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William Noland’s Intense Focus

Published By Robert Zimmerman / published on: June 24, 2016

The faculty sculptor, photographer, and videographer reflects on three decades of teaching and collaborating at Duke

William Noland headshot

When William Noland arrived at Duke in 1986 he was an established sculptor, nine years out of college, with little teaching experience and no graduate degree. He found the academic environment fascinating, though, and soon figured out how to teach at a place where a single introductory sculpture class had to serve students across a broad spectrum of experience levels and majors. Over time both his practice and his teaching expanded to include photography and video, and the documentary aspect of his work in these media made him a key faculty member for Duke’s MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts when it launched in 2011.

On top of his teaching, Noland has produced artwork of significance and power. He has received support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Josiah Charles Trent Foundation as well as a Fulbright Scholar Award. Venues ranging from the Grand Palais in Paris, France to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. to Durham’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival have shown his videos. Though his work addresses the specific qualities of each medium, there is an overarching vision, as well, as the curator and critic Karen Wilkin has noted.

[T]he same attention to the world around him that generates Noland’s best photographs—recently of wholly absorbed, intensely focused people oblivious to his presence—informs his probings into the possibilities of three dimensions. To put it another way, the sensitivity to the actual that provokes Noland’s photographs is manifest in the literal, material expressiveness and the rich visual metaphors of his sculpture.

Noland also creates video projections for theatrical productions, a creative avenue that was opened up when he worked with Duke theater professor Jody McAuliffe and composer Scott Lindroth on McAuliffe’s 2002 staging of the Don DeLillo novel Mao II. Other projects with both McAuliffe and Lindroth followed—Noland points to these collaborations as one of the most rewarding aspects of his time at Duke.

After three decades as a mainstay of Duke’s studio arts faculty, Noland wrapped up his final set of courses in December 2015. In a conversation a few weeks later, we discussed the keys to teaching Duke’s bright and overcommitted students, the ways that photography, compared to sculpture, has been easier to practice but harder to teach, and his overarching interest as an artist in the element of time, among other things. As we wrapped up, he promised to be back on campus from time to time. But it was clear that in both mind and spirit he’d made the move to his spread in Hillsborough, where he’ll have the time and space to concentrate on his art. We can’t wait to see what he produces, but he’s left a void that will be hard to fill.

To see a broad sample of Noland’s work, visit his web site.

How long have you been at Duke?

I came in the fall of 1986, so 29 and a half years is the tally, I guess. I was brought in to teach sculpture and I ran the sculpture studio and created classes. And then, over the years, I began to teach photography, which was another, parallel artistic interest. Eventually I became interested in video, so I began to teach some courses in that, as well.

What were you doing before you came to Duke?

I lived in New York for nine years after college. I had an enormous loft on The Bowery, right across the street from what is now the New Museum but, believe me, it was no New Museum back then. The Bowery was still, you know, Skid Row.

So, let’s see, we’re talking 1977?

Right. It was a very interesting moment to be in New York. I was deeply involved in music. The punk scene was somewhat preeminent, and I lived two blocks from CBGBs, but I wasn’t interested in that. I was interested in the jazz scene. And there was a lot going on.

Yeah. That’s interesting. I talked to [Duke faculty poet] Nate Mackey a while ago. I think he was circulating through the avant-garde New York scene about the same time. For him, it was incredible. Life changing.

Oh, it was amazing! It really was. There were lofts where you could hear jazz and half the people would be on the floor and you’d pay, I don’t know, three dollars or something to get in, and then you’d buy a beer for 75 cents. My rent in this huge loft when I moved in was 375 dollars and I shared it with two people. Eventually, I had the whole thing to myself and had a big studio there and so on.

An excellent New York story.

It was the perfect early years, because it wasn’t about money. Well, the art scene was becoming about money and that’s one of the things that helped me make peace with the idea of leaving to teach and be in academia.

