A SECOND YEAR AT PRATT
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
Calvin Albert became the saving grace of my second year at Pratt. He came up with a course that I adored. The greatest gift that Calvin Albert gave me was the opportunity to discover that I was a decent sculptor. To my astonishment, and that of many at Pratt, I seemed to have been born with that ability. In order to help illustration students better understand the human figure, he originated a class in sculpting. This had never been on the menu before. So, for four hours, once a week, a model assumed a pose, and we attempted to replicate it in a modeling material that never dries, called, “Roma Plastilina.” Each pose lasted for several successive sessions. When the pose was over, we broke our sculptures up, and returned the Plastilina to the bin. I broke my heart to destroy the image I’d created, which, like Galatea, I had fallen in love with. So, with Pratt’s permission, I bought my own supply of clay. The administration asked me if they could keep one particular sculpture, a lady sitting on a stool who looked more like a pig than Pygmalion.
They indicated that they would have it cast in bronze. I requested that if they did, they would, at least, give me the intermediary plaster casting that remained, after the molds for the wax were made. They made it clear that they would not, so that was that! My aunt Loris in Detroit volunteered to have it cast. Therefore, I took it back to Detroit with me. She never did, alas.
Mr. Albert urged me to become a sculptor. I considered it. But I couldn’t see how I could ever make a living. Furthermore, the materials required for sculpting were expensive. So my ability to render objects in three dimensions became just another tool that I tossed into my tool box, never to be used again, until ten years later, when I encountered the Outer Space Men.
Meanwhile, the illustration classes continued, and consisted of more books to read and illustrate. Illustration, alas, was the only course, anywhere, that encouraged draftsmanship in an age of Abstract Expressionism. But when the program turned from basic skills to illustration, I began to dislike it with a vengeance. With every passing day, the assignments and the illustrations got more elaborate and complex. Here is one that will illustrate what I am saying. It represents the Nightmare Song, from Gilbert and Sullivan’s "Iolanthe." There are things that, even now, I like about it. But I always felt that it completely missed the ambiance and feeling of the Victorian Era. Nonetheless, there might have been some vestige of a “style” emerging. But not one that felt right and genuine to me.
That year, a major movie studio hooked up with Pratt, and offered a contest with a promotional tie-in to the illustration students of John Growth’s class. It was MGM, or someplace like that. They were to assign, one at a time, five films to illustrate, before they were released. Some had not even begun production. The first was "God's Little Acre." The film had not been cast, yet. We had to read the book and visualize the characters. There was a prize of $1,000. for the best illustration for each film.
The only way I could make this assignment interesting, apart from the challenge to compete, was to identify with the characters, and give them significance in my mind, beyond that of the story. So, the main character, an idealistic old codger became a portrait of myself, how I felt inside. And I was also the fat guy sitting on the porch, the way I looked to myself on the outside. All the characters were shown on or about the front porch of the ramshackle, falling-down shack they lived in. Leaning up against the doorpost, was the heroine, the romantic interest of the story. She became My Ideal Woman, with long blond hair, and wearing a skimpy lavender dress. I emphasize those words, because this was a moment when Destiny was, once more, reaching out to me. Eventually, I will get to that chapter of my story, and if you continue to read, you will discover what I mean.
In spite of my lack of enthusiasm, I won first prize. The Movie producer also offered me another thousand dollars if I would sell them the illustration. Like an idiot, I decided to keep it. But I got the Prize money, a thousand dollars, which was a lot of money in those days. Tuition was $600 a semester. I used the money for school expenses, saving my parents some, although, they didn't need it.
Then, I went home for Thanksgiving, and my Father died suddenly, but not altogether unexpectedly, of a heart attack. He has been ill for a long time, and this was not his first attack. It happened right before my eyes. When I returned to Pratt, traumatized, I questioned the meaning of death and life. The world seemed like a different place. I decided that I was wasting my time. Here I was in New York City, and apart from having those two simultaneous season tickets to the opera, the year before, I never left Brooklyn. I had chosen Pratt to be in New York City, and, like all my fellow students, I never did anything, but stay in the apartment, and work my ass off, every night.
