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Sascha Mombartz: Office for Visual Affairs

by Pranav Joneja (ME ’18)

Meet Sascha Mombartz. Photo by Catalina Kulczar.
Meet Sascha Mombartz. Photos by Catalina Kulczar.


How did you find out about Cooper?

Well, I’m originally from Germany, but this story should start when I first moved to America after finishing high school in Egypt. My father was a diplomat for the German government and his job had us moving around a lot. I was born in Malta, I grew up in Ethiopia, Thailand, Germany, and then Egypt. So, it begins when I was around 18 and we were posted to Texas. 

I showed up in Denton, Texas and it was a completely different world—bit of a culture shock you could say. I had started attending the University of North Texas, which was a big college in a pretty small town. The graphic design program I was in had a very commercial focus—lots of advertising and things like that, which is what I thought at the time I wanted to do.

While I was there, I attended a photography show and the curator was from New York. He told me about this school in New York called “Cooper’s Union—or something like that. It’s free!” Of course, I didn’t believe him right away so when I got home, I looked it up and it was a real what-the-fuck moment. It was real! But I had just missed the application deadline!

So, I called the school and through those calls I got all the way to Dean Vidler, the dean of the art school at the time. I don’t even know why they let me talk to him! Anyways, despite all my explaining and pleading, he said that I would have to wait another year to apply.

Six months later, I went to a portfolio review and Day Gleeson (Professor in the School of Art) was there. You know you hear all those stories about people who go to portfolio reviews and are crying, so I was pretty nervous. I was also the only guy wearing a shirt, tie and a jacket—I don’t even know why. But somehow she took a liking to me.

Do you remember what you showed to Day Gleeson at your portfolio review?

That was another sort of weird thing. I had only brought my laptop and was showing her these websites and videos I had made. And I think some logos I had designed, too. This was before it was easy to make websites, so it was kind of weird and sorta new. Everyone else was lugging around these huge portfolios—like physical bags and boxes—while I just had my laptop only.

I was also the only guy wearing a
shirt, tie and a jacket—I don’t even know why.
But somehow she took a liking to me.

"See Something, Say Something." Concept by Sascha Mombartz.
“See Something, Say Something.” Concept by Sascha Mombartz.

What did you feel when you first got to Cooper?

Honestly, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. It’s difficult to judge from afar all these things without actually being there. I was very… confused? I had come from a place that was very structured, and even though Cooper had classes like Graphic Design, it wasn’t like Graphic Design at UNT. The whole studio idea was very open. You have to almost come up with your own assignments.

I took an advanced drawing class. The guy next to me was doing a sculpture, another person was doing a dance performance and I was sitting there like “I don’t understand, I’m in a drawing class!” It was such a contrast from where I had come from.

Cooper is also very heavily focused on the concept. Yes, there’s a component of technique involved, but I feel at Cooper it’s all about the idea or concept behind your project.

You might say that about any high-brow art school.

Sort of, yeah. But sometimes people value the craft of the work, or they look at the technique. I didn’t go to other schools, but at Cooper, more than anything else, it was about the concept. At least that’s what I think. I feel that your craft was treated like your own business and you got better at it on your own.

Stamp on money concept by Sascha Mombartz.
Fund Trust stamp series by Sascha Mombartz.

I found some work you made while you were at Cooper; you submitted it to The Pioneer. Do you remember this?

"Pull Yourself Together," Illustration by Sascha Mombartz. Originally printed in Volume 86, Issue 5.
“Pull Yourself Together” by Sascha Mombartz. Originally printed in Volume 86, Issue 5.

This one is called “Pull yourself together.”

It was part of a series of little word games I made for a screen printing class with Lorenzo [Clayton]. His big thing is to teach us to iterate. He doesn’t use the word ‘iterate’, but that’s what he teaches. He explains how you come up with an idea and then try it in lots of different ways and keep experimenting until you find a solution.

When you graduated, what was your path out of Cooper?

Well, I graduated in December 2008 because I was a transfer student. My father was very eager to have me supporting myself financially, but he agreed to help me out for one month after graduation. Basically, he would pay for January rent; after that I was on my own.

Now it was early 2009, you know, financial crisis and everything and here I was trying to find a job. My friend Louise—she had graduated just a little before me—was working at The New York Times. She told me they were looking for a graphic designer and she managed to arrange a job interview for me with Khoi Vinh, their design director. The interview went really well and I was looking forward to hearing from them soon.

At the same time, I was also interviewing at Pentagram. I felt really good after that interview and I thought that was going to turn out well for me. They offered me an internship that paid quite well and I was so happy! I mean it’s Pentagram!!

[Editor’s Note: Pentagram is a multidisciplinary design studio. J. Abbot Miller, a partner at Pentagram and also a Cooper alumnus, designed the signage and is behind the decision to use that typeface you see everywhere in the NAB—the one with the chamfered edges. It’s called Foundry Gridnik.]