An interesting thing about your story is that unlike most art professors, in this day and age, at least, you didn’t do any post-graduate study.

That’s right. In lieu of grad school I did an apprenticeship with a great sculptor, Sir Anthony Caro, over a period of a couple of years, which was an experience that’s very much commensurate with graduate school.

That’s an old tradition, the artist apprenticeship.

Yes, but it would be almost impossible to do now. Nowadays, you have to have an MFA. And certainly I had a lot of friends who got MFAs, but it wasn’t absolutely the only way you could do it.

But the thing is that my father’s a painter. I grew up around artists. I’d been hitting New York quite a bit even before I moved there, when I was an undergrad at Sarah Lawrence College. I fell in with a group of people in New York, visual artists, many of whom were a decade or so older than me. They were sort of established when I was in my early 20s. So because I’d been around artists so much, growing up, I had this attitude that there was nothing that an institution could teach me that I wasn’t learning in a more interesting way, by closer contact.

So do you think that not having gone through a post-graduate art program made it easier to adapt to Duke as a place where you couldn’t teach as if you were at an art school?

I think I could have taught at any art school, but Duke made me very conscious of all the things I didn’t know, of the enormous gaps in my education. In my department the studio people were a minority. It was dominated by art historians. At most art schools it’s the opposite. There’s a small group of art history professors and then a much bigger studio program.

One of the reasons that I stayed was because I needed the job—this is a good way to live and still have some time to work. But as I look back, I came here and immediately began to learn things, partly just to understand what was going on, but also because I found it all so fascinating.

You had all of these people, all of these art historians, who had identified a niche and got deeply involved in it. Over the years I kept encountering incredibly serious people, inside and outside of my department, who knew a ton, who were really, really deeply involved in what they were doing. I’ve had some very productive collaborations with some of them.

That environment must have had an effect on your approach to teaching, because it seems like you were kind of a blank slate when you got here.

Yes, my background was patchy, so I had to learn how to teach and I always put history into any studio class.

Teaching at Duke is not like teaching a lot of other places. Number one, the kids are smart. They’ve always been smart and over the last 10 to 15 years they’ve gotten more diverse.

The other thing about Duke students is that, at least until recently, most Duke undergraduates wouldn’t be coming here to study art. You might get a biology major who just loves to make art and has phenomenal work habits. These are motivated students who can be driven and molded to cover a huge amount of territory, to explore a lot of things. I sort of conspire to have them be cerebral. I give them an art historical context in which to see what they’re doing and how it relates to what they might want to do.

Students, especially nowadays, are careful because they feel like they’ve got to get these incredible grades in order to get into the schools that they think they need to go to. So how do you get them to be looser about it and reassure them that that’s okay? You can’t do it in a week or in the first month, but over the course of a semester you can get them to buy in. They begin to understand what my expectation is. And so in the end, with many of these students, you could just get phenomenal things out of them in a relatively short amount of time. I think many of them found it really satisfying and even beneficial on some level, because they’re not used to operating that way.

So how do you teach sculpture? I’ve always imagined that you start with clay or something and work up to…

No, because at Duke that wouldn’t have made sense. In classical art study, even if it was sculpture, the first year would just be drawing. You might not even get your hands on a material until somewhere down the line, and that’s not realistic at Duke.

At Duke you sort of have the inverse. You’ve got students who have all of this energy and are more than likely involved in other rigorous courses. A certain portion of their brain is entirely engaged. They want to be going into an art class to do something more physical and more spiritual and more sensual and tactile, but they’re also smart and you can engage them both ways.

So in the studio I have ample space, equipment and materials available. This is something that I’d learned before I came. Half of the battle is having space to work and materials ready to work with. That gets students to start out thinking as sculptors, with real materials in real space.

It’s a very anti-conceptual notion. If it was a conceptual art class and you had an empty classroom, that would be one thing. The students would go home and they would think very hard and some would come up with brilliant ideas and others would be, you know, lost.