There were only two classes that I liked: figure drawing, this year, with Richard Lindner, and sculpting the figure, with Calvin Albert. Each took place one afternoon a week for 4 hours each. The other illustration group took the same two classes in the morning of the same days. I went to the Dean and requested something that had never been done in the history of Pratt. I would stay on if they would let me become a part time day student, the only part time day student in the school. There had always been a part time night program, but no student had ever been allowed to attend part time in the day. And, miraculously, they let me do it.
Frankly, they didn't want to lose me. All the students were unhappy with many of the teachers and courses, and there was much talk of quitting. In fact, that’s all we seemed to talk about! The administration was afraid that if I left, it might start a stampede. So, next semester, I was allowed to attend both sessions of both classes, morning and afternoon, eight hours a day, two days a week. The rest of the time, I just hung out, and visited galleries, and museums, etc., in the city.
Thinking about that time, one long forgotten event returns to memory. The New York City Center, used to be located on the East Side, midtown. There was a Gallery connected to the theater that each month had a juried art show. Anyone could enter, but it was considered an honor to be chosen. So I entered the one and only painting that I did in that “semester,” the only “painting” that I ever offered to be sold. And it was actually purchased for $300. by a man named, “Jerome Robbins.” Jerome who? Leonard Bernstein’s buddy! I had no idea who he was, but the gallery was excited. I guess, I ought to have been too. Nonetheless, I never did manage to drag myself to see the movie, West Side Story.
I can't believe I just found this:
One afternoon in drawing class, Richard Lindner called me aside. He told me that my drawings displayed the fact that I was bored. And he suggested introducing me to his friend, the artist, Jack Tworkov, an Abstract Expressionist of some importance, who also took on students for private lessons. Here again, was an opportunity that if I had pursued it, would have changed the course of my entire life. I turned the offer down. The very words Abstract Expressionism brought forth in me, an allergic reaction. I could embrace the art movement, in theory, but it was not for me.
Nevertheless, I realized that Mr. Lindner was right. I was bored out of my mind. Witnessing my father die had left its mark on me; and hanging around NYC wasn't as inspiring as I thought it would be. So, I decided that I would transfer to the Chicago Art Institute, (there was no place left) where I would study so-called, "Fine Art". I applied, and, based on my grades, was accepted, instantly!
The Chicago Art Institute wanted see a portfolio, to access my level of development, and decide what group they would place me in. And I wanted to see the school. So, when I got home from Pratt, I drove to Chicago on my own. The student work on display was unimpressive. The Museum, itself, was fairly modest. While in the “Art School,” which was located in the basement, the students appeared to be badly replicating what they saw upstairs. The prospect of going there was unexciting, but where else could I go? I had already attended summer school at Cranbrook, and that had proved to be a joke!
I dropped off my portfolio, and depressed and disappointed, headed home. Weeks passed, and I heard nothing. Finally, I picked up the phone and called the school. After a short wait, I found myself talking to the Dean, himself. This is what he said: "Mr. Birnkrant, we have reviewed your portfolio and frankly, it is so advanced, that we feel we have nothing to offer you."
I was flabbergasted! I stammered, "But I have been studying illustration, and I hoped to now study Fine Art with you!"
His reply astounded me: "Well, you have learned so much, already, from several other schools, and we prefer our students to be, truly, products of our school." I swear that these quotes are accurate; I will never forget the words he said.
Nor, will I forget my reply: "Thank you very much, I would prefer to be myself, and have no desire to be a "PRODUCT” of The Chicago Art Institute, or any other school!
I put down the phone, and in an instant of spontaneous inspiration, weeks of vague depression were transformed into elation. And I found myself shouting out loud: "I'm going to Paris!" My mother heard me, from the other room, and the tears began to flow.
The painting was both colorful and menacing. God knows, what I was thinking! It depicted a rather sinister balloon seller, holding a cluster of balloons. Through the layers of transparent colors, overlapping and creating others, one could see the seemingly happy figure of a child jumping with glee at the sight of the beautiful balloons. I had created the balloons by applying layers of colored tissue paper, held in place by lacquer. I knew, even then, with a certain tinge of guilt, that the fugitive colors of the tissue would fade rather rapidly, over the course of a few years. Like so many of the landmarks of my life, in those youthful years, I failed to photograph it.