“It’s all downhill from here.” Williamsburg Bridge, New York, 2012. By Sascha Mombartz.

Then I heard back from The Times—they wanted to do a second interview. I was like, “Holy shit, this is huge!” I was very excited. But then I felt kinda bad because I was supposed to start at Pentagram the next week. I felt like I should let them know that I’m doing other interviews because… well it’s gonna suck for them! So, I called them up—see I thought this was a good idea when I did it—and I said:

“Hey, I’m doing an interview with The New York Times. I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but I thought you should know.”
And the lady was like: “—Oh cool, thanks. Uhh, I’ll call you back later.” *click*
And I thought to myself, “Oh shit, call me back later? Uhh.” But this was just before my interview at the Times, so I just refocused on that. When I got out of the interview, I had a voicemail. It was from Pentagram:

“Hey Sascha, thanks for letting us know! We found someone else to take your spot. Good luck with The Times. Bye.” *click* And I thought, “Hooooly shit, I went and fucked that up. I just lost that job.”

After that, I started getting anxious. I hadn’t heard from The Times in a while, so I called them. They said, “Hey, thanks for calling, you were second on our list, but we decided to go with someone else. Thanks so much.”

 I should have started at Pentagram, and then if I got the job at The Times, I should quit and go there instead. That’s okay to do. I’m not going to hurt Pentagram by doing that; they’re too big.

And then I just crumbled. I was such a moron; I should have just shut up and I would still have the Pentagram internship. Of course, now with hindsight, I would say my advice is you definitely need to look out for yourself because other people are not going to look out for you. I should have started at Pentagram, and then if I got the job at The Times, I should quit and go there instead. That’s okay to do. I’m not going to hurt Pentagram by doing that; they’re too big.

Anyways, I had ended up with nothing. Mega-bummer.

Two weeks later, I got a call from Khoi at The Times again. He said:

“Hey Sascha, are you still looking for a job? Would you be interested in working for us?”

I was excited all over again! I got the job! What had happened was the person they originally hired—she had her own design studio and had more experience than me—just did not fit in with the team. After an incident, she was let go and so I got the job!

That was my first job right out of Cooper. I was on the digital design team at The New York Times. We made all the minute details and features of the website and sidebar and translated that experience to all their mobile apps and stuff. It was such an amazing experience and I guess I did realize it at the time. You only realize how great the first job was when you’re at the fifth job and it’s not so amazing anymore.

Sounds a bit like dating.

Oh, yeah, 100%, everything is like dating.

What were the not-so-amazing places you ended at?

I don’t think I could tell you that on the record. 

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“Black Hole.” 2008. Installation by Sascha Mombartz in his senior show.

Where has your career taken you after that?

Well, I tried a bunch of things. First I started a company with two of my friends. We made a lot of mistakes and things didn’t end so well between me and friends-turned-co-founders. After learning a lot from that I experience, I tried something else in the form of a new company I started on my own.

The idea came to me when I visited Walter De Maria’s The Broken Kilometer and The New York Earth Room. These are two mind-blowing installations in SoHo that I wanted to share with my friends. So, I started taking my friends there and that morphed into me looking up more about the history of SoHo. I already knew the history of Cooper Union, I knew things about McSorley’s story—I was so fascinated by the little bits of information that change the way you look at something.

Soon after that, I had a job giving walking tours of neighborhoods to random people. Yeah, like tourists and even local people who were curious. It was a lot of work to read up and learn enough about New York to answer any questions, but I was already interested in all of that and now I had a good reason. I charged $50 per person. And I had to do the tours whether it was raining or it was sunny, so it was pretty hard.

It made sense to me that this could be an app, so that’s what I started working on.

It was initially called ArtwalkNYC and now it’s called Float. It’s a guidebook-as-an-app that tells reveals the little bits of information that exists all around you. It helps you make your own tour of these neighborhoods.

Looking back at that now, I think I realize I picked something really difficult. Creating high quality, original content is super hard. And the travel business is also very crowded. There are literally 50 other guide apps—from like Lonely Planet and other guidebook companies going digital. I put in a lot of work and I felt it wasn’t really going anywhere, so it’s shelved for now.

[Editor’s Note: The app is still available as Float and features over 300 stories about places all over the five boroughs. One story about Cooper Union: “The statue of Peter Cooper in the park used to be cleaned by Jackson Pollock when he worked as a stone cutter at the Emergency Relief Bureau.”]

Urtak, one of Mombartz's first startups, was an online discussion platform. The concept was that each comment must be a question—and "Yes", "No", and "Don't Care" responses are collected from other readers. Mombartz produced the graphic above using data from an Urtak discussion on Cooper's decision to end free tuition in 2012.
Urtak, one of Mombartz’s first startups together with Aaron Gibraltar and Marc Lizoain, was an online discussion platform. The concept was that each comment must be a question—and “Yes”, “No”, and “Don’t Care” responses are collected from other readers. Mombartz produced the graphic above using data from an Urtak discussion on Cooper’s decision to end free tuition in 2012 (click to enlarge).

