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Robert Kaupelis: In Memoriam

posted by CAA — Dec 14, 2009

John Carey, an artist and art teacher, is the editorial cartoonist for Greater Media Newspapers in central New Jersey.

First there was Kimon Nicolaïdes’s Natural Way to Draw (1941), then there was Robert Beverly Hale’s Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters (1964). Then in 1966 came Robert Kaupelis’s Learning to Draw. It was a book smart enough and egalitarian enough to employ old and modern masters’ examples along with students’ work; the point was the dynamics of application, not only the procedures of attempting realism. I discovered that book in 1972 in my high school library in Richmond, Kentucky. The book offered me and my generation what we knew but didn’t quite trust yet—the processes of mark-making, be it gentle, violent, nuanced, or bold. We had seen those applications in artworks we admired—old and new—but we hadn’t had it broken down in a philosophy with lessons before. When I saw that the author of Learning to Draw taught at New York Univeristy I knew where I wanted to go to college. Three years later I was in Kaupelis’s classroom.

Describing a great teacher is a bit like explaining a great performance. There is context, delivery, insight, and presence; there is also something else: the mark left. That mark is often as elusive as an actor’s impact, but as in theater, there are now and then a few mentors that remain definitive for us in their transformative and indelible effects. In this regard Kaupelis was a star. His energy and intelligence demanded attention, and in turn one realized that a reciprocity of that demand was expected in the presentation of one’s artwork and in the articulation of one’s efforts. It was also understood that respect came only from very hard, serious work. And it was great fun. “Change!” was something often heard in the art studio (along with Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, and Beethoven LPs); Kaupelis would shout “Change!” to models he kept busy, finding one quick pose after another as our young tentative arms began to loosen up with quick contour and gesture drawings in our search for some beauty with our own mark-making. After a few of these energized classes a Kaupelis student never looked at art in the same way again. The lessons of Learning to Draw had met the energy of the man behind it. Change had happened.

Kaupelis, who died on June 12, 2009, began teaching at NYU in 1956. He was born in Amsterdam, New York, in 1928 and educated in Buffalo and at Columbia University. In 1975 he was the subject of a chapter in a Herbert Livesey book surveying higher education called The Professors, where he was cited as one of the nation’s outstanding art educators. In 1980 Kaupelis wrote his second Watson-Guptill drawing book, Experimental Drawing, which reinforced his exuberant amalgam of stressing the fundamentals of art along with encouraging innovative and, at times, refreshingly quirky approaches: fifty nonstop drawings in three hours, drawing from out-of-focus slides, drawing the model with eyes shut. This newer book was almost as significant as Learning to Draw because at the time it was published drawing had become a very undervalued curriculum in university programs; it was a time when drawing was considered by many as old-fashioned and nearly irrelevant.

As an artist Kaupelis emerged as the New York School rose to prominence, and when nonobjective American art found its place on the world stage. His own work reflected that influence in its vibrancy and spontaneity. He was, as the critic John Canaday wrote, a seductive colorist. Eventually geometry and sharp, taped edges also merged and interacted with the wetter, looser applications. While the paintings of Kaupelis represented some of his philosophies about aesthetics, I never felt they fully matched his ability to illuminate and celebrate the art of others—the art in galleries and museums and the work of his students. He wrote and spoke of art the way Martin Scorsese speaks of movies—with a compulsive, obsessive, comprehensive insight. He thought and taught art like a man intoxicated with the anticipation of romance—that ineffable state of mind where joy and passion merge with love.

Kaupelis asked a lot from his readers and students. His main demand was: “LOOK!”—look at this: at this sepia wash Constable landscape; this Sheeler charcoal still life; this De Kooning gouache; this pen-and-ink Manet portrait; this Rauschenberg collage; this Pontormo red-chalk figure dancing off the page with a gesture line of astonishing confidence, speed, and grace! Look at this form, this line, this shade, this figure, this edge, this space! Look at your assimilation of them all! How many future artists, curators, art historians, cartoonists, animators, illustrators and teachers were asked to LOOK by Kaupelis during his thirty years at NYU and in his two important drawing books, Learning to Draw and Experimental Drawing? Thousands.

Kaupelis said drawing was anything intended as art which left a mark. He left his.

Filed under: Obituaries