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Reflections on freshman year, by Associate Professor of Chemistry Chris Smart, VC '83

Gordon Matta-Clark, Tree Dance, Vassar College, 1971

Dear Class of 2017,

I've asked Vassar faculty who are also alums of the College to reflect on their own first-year experiences. Here is a reflection from Molly Nesbit, VC '74, on Art 105-106, a course she took as a freshman and now finds herself teaching. Professor Nesbit earned in undergraduate degree in Art History from Vassar and her doctorate from Yale. She taught at UC Berkeley and Barnard before returning to Vassar in 1993. She's currently the chair of the Art Department.

I can remember having the sensation of entering another time zone the day my freshman year began (that first day was very hot; they gave us a big turkey dinner; my roommate had come from California and would eventually need to be told about winter coats). Before getting to school I had decided to spread my courses out across History, English, French and Art History with the idea that I would try to learn as much as possible right away about the wider world, past and present. How best to approach the wider world? That question is still the first one to ask. Use it as you think about registration now. It may help you to know that the wider world only comes into focus step by step, which is as it should be, but the first steps matter. That said, they will not be your last steps. They can go in many different directions at once, and probably should.

Like many, I signed up for Art 105. What can I tell you about Art 105, the course I took right away and now, years later, teach? At this point my story is no longer a strictly personal one. Many Vassar graduates will tell you about Art 105 (and maybe already have). Legends stay live. They have the power, Jorge Luis Borges once wrote, to circle the world, communicating those things too complex or mysterious to be carried by simple oral transmission. Legends know what to do with information. Courses can become legends, but they only do so for a reason.

Darkness falls at noon in Art 105. Forty-foot-wide images appear, gigapixel wonders, 3-D mobile projections, feats of human creativity experienced collectively. The course is taught collectively too. Members of the Art Department lecture on their fields of expertise, one by one, starting with ancient Egypt. Art 105 begins from these syntheses of the best and latest thinking; it is no ordinary introduction, and not something that any other college currently offers at this level or in this way. So many experts are needed to make sense of the world. But Art History itself is an expansive field. An art historian once explained that “a fact is a point of contact between many fields.” So is a work of art.

You learn to see in whole new ways. The worlds of creativity in art and architecture, photography and film unfold as the course proceeds. Your own mind will get ideas; different possibilities will appear, some close to home. Weekly conference sections held in the College’s art gallery (The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center) bring all of this to bear on selected original works: for example, the head of the Egyptian Merymose, Dürer’s Melancholia, Rembrandt’s tiny self-portrait etching, Marcel Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs, Mark Rothko’s No. 18. The course comes into the absolute present in my lecture cycle, which ends with a survey of global video, something I have gathered from my own work in Utopia Station, a large collective international art project (www.e-flux.com) of artists, writers, activist intellectuals, architects and filmmakers. In other words, the course prepares us all for the open sea, where things keep moving in ways that we dare not predict. Maybe I should have had an inkling freshman year when my conference instructor, Mary Delahoyd, talked to us about her own show, 26 x 26, which took place that May at Vassar and included Gordon Matta-Clark’s now-famous Tree Dance. With Art 105, first and foremost it’s not so much about finding a major; it’s more about gaining the kind of knowledge one uses for that reality we call life.

Need to know more about any of this? Please email me: monesbit@vassar.edu. And watch for a new web page devoted to Art 105 on the Art Department’s website.