What do you do now?

I’m a freelance designer, so I pretty much work for myself. My studio is called the Office for Visual Affairs. It’s a little joke I have with my dad—he used to work for the Office for Foreign Affairs as a diplomat for the German government. I think he kinda gets it, but he’s never mentioned it since… I think it was the most hilarious thing. ◊

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Caroline Woolard on Wound Study Center

“WOUND is a study center for practices of listening, attention, and collaboration. The study center is pronounced /waʊnd/, as in: the clock has been wound. WOUND aims to mend time and attention by providing (1) practice spaces for groups, (2) a study center for sculptural tools, and (3) trainings in practices of listening, attention, and collaboration.” - http://woundstudycenter.com/

by Emma Faith Hill (Art ’17)

Photo provided by Caroline Woolard
Photo provided by Caroline Woolard.

Your title in conjunction with the show is Director. Can you speak about what the role means for you? How it differs from the title of Artist or Curator?

At this time, a Curator or an Artist is often understood to be a person whose individual expressions, labor, and critical thought enable a project to exist. But I want to create projects that exist beyond my initial vision; that can be modified and renewed with the energy of the people who are working on them, over years. So I am the interim Director of the Study Center because I am currently the primary person who is responsible for the long term mission of the space. The Study Center aims to mend time and attention by providing (1) practice spaces for groups, (2) a study center for sculptural tools, and (3) trainings in practices of listening, attention, and collaboration. The Director must change for the project to live on, over time, in adaptation to local contexts, so I look forward to transitioning out of this role.

By naming my role within the Study Center, I am articulating the tasks that I carry out at this time, while also opening up these tasks to people in the future. I am interested in naming titles and roles that comprise the systems that I create because this allows for visible accountability and training for people who wish to move into these roles. When someone hears the title of Director, they imagine that it stands for a series of responsibilities and tasks in service to a broader mission, while an Artist or Curator is likely imagined to be responsible to their own vision, a vision that can change from every season. While I hope that the ways we understand the titles of Artist and Curator transforms in time, at this moment, the term Director conjures up associations that align more closely with my goals for longevity and strategic action.

If most New Yorkers have no
experiences of democracy at work,
at home, in school, or online,
how will we learn to work together?

I aim to co-create both discrete works of art and also institutions for the solidarity economy. My method is to enjoin objects to their contexts of circulation. For example, I build sculptures for barter only as I also co-create international barter networks that continue to grow; I fabricate model Shaker housing and I also convene organizers of community land trusts. I am currently working with Susan Jahoda and Emilio Martinez Poppe on a book and a card game about the commons, which could eventually live in the Study Center. But at the moment, we lack nuanced dialog and critical reflection about group work in the visual arts. This Study Center provides a space for reflection among peers, which lays the groundwork for additional feedback and deep thought about the card game and book. I find that many emergent projects make sense within collective work or institutions that must be established.

Photo provided by Caroline Woolard.
Photo provided by Caroline Woolard.

 

As well as directing Wound, you also contributed many Ladder Chairs to the show. Could you expand on where the design of these chairs came from?

I want to furnish gathering spaces with objects that are as inspired as the conversations that occur in those spaces. Ladders, like the sculptural tools in the Study Center, have functioned historically in artworks as both designed objects and also as cultural symbols. I made the ladder furniture to connect the spatial dividers of the Study Center to this long lineage of ladders from Dada, Constructivism, Bauhaus, Fluxus, and Conceptual Art. I am thinking of one of the last sculptures that Joseph Beuys made before his death (Scala Napoletana, 1985), Mel Bochner’s measurement of a ladder’s shadow (Measurement: Shadow, 1969), Man Ray’s photograph of a miniature ladder engulfed by a human foot, Alexander Rodchenko’s photographs of ladders, Yoko Ono’s ladders (Ceiling Painting, 1966, Golden Ladders, 2015), and Alma Buscher’s ladder chair (Ladder Chair for Children’s Room, 1923). Ladders have been used to stand in for aspiration, for getting ahead, and also for temporary stability, for construction of the new.

The image I created for the show, which circulated months before on a postcard, is of a ladder, tipped on its side, being used as a compass. The rungs become available for the compass point as well as the tip of a mark making material. The ladder chairs I made also have a small piece of graphite, making the careful observer imagine the furniture on its side, drawing a six-foot circle. The inability of the two points—the point that creates the center of the circle and the point which draws the circle—to connect is often my experience of communication in groups. People circle around one another, unable to hear what they do not already know or think. As the Study Center is dedicated to group work in the visual arts, this concept of division through aspiration and verbal disconnect seemed important.

The columns are made of turned poplar, and can be used for meetings, or they can stack to form a 10-foot column. This sculptural furniture is meant to point toward the classical forms that structure social life and social space in academic settings and to the smugglers of antiquities who broke ancient columns into sections. I hope that visitors will practice assembling and disassembling these forms while thinking about the design of spaces for learning.

