To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Interviews with Brandeis University’s academic leadership: the Fine Arts department

The co-chairs of Brandeis University’s Fine Arts department, Professor Peter Kalb and Professor Susan Lichtman, sat down for an interview with The Brandeis Hoot to shed a little light on the department, its future and themselves. This interview is part of a series of interviews with the chairs of a plethora of different academic departments and programs at Brandeis.


Editor’s Note: This interview was recorded during the spring 2022 semester.


Why did you choose to come to Brandeis?


Professor Lichtman: I was a figurative painter, and so I think that’s why I was chosen, but I was the first woman who was hired to teach full-time in the Fine Arts department. This was back in 1980, when there was a push to bring women into art departments [everywhere]. Most of the art students were women, but most of the professors were men throughout the country. So I was the first woman hired and it was a great opportunity.


Professor Kalb: This job came up and it was the only job I applied to that year. I didn’t need it, I just wanted it because the Rose Art Museum was here and I knew that there were [enough] students majoring in art. So this was a place that fit what I wanted. I think that there was a moment of “this seems like the right place and I’m gonna try to choose it.” As Susan said, there are a bunch of other people who were trying to choose Brandeis, but ultimately Brandeis chose me. There was this sense of “here’s a place where people are gonna want to talk about art.” There’s a great museum and great colleagues. Everything worked out well.


What do you think the benefits of having those studio art and art history combined into one department are?


Professor Kalb: From the faculty side it creates a sense that there’s a lot of people thinking about art in different ways. There are people making it, there are people studying it and there are people who know what paint does. For me as a modern and contemporary art [historian], I want to know how oil paintings work when I’m looking at an oil painting. I can tell my students [to talk] about paint and half of them can tell the rest of the class what’s going on with the paint. They can talk about conceptual art and what they’re trying to make and what it means. [The combination of studio art and art history] changes a classroom dynamic in a really great way. I think it’s good for our art history students to have the connection to studio art and vice-versa.


Professor Lichtman: You wouldn’t be a creative writer if you didn’t read. I just can’t imagine how anyone would be a good artist without knowing the history of art. So we require our [studio art] majors to take art history and we loosened up the requirements somewhat, but I honestly think the best deal is to be either a double major … or at least a studio major with a art history minor, because then you really have a great foundation to do creative work. There’s been some really nice partnerships between the two sides of the department.


How involved is the Fine Arts department in the Rose Art Museum?


Professor Kalb: So the museum is a museum like any other museum; they do their curating, programming and fundraising independently from the Fine Arts department, but they are in conversation with us about what types of things students may be interested in. I’m on the board of the museum … and there is always a faculty member on the advisory board. There is some formal connection there, but for me, I just send folks over for all my modern and contemporary classes for work.


Professor Lichtman: It’s not a museum that has a permanent collection up all the time, it’s a big gallery that shows that move through. There’s been a great exhibition of the permanent collection this year that frames the paintings in different ways. We never know what’s gonna be there or how our courses will use it, but we try to get the Fine Arts students to go over there. When I walk into the Rose Art Museum I never feel like I’m at Brandeis, I feel like I’m in this other world of art. … Everybody feels inspired after they go over there. It’s just really hard to get students in there. … This spring [there will be] a show called “My Mechanical Sketchbook” by Barkley Hendricks was in the Museum … I can’t wait to see how that might change the way students think of their own photographs as source material for [other forms of art].


Why is architectural studies only a minor?


Professor Lichtman: I don’t see it as a glass half-empty. We’ve always had students from architecture school, I know some architects who are Brandeis students from the ’70s who are now major architects, and all they took was architectural history. … Architectural graduate programs are happy to take a B.A. student who’s really smart who has physics and calculus and architecture history, then they’ll teach them how to make plans and so on. We’ve always had students like that. Recently, we’ve started offering classes in architectural drawings. So I just think “wow, we’re really doing even better than we were before.” I think we’ll have more and more students who can get into really good architecture programs. … We don’t offer a BFA degree either, but our strength is [outputting] well rounded, liberal arts students who can go on to specialize.


Professor Kalb: What she said.


Professor Kalb, what can you tell me about your Apollo Program research project?


Professor Kalb: I’m looking at the moon landing as a moment that encapsulates much of what we’re dealing with today. That was a moment when nationalism was starting to fail, when we were first developing technological networks that allowed global communication and then we had this thing where we went to the Moon. That seemed like it was like all about colonial exploration, and it kind of was, but it was also a moment for artists to look at all this change going on on the Earth and this new view of the world and think “what’s going on?” They didn’t find the answer exactly, but what they did find is quite informative for what we’re dealing with at this moment. So that’s what I’m looking at: what the artists found as they explored that perspective.


Professor Lichtman, which of your artistic works was the most challenging to create?

Professor Lichtman: Whatever the most recent painting is always the most challenging. … Each painting is a journey full of disappointments and some satisfactions, but I’m always looking to the next painting. … My art has gotten more complicated and I’m someone who loves simplicity, so I’m trying to distill things and not make them overly complicated.

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