In sculpture it’s material, different materials that have different qualities, different weight and a different feel. It’s not imaginary or conceptual, it’s real, so that’s always been the way that I approach things. I’d go to lumber yards, I’d go to scrap yards, I’d see to it that there was a lot of material around so people could begin to make associations and build things.

Once they have this laboratory with materials to experiment with, you can also guide them intellectually, contextualize it for them, and they’ll hear you because they’re actually engaged with the substance of the stuff themselves.

What kind of students would you get?

A big range. I’d have people who’d literally never driven a nail into a piece of wood. Others had considerable experience, like the young woman whose father had a wood shop in the garage, who could make beautifully crafted furniture. She did an independent study project in which she rethought the idea of “chairs.” She’s now an architect and teacher in NYC.

To every student, I’d state upfront that their grade would be determined by how they progressed and what they learned, and what they did with the technical level that they were at. In fact, I’d even warn them that the people with the least experience might have an advantage because they were often fresher and more imaginative in the way they related to materials.

I teach a songwriting class for beginners where I get that same kind of spread. It’s exactly the same.

Yes, with someone who’s already got a CD of their songs and knows they can already do something that sounds a lot like the stuff they hear on the radio, how do you get that person to write a better song?

Exactly! Some of my favorite students are the ones who come in having never written music, and at the end of the semester, they write a song and perform it, which might be another thing they’ve never done—singing in front of an audience. Sometimes the song is pretty odd, but it’s THEIR song.

The confounding part is that it means that the person that got blue ribbons in high school might get a lower grade than a person who’s never lifted a hammer. It’s actually harder for the person that has a kind of facility because they relax. They look around and say, “Well, I can do this better than the other people.”

Right, and those other kids are the ones who come up to me after class and say, “Everybody in the class knows all this stuff I don’t know!”

Human nature really is what it is.

It is, year after year. Of course, there are always some experienced students who are passionate about music, who dig deep into the material and do beautiful things with it. There’s never too many of those! But there’s still a special satisfaction in helping someone experience this form of self-expression for the first time.

Right. I’ve had dozens of brilliant advanced sculpture students who’ve risen to the challenge of exceeding a strong foundation, and many have made their way in art and architecture.

Teaching photography must be a lot different, since pretty much everyone has taken a lot of pictures.

It is. As I said, students took sculpture classes because they wanted to get actively involved in making something in a hands-on way. Photography is a different kind of a challenge, but an interesting one. It’s harder to find the inner genius in the average Duke student. I had to fight a lot more to get something original out of them.

When I began to teach photography it was at the cusp, just as digital photography was taking off. For a few semesters I used the dilapidated dark rooms that still existed, but I switched to digital as soon as enough people had cameras or I could get the university to provide them. That changed a lot of things. It’s much less hands-on and somewhat more conceptual. You can shoot more material. It’s easier to produce an image but it’s not easier to be good at it.

I know exactly what you mean. My dad had a darkroom when I was a kid and I learned how to shoot with his Minolta SLR and do the developing and printing. I had fun but my results were never all that compelling—with all the manual steps, a lot can go wrong. So I love shooting digital, and I’ve gotten to the point I can take some pretty good photos. But one thing about that is it’s made me more conscious of the vision and intuition that true photographers have and I don’t.

Yes, some people bring a firestorm, an earthquake worth of skill and creativity to a laptop. But for a lot of people that you’ll get in a photography class, it’s all technical. They’ve seen the technique of exposing the sky one way and the landscape the other way. Their pictures look like they’re right out of a magazine or the web, because they are. How do you get any creativity out of that person? It’s almost impossible. They want to show what they can do as opposed to creating something original. I try to make that distinction clear to students. In my sculpture classes I was almost always able to communicate that, but it’s harder with photography. They have to be very discerning to see it. But if there was a magical contraption that could produce a sculpture by clicking a button, then sculpture would be really hard to teach, too.