In an arts ecology that privileges
individual success, and that rarely flies collaborators
around the world for public talks,
conversations about political economy become primary.

In addition to the turned poplar edition of the furniture, I have made a version that is an open source file for people with Computer Numerical Control machines to adapt. The CNC version is an example of what I call an Open Source Systems and Art project. I made the designs, files, and assembly process for this and (also for my Queer Rocker) available for use and modification because I learn by doing and by uniting research with action. I hope to add spaces of reflection and healing to social movements, so many of which are, at present, focused on protest and progress. Many students, activists, and grassroots organizations cannot afford to purchase furniture, but they may have time to create things with the materials around them. My aim with open source projects is that through communal production and alteration, an embodied politics will emerge.

Photo provided by Caroline Woolard.
Photo provided by Caroline Woolard.

 

The tools in the show are labelled as either On View or In Use. What classifies a tool under one of these two terms? And how does the label of ‘tool’ rather than ‘sculpture’, ‘piece’, or ‘artwork’ transform the objects?

A tool “In Use” is an object that will be touched, activated, and used during the time it is at Cooper Union. For example, Adelheid Mers’ The Braid is “In Use” both during her training in notation and communication methods and also throughout the duration of the Study Center’s hours at Cooper Union. Conversely, Paul Ryan’s Rose Window is “On View” because it is a delicate model that cannot be remade, so it cannot be used at this time. By referring to the objects in the Study Center as tools, I hope to trouble the autonomy we often associate with sculptures. What would it mean to see all objects in exhibitions as both formal experiments in material and scale and also objects that need to be understood within a community of practice? Stamatina Gregory and I made a decision not to show any documentation (photography, video, interactive websites) of the tools in use, because we wanted to emphasize the importance of demonstration, of experience as a criterion of knowledge. In this way, all objects have the potential for use, but may be resting at this time.

Photo provided by Caroline Woolard.

Collaborative time is a part of the study center’s vocabulary (used in wall text and online), and is “a time which is specifically marked by our engagement with one another.” This definition felt related to the goal of solidarity economies, where the gains made are produced from non-for-profit exchanges. For you, are these two models (collaborative time and solidarity economies) integral to one another?

The term “solidarity economy” emerged in the global South (economia solidária) and is known internationally by different names: the workers’ economy, the social economy, the new economy, the circular economy, the regenerative economy, the local economy, and the cooperative economy. It is recognized globally as a way to unite grassroots practices like lending circles, credit unions, worker cooperatives, and community land trusts to form a powerful base of political power. The solidarity economy is a system that places people before profit, aiming to distribute power and resources equitably. In this way, collaboration is always already a component part of the solidarity economy.

Caroline Woolard notes: As Marco Arruda of the Brazilian Solidarity Economy Network stated at the World Social Forum in 2004: “A solidarity economy does not arise from thinkers or ideas; it is the outcome of the concrete historical struggle of the human being to live and to develop him/herself as an individual and a collective… innovative practices at the micro level can only be viable and structurally effective for social change if they interweave with one another to form always-broader collaborative networks and solidarity chains of production-finance-distribution-consumption-education-communication.”

When an issue is your focus, group work becomes obvious, because the group will keep the issue alive. When we collaborate, we have to articulate our process to others, and therefore to ourselves, as well. This allows us to understand our own work and to refine our thought in debate and in encounters with difference—difference of experience, of perspective, of values. When we collaborate, we also have to accept different approaches to allocating time and money to projects, as collaborators attempt to agree upon which resources to share. In an arts ecology that privileges individual success, and that rarely flies collaborators around the world for public talks, conversations about political economy become primary. By articulating a collaborative economy of shared time and resources, students of collaboration also become students of solidarity economies, looking at shared livelihoods as always already part of shared production.

The Wound Study Center is made to be on-going, (which seems inherent to the study center, since the facilitators chosen to participate engage in long-term practices). Where do you see the Study Center next, and how malleable is its format as it transitions locations and institutions? How important is it that the study center operate in an art-related environment?

It is not important that the Study Center operate in an arts environment, but it is important to recognize that no new models for economic justice will be created without the arts. I see the arts as the center of all interdisciplinary work. To my mind, institutions like community land trusts, cooperative finance, and other brilliant, beautiful, systems-thinking models require the arts to envision, implement, and celebrate the unknown. The practices that the Study Center honors enable people from law, policy, finance, health, and planning to come together to create innovative models. While we see these models of credit unions, worker cooperatives, and community healing spaces, we might not realize that what brings interdisciplinary teams together are arts practices. Lastly, the arts are often the best place to test ideas for long term institutions. I have done much of the research and development of long term institutions within arts spaces.

