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01.22.2013
Review> Higher Ed
T.A. Horton reviews Garry Neill Kennedy's new book, The Last Art College.
Courtesy MIT Press

The Last Art College:
Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1968-1978

Garry Neill Kennedy
MIT Press 2012

Garry Neill Kennedy’s long-awaited The Last Art College reveals the visionary infrastructure that placed the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) outside of mainstream European and North American art world influences to become the most relevant program for new visual and conceptual art to emerge in the late 1960s. Similar to Black Mountain College (North Carolina) in its removal from urban centrality and general eccentricity, NSCAD, which Kennedy presided over during the years he describes, was a rural creative enclave, which, through an innovative pedagogical approach, inspired aesthetic investigations that dramatically altered the traditional understanding of the way art could be taught, produced, and even perceived.

NSCAD’s flexible mission, ideologically influenced by Pop Art, Fluxus, Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, and European Avant-Garde Theater and Dance, was inextricably wed to the social context of this ten-year period. While the college maintained a permanent faculty of active artists and artists-in-residence, the political reality of the Vietnam War; the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy; and the shootings at Kent State and race riots in major American cities, were equally influential in the creation of NSCAD’s pedagogy during this time. Gary Neill Kennedy’s robust chronology of student and faculty work, essays, photographs, exhibition posters, letters, and interviews is at times overwhelming in its day-to-day detail. Yet the book still authenticates the story of the author’s ever-evolving search for, and discovery of, a highly conceptualized model for art education. NSCAD, perhaps inadvertently, made history by encouraging the emergence of fresh, myriad-minded, process-driven, Post-minimalist art forms of an unprecedented caliber.

Kennedy, who became president of NSCAD in 1968, had very strong feelings about what should remain central to the renewal of the institution’s mandate. In his introduction, he describes the importance of the school’s “peripheral geographic location” and suggests a relationship between the school’s location and its ability to avoid the “rigid and controlling hierarchies” that characterized more established art institutions. Further to this point, Kennedy writes that he believed the school itself should have no “encompassing plan” to guide the college’s development, but that instead it would “capture the process integral to the innovations that were sweeping through the art world.” The author goes on in the Introduction to explain the necessity of a student’s potential encounter with other artists, and celebrates the school’s general commitment to ideas and their rigorous exploration as a generative process for the production of new art in and of itself. It was this interactive relationship between student and active artist, within an environment that favors experimentation over prescribed structure, that formed the core of Kennedy’s pedagogical approach and served as the intellectual point of departure for NSCAD in 1968.

 

This experimental position was empowered by the author’s own philosophy. This included Kennedy’s then-open acknowledgment of the value of art from the turn-of-the-century work that challenged preconceived notions of content, form, and material and sought to break down traditional modes of expression or representation by asking new questions or exposing the wrong answers. A fundamental capacity for revolution prompted Kennedy’s establishment of an atmosphere of “trial and error” in Halifax. Within the constructs of such offerings as the school’s Conceptual Projects Class, its Lithography Workshop, the NSCAD Press, NSCAD’s exhibition spaces, and a World Encounter Course, Kennedy provided a loose network of laboratories in which those willing to discover new artistic terrain could turn on, tune in, drop out, return, produce, and disseminate works in whatever form they demanded. Many professional artists, such as Sol LeWitt, Dan Graham, Martha Wilson, Vito Acconci, Claus Oldenburg, Carol Condé, and Richard Serra, were involved in the genesis of Kennedy’s vision. The proverbial list of renowned artists associated with NSCAD during this period goes on and on.

Although each chapter of The Last Art College is more or less similar, in containing a mélange of notes, interviews, essays, published works (by NSCAD Press during that year), lithographs, exhibition announcements, photos, and letters, many things do stand out. Peggy Gail’s “Artist’s Talk” summaries are particularly insightful, as are Charlotte Townsend’s essays on various artists. In terms of the works catalogued, the most striking pieces include but are not limited to: Gene Davis’ Halifax (1970), David Askevold’s Catapult (1970), Patrick Kelly’s Lithograph Untitled (1970), Robert Maclean’s Hoar’s Doom (1970), Joyce Wieland’s O Canada (1970), Robert Ryman’s Two Stones (1971), Guido Molinart’s Opposition Triangulaire (1971), Eric Cameron’s Flame Red (1974), Agnes Dene’s Map Projections (1974), Gordon Smith’s Pacific Rim #1 (1975), and various pieces by Vito Acconci and Sol LeWitt. The range of interesting material has no bounds.

Kennedy’s chronological structure and assembly of elements augment the reading experience, allowing one to participate in the maturation of the program. It seems that student projects became more conceptually refined as time went on. The powerful succession of visual elements from chapter to chapter serves as cumulative evidence of the program’s stark authenticity and success. In the end, The Last Art College: Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1968–1978 becomes Kennedy’s greatest work to date as a conceptual artist. He has found a way to make the college’s vision and material production stand the test of time.

T.A. Horton

T.A. Horton is a senior designer at AvroKO and a regular contributor to AN.