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From Georgia O’Keeffe to Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko to Louise Nevelson, Ai Weiwei to James Little, the Art Students League has been a major force in shaping American art. Created in 1875, at the dawn of New York’s influence in the international art scene, a small group of tenacious artists broke off from the National Academy of Design. The Academy had been influential on the development of American art in the 19th century, but the young founders of the League, influenced by the work of European modernists, found the Academy’s instruction to be too conservative—and ultimately unsympathetic to their new ideas about what art could be and accomplish.
The League began small, with one room—barely a full studio—on the top floor of a building near Union Square. But the founding artists’ commitment to independence and creative freedom would become its hallmark, even as the school continued to grow. In 1892, having far outgrown the Union Square space, the League moved into its permanent headquarters on 57th Street. The League’s Henry J. Hardenbergh designed building was designated a New York City landmark in 1968 and has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1980.
At its founding, the League was a collection of autonomous studios under the direction of individual creative authorities without interference from administration, a tradition that continues to this day—and ensures that students are able to choose among a wide range of modes of expression. Based on the 19th century French atelier system, the League’s structure enables a pluralistic and inclusive education that cultivates the technical and intellectual skills of aspiring artists.
From its founding, the League was an active center for the development of artistic talent in New York City. Many of the artists whose work would come to define diverse American art movements spent their formative years in the League’s studios. American Impressionist painter William Merritt Chase taught at the League in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with Georgia O’Keeffe among his students. Through her long and prodigious career, O’Keeffe would go on to influence an array of American art movements—from Abstract Expressionism to Feminist Art. Robert Henri, another influential American Impressionist, taught George Bellows at the League. Henri and Bellows, along with John Sloan, would go on to be founding members of the Ashcan School, whose artists employed a social realist style and is widely considered to be one of the first originally American art movements.
This pattern of influential artists at the League well into the 20th century, studying with and influencing each subsequent generation of artists through their philosophy and process. In the early 1920s, Abstract Expressionist painters Barnett Newman and Adolph Gottlieb met as students at the League. Mark Rothko studied with Stuart Davis and Max Weber. Later in the 1920s, Jackson Pollock studied at the League under Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton, and Lee Krasner studied with George Bridgman. Mark Rothko (and Pollock) studied with Stuart Davis, and printmaker Will Barnet began his long association with the League. In the late 1930s. Romare Bearden began his career studying under George Grosz. Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein studied with Reginald Marsh, an influential social realist painter who had himself studied at the League under John Sloan, Kenneth Hayes Miller, and George Luks.
In the 1940s, a steep decline in enrollment due to World War II led to dire financial straits at the League, closure of the school on the horizon if they were not able to find new sources of revenue. “The League is in great danger,” League Board President Stewart Klonis said in the New York Times, adding that anyone in favor of “individual expression, which is not only the basis of great art but the very foundation of our democratic way of life” should step forward to support the school.
An influx of grassroots support kept the school afloat in the short term, but the real windfall came in the form of the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, otherwise known as the G.I. Bill, which created a variety of public aid programs—including generous tuition benefits—for veterans returning from overseas. Between 1945 and 1946, veteran enrollment in higher education institutions increased from five percent to nearly 49 percent of the total student population. At the League, two-thirds of the student body now consisted of former G.I.s. The school’s corps of instructors tripled within five years, and the first floor galleries had to be converted into studios to accommodate the influx of new students.
With renewed support and a new generation of students, the League continued to influence the development of American art in the postwar years. Robert Rauschenberg met Cy Twombly and Knox Martin at the League in the late 1940s. Helen Frankenthaler studied at the League and Jacob Lawrence taught at the League. As Abstract Expressionism gave way to Pop art and Minimalism, aspiring American artists continued to explore their craft at the League. A young Eva Hesse studied at the League in the mid 1950s, returning to the League’s outpost in Woodstock, New York in the 1960s to produce costumes for a Happening realized by conceptual artist Alan Kaprow. Developing a friendship with Georgia O’Keeffe, Yayoi Kusama decided to come to the League in 1958, and Kusama would later share a studio and become close friends with Hesse. In the 1980s, Chinese artist and activist Ai WeiWei studied at the League with Bruce Dorfman and Knox Martin.
Over the past 150 years, the League has further committed to its mission to train artists in a diversity of mediums, styles, and techniques. The League’s unique legacy of artistic training and strong financial position make it possible for the League to maintain and build on its heritage—including its commitment to affordable tuition—and meet the needs of a new generation of artists.
Today, the League remains an institution run by artists in support of artists, without set curricula or interference from administration. Students come for a hands-on studio education accessible to anyone who truly aspires to develop as an artist—whether they seek to pursue a profession in the fine arts or are just beginning their artistic journey