The Study Center could take a variety of forms, ranging from (1) a small display case of tools  in a community center or public library to (2) a week-long study seminar for groups with daily trainings using sculptural tools. In the best case scenario, the Study Center will (3) become a permanent space for group work in the visual arts. Just as dancers take classes throughout their lives, the Study Center would be a place to take classes or use meeting spaces on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. I would run into other members of collectives, groups, and cooperatives in class, knowing that the musculature of dialog, attention, and listening has to be practiced to become strong. For this to function, I will need to move the collection to a permanent space. I am currently in dialog with the New York Public Library and also the Brooklyn Commons about this possibility.

As (4) a group of practitioners, the Study Center can exist as a consortium that offers meeting-facilitation and collaboration trainings to corporate clients as well as community based organizations using sculptural tools in unconventional environments. For example, Project 404 could teach members of a worker-owned business how to focus on a single image on their smart phone in a gallery. The Extrapolation Factory could provide futurist scenarios for activists in the basement of a museum.

If most New Yorkers have no experiences of democracy at work, at home, in school, or online, how will we learn to work together? This Study Center provides a practice space for joint work and joint decision making. Whether the Study Center becomes a small display case, a week-long institute, a permanent space, or a consortium of practitioners, I know that this is the work that is necessary for the cooperative culture and the solidarity economy that I want to see. ◊

Wound Study Center is open by appointment until Friday, November 18 (email info@woundstudycenter.com). 

 

 

 

Please Take This L

by Brandon Quinere (CE ’19)

Kylie Jenner was right: 2016 really is the year of realizing things. Perhaps it’s because of the current political climate or the never-ending social unrest in our country, but in any case, there is something about this particular year that has given me new perspective. Take for instance my role as a college student, a part of my daily life that I have never really thought about in grave detail up until this past school year.

How can you expect to succeed in the workplace,
where trust and responsibility are key,
if you have no foundation in academic integrity?

It hit me when I discussed post-college plans with my boss this past summer, only now the future that I’ve been planning for myself at a young age was not that far away anymore. Coming to terms with how close you are to your career really makes you appreciate the honor that comes with receiving a higher education. It truly is a gift to be given this great privilege, which is why I find it disgusting when others blatantly disrespect it. Cheating, in particular, has become somewhat of an epidemic at Cooper, with more and more students falling victim to this pathetic act.

We’re long past the years of storing a cheat sheet inside a hollow eraser. With the invention of the group chat and other means of quiet communication, classroom cheating has, unfortunately, become easier for students. It’s quite unfortunate to see students succumb to cheating in order to get by in school, yet the unapologetic demeanor with which they do so is certainly the most baffling. Besides, cheaters have good reason to be apologetic for their behavior, as there are severe consequences if they are caught.

According to the Code of Conduct, which can be found in the Course Catalog, cheating and similar “acts of fraud” are Category A offenses. Students guilty of such violations are subject to a number of different punishments, especially of the highest form. “For these categories of violation, the sanction will ordinarily be suspension or dismissal,” as explained in the Code of Conduct, clearly stressing the long-lasting effects of even a single stupid action. The Engineering Student Council plans on releasing a statement before finals to address actions needed to take place in order to combat cheating at Cooper.

It’s about time for everyone to start taking their education seriously. Cheating is unforgivable in all forms, but when you’re this close to the future you’ve spent all those years of schooling to prepare for, it’s downright idiotic. Think about it: how can you expect to succeed in the workplace, where trust and responsibility are key, if you have no foundation in academic integrity?

To professors who do not enforce penalties on students that cheat: you are negating the hard work of students who took the time to actively prepare themselves in your class. It’s true that we are old enough to decide for ourselves what is right or wrong, but you’re entrusting us with too much responsibility here. There are unfortunately some students who could care less if they cheat; they even shamelessly do it to your face sometimes! You know that one student that asked to use the bathroom in the middle of an exam? Surprise—probably cheating!

And to all students: please understand why you volunteer yourself to be a student every morning. This is not just an extra thing you do on the side to keep yourself busy. If it hasn’t already settled in, college is where your education actually starts to have a purpose. To show disrespect to the very institution you worked so hard to get into by cheating is a hard slap in the face to so many who have helped you get to your privileged position. It’s okay to take that one L on your midterm; you’ll lose a lot more otherwise. ◊

Miles of Movies: Doctor Strange

by Miles Barber (CE ’18)

Doctor Strange, the latest superhero film from Marvel is about Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), an arrogant surgeon who crashes his Lamborghini on the way to a conference. When surgery fails to heal his hands, he heads to Tibet in hopes that some Eastern form of healing can do what Western methods could not. He meets The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who shows him a spiritual world in a psychedelic, world-bending scene of visual beauty. He is also alerted to a spiritual threat about to be unleashed by Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former student of The Ancient One. As jumbled and rushed as all of that is in the film, I prefer to start with positives, so let’s talk about how entertaining and visually dazzling this film is.

