November 2005 – Contemporary Magazine, Issue 76 |

Contemporary Magazine | The Rise of the Columbia MFANot unlike the cultivation of YBAs at Goldsmith’s in the late 1980s, the Master of Fine Arts program at Columbia University has been spinning out some of the most success-ready grads of the past five years. Signing on with Chelsea galleries even before their final thesis shows, these artists might sell out their entire portfolios in one night to ambitious, Saatchi-esque collectors aiming to get in early on the next big thing. More than ever, gallerists are plundering MFA thesis shows for trend-setting work, which allows some artists the luxury of choosing which collections they want to be included in.

The Columbia class of 2000 and 2001 were the first to elicit this kind of feverish market speculation, with superstars David Altmejd, Ryan Johnson, Tim McGrath, Dana Schutz and Kevin Zucker making up the vanguard. Zach Feuer, director of Zach Feuer LFL gallery in Chelsea, became one of the biggest promoters of this group, offering solo and double shows to them after meeting them at a party. “A lot of what attracted me to this group was how sophisticated the communication about studio practice was in their studio community…their learning curve was speeded up because everyone was exploring and sharing in amazing ways,” he wrote in an email.

As the commercial success of their students was amplified, the Columbia MFA program began to surpass the other legendary art schools in the area (Yale University, NYU, Pratt, School of Visual Arts and Hunter College) in reputation and numbers of applicants. When six Columbia MFA grads were selected for the 2004 Whitney Biennial, the school threw a massive party hosted by premiere collector Beth Rudin deWoody and Whitney council members at the luxury handbag boutique, VBH. But long before this party, Columbia art work had become a high-end commodity capable of defining the taste of a new generation of art patrons floating on the clouds of hedge fund profits.

Dana Schutz is commonly touted as the poster child of this Columbia crowd and is currently selling her work for six figures. REALLY? Working in high-octane color oils that smear and drip delightfully, she paints an alternate reality full of parable and historical reference. The premise of all of her works rests on a fictional nightmare: humanity has been destroyed apart from one lone survivor, Frank, whose actions and experiences she chronicles with vivid, plastery strokes. Her largest and most developed painting is included in PS1’s Greater New York show, which is showing 167 artists who have “emerged” over the past five years and will likely be the stars of American art of the future. Susan Reynolds, director of Feigen Contemporary Gallery said that the show is “very important to collectors wanting to know some of the prevalent ideas that are out there and brewing.” But with 20% of the artists coming from the Columbia MFA, the school’s predominance is further confirmed with this show, and it is becoming harder for an artist to enter the market without an advanced degree.

“Teachers there teach students the basics,” Oshteyn said. But along the way, students are also learning savvy marketing and how to entice blue-chip dealers.

John Kessler has recently given up his post as chair of the MFA program at Columbia, which he joined in 2000. During this five years, Kessler pioneered a unique mentorship program that pairs students with artists who spend one full week per semester working intensively with students, developing a rich dialogue and critical exchange. His belief is that art school is also about the stuff that happens outside the school, “ it is based on contacts and sustained relationships,” he said. Columbia is also one of a few schools introducing “the business of art” courses that teach students about archiving practices, tax law, leasing property and other practical matters thay are likely to encounter in their careers. Faculty includes artworld notables Rirkrit Tiravanija, Coco Fusco, Kara Walker, Liam Gillick, among others. But despite trends at other art schools, the program at Columbia is still very object-based, and admitted students rarely have any kind of post-studio practice.

But what what will happen to these students who rocket out of graduate school into five figure sales and are then known for a particular style that has solidified into a product in high demand? “while the students are in school, they’re great! Once they leave, they are unable to guide themselves and they are pressured by the galleries to keep producing to meet demand, and they have a drying up period in which they can’t put together a second solo show,” Oshteyn said. Brian Sholis, associate editor of ArtForum has seen that many of these artists get locked into solo shows, without making the rounds of group shows first. This leads to their development as “single facet artists”, a concern more about creative integrity than commercial success. But this is nothing new, according to Kessler, who doesn’t see early career success as an impediment to future contributions. “ Rauschenberg was 25 years old when he won the prize in Venice,” he said.

Megan Foster is one of these Columbia grads who has been able to manage commercial success in a way that seems more measured than some of her peers. QUOTE. Represented by Tatyana Oshteyn of Black & White Gallery in Brooklyn, Foster is a master printer at Columbia and produces bold, cartoon graphic-inspired paintings that reference popular B-list movies. “She has found a way to give herself time to develop, you have to find another way to support yourself. ” Oshteyn affirmed.

Older artists who also attended top-rate art schools perhaps 10-20 years ago and have yet to establish themselves as career artists are not pleased with the current appetite for younger and younger crops of emerging talent. One Hunter college MFA grad wrote anonymously on the popular website,, “I guess I graduated at the wrong time, a few years too early, because none of this was happening then. I feel like I missed the boat. I have been trying so hard to get my work out there and there is just SILENCE everywhere.”