I was uncertain about many things last year when I first arrived at Princeton – who my friends would be, what activities I would pursue, even what I would study. Faced with the overwhelming list of academic opportunities in Course Offerings, I settled on a freshman seminar entitled “Drawings Up Close.” The class attracted me because of its small size of peers only from my class year and the fact that it was held in the Art Museum, which was one of the reasons I had wanted to come to Princeton in the first place. Beyond this, I had very few expectations as to what the class would entail or what I would be expected to do. Curators Laura M. Giles and Calvin Brown taught the class along with Professor Kauffman from the department of Art and Archaeology.
I loved this class for so many reasons – namely that each Tuesday afternoon I had the chance as a mere freshman with little to no experience in the study of Art History to examine drawings by master artists such as Cézanne, Michelangelo, and Ribera. Under the guidance of our professors we learned about the process of determining the validity of works and explored the philosophy of distinguishing forgeries from originals; could fakes be considered works of art in themselves? What made a “master drawing” in the first place? We traveled to New York City for two field trips – the first to visit the Morgan Library for a discussion with their specialist in the drawings collection of the museum, and the second for excursions to the gallery Brady & Co. as well as the private collection of Diane Nixon, who has one of the most extensive and fabulous private collections of master collections in the world all displayed in her Upper East Side apartment.
It was the culmination of this course that was the most thrilling to me, however. Together as a class we curated a show entitled “What Makes a Master Drawing?” that was shown in the Prints and Drawings Study Room. Each student got to choose two drawings to be included in this exhibition that we thought contributed to and complicated the question of what qualifies master drawing. The range of our selections was vast – personally I prepared catalogue entries for chalk drawing of Saint Jerome by 16th century German artist Peter Schmidt von Lichtenberg and a calligraphic ink work by David Smith, an American artist celebrated for his sculptures in the 20th century.
My relationship with Smith’s work is one which I think speaks to the connection that I feel towards PUAM’s collection, thanks to this introductory class. As I sat in the sunny interior of Marquand library writing my research paper on Smith’s ‘Untitled,’ I looked out onto another of his famous works, the stainless steel sculpture ‘Cubi XII’ that sits just outside the museum, watching how light reflected off its mottled surface. Something about the combination of these components—my love for this university and the class I was taking, the interest I took in the scholarship of the artist I was learning more about, and the fact that the PUAM’s collection allowed me to rest my gaze out on a monumental example from that same artist when my eyes needed a break from the text—encompasses the joy I found in my first semester at Princeton through the museum. In each class I take and every paper I write, I still remember this experience of being immersed in the collection, and when I walk past the Smith sculpture I look on it fondly, its humanoid form a comforting and familiar presence on campus.