Right from the start, the Marvel Studios formula is in full effect as we’re introduced to a cocky character, a brisk pace, and a fair amount of humor. The story operates as a mixture of familiar stories, notably those of Ant-Man and Iron Man (who are remarkably similar characters to begin with). It’s a good time with a lot of fun moments and good performances all around—Benedict Cumberbatch seems perfectly cast! I wouldn’t say it’s more fun than Iron Man and Ant-Man, but it was still an entertaining time.

Where this film definitely stands out is in its visual style. As I mentioned before, this film deals in spiritual worlds, which can look like anything. This film capitalizes on those infinite possibilities here by presenting manipulations of our world and entirely new worlds. Both are mind-bending, but the most spectacular was definitely in the “entirely new worlds” parts; these just explode with beautiful neon colors. The standout scene for me in terms of visual effects was definitely towards the beginning of the film, when The Ancient One first shows Strange these worlds for the first time.

The film’s problems lie in its pacing and length. Doctor Strange bears a lot of similarity to Iron Man in terms of its story structure but is almost fifteen minutes shorter. So much of this film is exposition that, given the film’s shorter runtime, compromises the exploration of themes and character-building. Iron Man had a much fuller character transformation at the end of Iron Man than Doctor Strange had at the end of this film, mainly because Doctor Strange just doesn’t have enough time to get into these things.

My favorite scene in the entire film is in a slower moment when a particular character reflects on life and how short time is. The villain’s entire motivations have to do with the shortness of time and mortality. This is an important theme in the film that needed proper exploration! It would have given the story more focus, clarity, and depth. The difference between a decent superhero film and a great one is in how much time it dedicates to character and themes. It’s why I’ve discussed the character conflict behind the entire premise of Captain America: Civil War countless times to different results and never once discussed anything about Iron Man 2 because it just doesn’t have much character conflict.

Overall, Doctor Strange was another fun addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It had a unique visual flair that produced some really standout scenes. But the shorter runtime limited the film’s potential by rushing the story at the expense of character development and exploration of themes. ◊

Grade: B-

Jay Maisel, photo by Winter Leng ChE '18

Faces of Cooper: Jay Maisel (Art ’52)

Jay Maisel is an illustrious photographer and celebrated alumnus of the School of Art. 

by Pranav Joneja

Jay Maisel, photo by Winter Leng ChE '18
Photo by Winter Leng (ChE ’18)

Have you come back to Cooper to visit recently?

I would pass there every day because I lived nearby. But I just haven’t gone recently because now I live in Brooklyn and it’s hard for me to walk now. I’m going to get double knee replacement surgery soon so I’m hoping that I will be able to get around after that. All my friends who have had new knees put in tell me about how they’re out dancing now, so maybe if I can do that too, I’ll come out there.

When I did live in Manhattan, I would try to go to the annual exhibit. It was always the same every year, but it was always fun!

Recent photo by Jay Maisel

–◊–

ON BEING AT COOPER

Did you have your own senior show when you graduated?

Yes, of course I did! I remember I had a sculpture of two people fucking. And the dean sternly told me:

“No, you cannot call it Copulating Couple!”
“Why?!?”
and he said—smacking the table—“Because people know what it is! You don’t have to write it down!”

Tell me more about him.

His name was Shaw; he was the dean of the art school. He was a redheaded man with balding hair. He and I had lots of interchanges because I was always up in his office complaining about everything. Just before I was to graduate, I got a notice saying I was first in the class but I also got another notice saying I wasn’t going to graduate because of my absences and my tardiness. So I went up to his office and I showed him the first notice in one hand and the second notice in the other… and he said “Well if we didn’t keep a rein on you, you never would have shown up!”

Cooper Union's yearbook, The Cable, 1952
Cooper Union’s yearbook, The Cable, 1952

 In the archives of the Library, I read that the selective service draft was in effect at that time. How did that affect you?

 Yes, we were in the middle of the Korean War when I graduated in 1952. Even before the draft, I told my father I was going to enlist and he said:

“You can’t enlist because you’ll die!”
“How can you be sure?”
“Because I will fucking kill you if you do.”

But, seriously, I didn’t really believe in that cockamamie war but I didn’t want it hanging over my head the whole time.

Anyways, later on I was drafted and I went down to the examination at the draft office. The guy commanded everyone to do deep knee bends and I just stood there,

He said, “Okay, wise guy, what is it?”
“I can’t do deep knee bends.”
“Why not?”
I shrugged.
And he barked, “Well, you just stand there for four hours until we can get to you.”

And I’m standing there thinking, “Stand here for four hours or go into the army…?” I was so impatient; the choice was starting to feel difficult.

Anyways, I stood there and they finally got to me. They needed to do more tests—I was there another hour!—and they discovered that I had cartilage problems in my knees. That’s why I can’t walk now. My knee saved my life [from the draft] but every once in a while it got worked up and it caused problems for my mobility.

Cooper Square in the 1920s. Union News Company

Did you get up to any other antics while you were at Cooper?

