whitman did, believing he has something to learn from everybody.”
Storr advocated new modes of thinking and teaching about art, broadening the school’s perspective beyond the traditional European-based approach that had dominated its curriculum. He strove to expand and inform the perspectives through which faculty and students approached their work.
“People needed to read more widely both in art history and in critical theory and cultural studies,” Storr said. “They needed to critique work from a broader base of knowledge.”
Messer emphasized Storr’s learnedness, saying that the former dean’s vast book collection has overwhelmed bookcases and turned the rooms of his New York City home into labyrinths.
“He’s the most knowledgeable, intellectual person I know, but he doesn’t live that way,” he said. “He takes his reading and research and filters it through his lived experience.”
While not inclined to suffer fools lightly, Storr was always willing to consider different points of view, Messer said.
“If someone disagreed with him, he’d try to understand where they were coming from,” Messer said. “He would point them in a direction to learn more and fill the gaps in their understanding. To me, that’s the the best kind of teaching.”
Storr brought a close eye and took a thoughtful approach to critiquing students’ work, Faruqee said.
“Students consistently remarked on how he noticed each detail of form, material, and gesture, and then placed it within the larger context of a global art history with succinct eloquence,” she said. “His exchange with students has been invaluable: probing, insightful, and generative.”
A gem of the university
While filling his roles as teacher and administrator, and in addition to painting and exhibiting his own work, Storr continued to write, publishing a steady stream of essays, criticism, and scholarship. His latest book, “Philip Guston: A Life Spent Painting” (Laurence King Publishing), published in 2020, is an authoritative survey of the Canadian-American painter, printmaker, muralist, and draftsman.
The first volume of his “Writing on Art” (Heni, London) was also published last year, with a second volume coming this fall. The two volumes form a trilogy of sorts with a 2017 collection of interviews Storr conducted with contemporary artists.
In 2016, Storr received a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation to support the writing of a memoir — a project he plans to complete following his retirement from Yale.
Aside from composing his memoir, Storr said he plans to retreat to his studios in New Haven and Brooklyn and spend most of his days painting.
“I won’t take another curating or academic job,” he said. “That chapter is over.”
He offered best wishes to Kymberly Pinder, who was appointed dean of the School of Art on June 1 and will officially assume the role on July 1.
“I do think that the School of Art is one of the gems of this university, but it takes constant effort on the part of those in it as well as the university’s full commitment to the arts to retain its sparkle,” he said. “It is a difficult challenge all around, but seeing students engaged in their work and excited about the school’s program is deeply satisfying.”