Sometimes, school furniture broke and they would have to throw it out. One time there was this huge, ten-foot table that was a little damaged on one side. By all other means though, it was a great table—solid wood and heavy. So I took the table, put it on my head and carried it to 17th Street where I lived. I carried it up all the stairs and put it in my room against the wall… But that’s when I realized I had the fucked up side facing outward. I tried turning it around but my apartment was so small I didn’t have space. So I had to take it all the way back downstairs, outside onto the street, turn it around and bring it back inside.

What did you do during your free time, during breaks from school or summer?

I ate.

Photo by Jay Maisel
Photo by Jay Maisel
Veg_man_Sudan_1024x1024
Photo by Jay Maisel

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ON HIS FIRST WIFE

I had gotten married at age twenty—which was bizarre. I got married to a woman I met at an art program just before Cooper. She was two years younger than me and her father was a wealthy lawyer at the time. She was also a painter and she went to Columbia while I went to Cooper—so when we compromised on where we would live, we decided to live on 116th Street. [What a compromise!]

She was a very bright woman and she was culturally much more aware than I was. See, you have to understand I was very limited being brought up in Brooklyn and just from her family background she had opportunities to learn so much about the world. She actually introduced me to a lot of art and music and culture.

She was a very terrific lady. Our marriage lasted eight months.

Whose idea was it to get married?

I think we both wanted to get married but we were just much too young. If anyone had just said to us “Go ahead, get married,” we wouldn’t have done it. But everyone told us we couldn’t, so of course we went ahead and did!

At the time it wasn’t uncommon to get married so young in the Midwest. It was the ’50s, everyone was rushing to have their 2.6 kids and live in a house. But in New York, it was beyond stupid.

New York in the 50s, by Jay Maisel

 –◊–

ON STUDYING AT YALE WITH JOSEF ALBERS

Yale attracted students from Cooper for two reasons: The first was of course the chance to work with Josef Albers. He was a very famous German painter involved in the Bauhaus and after escaping the Nazis, he came to America to teach at Black Mountain College. After that, he taught at Yale. He knew of Cooper Union’s rigorous program and invited Cooper students because of that. The second reason was that after three years at Cooper, we only had certificates but doing just one year with Albers at Yale meant we got a Bachelors in Fine Arts.

Albers thought that your medium should not influence the product of your work—you should have complete control over your work. He’s the exact opposite of Marshall McLuhan, who said “the medium is the message.”

At first, I had a lot of difficulty learning from Albers. See, I’ve never been neat— I’m kind of a slob. While at Cooper, Morris Kantor, my teacher and famous painter himself, said my works were not paintings, they were “emotional outbursts.” Meanwhile, Albers was very… German. He liked to be in control of everything. He said you should be able to paint in a white Palm Beach suit, while I couldn’t paint in a Hazmat suit. I got paint everywhere!

He didn’t like my paintings at all! He also gave a color course, which I excelled in because it was done in cut paper. But my paintings? No! It got so bad that I barricaded my studio so he couldn’t get in and look at my work—I was so embarrassed.

Homage to the Square, Josef Albers

I remember one time we were doing a color study and I had chosen to do it with Color Aid paper. I had done this 30in-by-40in piece that I was very proud of. And he looked at it from outside my booth—because that’s where I had barricaded him to stand—and he said “Ach! Boy, now we finally begin to understand something about painting!” But then he pulled aside all the furniture and walked in and said “It’s paper!” and walked away disappointed in me.

Another time, he invited his students to contribute to a book he was doing. I really liked doing color studies so I submitted this incredibly complicated piece—I cut out circles and placed them inside each other. It was one color, against another, over the background and then another one… And Albers thought it was great, he put it in his book. But before he did, he changed the colors!!! The book was eventually published, titled Interaction of Coloryou might have heard of it— and it cost $3,500. The reason it was so expensive: each page was silkscreened and individually approved by Albers.

Photo by Jay Maisel

–◊–

ON FIRST GETTING STARTED IN THE PHOTOGRAPHY BUSINESS

I didn’t start with photography until the second or third year at Cooper. The first real moment was—

There was this art history professor, Dr. Zucker. One time he was gesturing in class and I wasn’t really listening to him anyways, so I took a picture. They ended up using that picture for a double page spread in the yearbook. Seeing your work reproduced on a double page… that was the first time something like that was done with my work.

New York in the 50s, by Jay Maisel

What was the first moment where you felt you had really ‘made it’ / become successful?

Well, it’s a really subtle thing. I got an assignment to travel across the United States to photograph cars in an experimental way. The two other people asked to do the same were Elliot Erwitt and Ersnt Haas. We weren’t working together per se, but we were asked to do the same assignment. And these were two top fucking guys. Erwitt is still working today and he’s a genius. Haas was my mentor. He didn’t know it at the time—and later I got to know him better—but he was my hero!

But in my mind: if somebody thinks that I’m in this kind of company and working at their level, then I must have made it! 

What about your first exhibit?

A year after I got into the business, I got my first exhibit at Roy DeCarava’s A Photographer’s Gallery. A photographer friend of mine, Garry Winogrand—he’s a contemporary of mine and I respected him very much, but he was also the most honest, tactless person in the world—when he came to the exhibit

He asked: “Who designed this exhibit [space]?”
“Well, I did”
“You did a good job, nobody’s gonna see how bad the pictures are.”

We were very good friends, but we fought a lot in jest. Garry once said to me:
“The reason your pictures suck is that they don’t reflect the chaos of the world”
“And yours do?”
“Yes, mine reflect the chaos of the world!”
“So why do mine have to? You’re taking care of it.”

 

Photo by Jay Maisel

  –◊– 

The main entrance to 190 Bowery St. “The portico, which contains a flight of bluestone steps leading to the main doorway,  features freestanding Tuscan columns, decorated with rosettes and egg-and-dart moldings, supporting a molded entablature.”  Photo by Winter Leng (ChE ‘18).
The main entrance to 190 Bowery. Maisel lived and worked for nearly fifty years in this historic Revival Renaissance-style building designed by Cooper architect, Robert Maynicke. 

ON LIVING AT 190 BOWERY

When I was looking for a new place, it was the first building I even looked at. When the agent told me he was going to show me an abandoned bank, I had assumed it was a two-story bank somewhere—there were a number of them in town. But when I saw 190 Bowery, I said, “Are you out of your fucking mind? I can’t do this!” And he said, “You can do it” with a smirk.

Since we were there already, I thought to myself I should take a look anyways. As he told me more about the place, I said, “Holy shit, there are 72 rooms in this place!? I don’t know if I can do it!” And again he just said, “You can do it.”

Of course it was later that I found out he had severely underestimated the cost of upkeep for the place. But still, it was a dream! I would never have to worry about space, I would always have someplace to put anything. And the fact that everyone told me I shouldn’t do it—well I did it anyways. So I put in a down payment of a quarter of the $102,000 price and I bought it.

In the early years, the agent also found me some tenants to take up the third and fourth floors. I had artists Adolph Gottlieb and Roy Lichtenstein paying me $350 for 3,500 square feet. It wasn’t a lot of money and eventually it wasn’t worth the bother to rent, so I just stopped.

While I lived there, I did most of my work in the main room on the ground floor. It was 40-feet-by-60-feet and the ceiling was 20-feet high, so it was just a joy to be in. There was the old bank vault underneath it. We had gallery spaces on the second and third floors and the fourth floor was storage and guest rooms. The fifth floor was mainly workshops. And we lived on the sixth floor—my wife, daughter and I.

What do you use the bank vault for?

Funny you should ask. Everybody who came to the vault said, “Gee, what a great darkroom this would be.” Or “Gee, this would be a terrific place to store wine.” But this one guy came, looked around and said, “Finally, a place where I can masturbate in safety and privacy.”

Everybody had an idea for what they would do for it, but I knew exactly what I was going to do with it. I stored all my important work, my negatives, my prints and transparencies and other important documents. That’s what I did.

The elevator in Maisel’s home. Photo by Leigh Davis, New York Magazine.

Tell me about the elevator.

There were two elevators, but the lines were cut in one of them when I got the building. So we cannibalized parts whenever we needed to fix something up in the first elevator. The elevator was copper and I would have to shine it up. When I got it, it was painted black and it was a lot of trouble to keep it shined up.

It also had an escape hatch.

An escape hatch out of the elevator?

Oh yeah. It would get stuck a lot and I would need to use the hatch to get out. Sometimes it would get stuck near a floor, so it was okay and you could climb out. Other times it would get stuck between floors, so it got very hairy. I used to keep a 12-foot telescoping ladder in the elevator so I could use it when I needed to.

What about the graffiti on the outside?

Well I don’t have that problem anymore now that I live here [in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn]. And no, I don’t miss it, Jesus! Ninety percent of it was shit!

There was one guy—Keith Haring, you might have heard of him—made art on my building and I absolutely loved it! But he did it in chalk, so it would wash off when it rained.

Early on, there were many times when I got so pissed off by all the tagging and graffiti even on my windows blocking the light. So I used to spend an entire weekend cleaning it off. But by the next week, it was all covered again because I had basically made them a new canvas.

In 2001, the city came and told me they could help clean it off if I agreed to it. See, they can’t force me to remove it because it’s a freedom of speech matter. But I agreed, and so they came and tested if it would even come off. Soon, they figured out how to do it and said they would come back tomorrow. The next day was September 11. They never came.

In previous interviews, you’ve said you’d never sell it. What changed?

Have you ever seen The Godfather? [Yeah.] He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. It was becoming untenable. When I bought the place, it cost me $200 to heat the place because gas was 10 cents a gallon. A few years ago, gas was four dollars a gallon. So it was $8,000  a month just to heat the damn place.

 

Someday I’m going to do a book about the place. I’ve got the pictures, and I’ll do it someday…