When did you shift your practice towards photography?

It was in the late 1980s, within a few years after I got here. Sculpture, for me, is slow, contemplative and labor intensive. I got a National Endowment fellowship for sculpture but it was just a year after I arrived and I couldn’t take any leave. I had a few dean’s leaves for a single semester much later, but for most of my three decades at Duke I taught every semester. It was incredibly difficult to make sculpture when I could only focus on it over the summer.

But it’s very important, both personally and professionally, as a teacher, to maintain an artistic practice, and within a few years of getting here I realized that photography was a better fit. There were all of these grants—travel grants and research grants—so I began to apply for them and I got a lot of support. I went to Cuba twice and also to Japan, London, Paris, San Francisco and Trinidad and Tobago.

How does your photography practice relate to your sculpture?

What I’ve ended up doing is different than what most artists are doing these days. Nowadays you’ll inquire about an artist and quite often their practice involves photography and video and sculpture and maybe painting or drawing—some combination of media. They don’t necessarily practice each one with a high degree of skill, but it’s a hybrid practice, and quite a few interesting young artists are able to communicate quite a lot that way.

I’ve done it somewhat differently. My work crosses over and relates between media, but ultimately the result is medium specific. I do things in photography that are all about thinking a lot about photography, and the same with video.

There are things that carry over, though, and that’s where hybridity enters into my work. The element of time is important to each medium I work with. There are elements of time built into still images and there’s the possibility of stillness in moving images. I taught a course for the MFA, The Ongoing Moment, about the intersection of still and moving images and the way both relate to time. And to connect all the dots, I think of sculpture as time-based, too, in the sense that, to experience a large, three-dimensional object, you might have to spend time moving around it and maybe through it.

It’s a very modernist way of thinking. What are the constraints and demands of a given medium, and what are you going to do about it?

How has it been teaching in the MFA program?

Oh, after teaching undergraduates for more than 25 years, it was stimulating to suddenly have these highly motivated, far more adult artists. Your criticisms and suggestions go a lot farther because they immediately apply the feedback to their work.

If you only teach undergraduates, you’re always dealing with people between 17 and 22. And the horror is that, for the last 8 or 10 years, my undergrads weren’t even born when I started teaching. The problems are familiar. If you have a freshman, they’re young and sometimes they’re kind of cocky.

The transformation of some students from freshman to senior is amazing. They grow up so much. But you still can’t expect them to have the same initiative as graduate students.

Earlier you mentioned collaborations with colleagues around campus…

Yes, I wanted to talk about that, especially my collaborations with Jody McAuliffe, who’s a professor in Theater Studies. Theater is another time-based medium. I’ve worked in it for almost 20 years and it’s had a strong influence on my work in other media.

I’ve done many, many productions with Jody, starting with her adaptation of a Don DeLillo novel, Mao II, which we staged in 2002. She’d seen the set design I’d done for a production at Manbites Dog theater and asked me to do video design for Mao II. We got a lot of internal Duke support, including a grant from the Provost’s Common Fund for Interdisciplinary Arts and Humanities. That’s how I got deeply into digital video, in fact.

Scott Lindroth from the Music Department did the sound design, which was electronic music with a very rich soundscape. He and I were both involved in this two-year process, but we were intentionally segregated so that I didn’t get to hear what he was doing and he didn’t get to see what I was doing. Then, right at the time of the play, he gave me some of the music and I put it to some of my footage. Since then I’ve used other music and sound of Scott’s. Working with him and Jody has been among the most rewarding things I’ve done during my time here.

After Mao II I collaborated on many other productions. One that stands out is The Beatification of Area Boy, a Wole Soyinka play that I did with Jody and Torry Bend. That was interesting because the video was very much integrated into the set. And I did another play with Jody last year, The Perfect Detonator, that conjoined the Unabomber with a Joseph Conrad novel. A graduate student in composition, Ben Daniels, did the music. It’s been fantastic to work with him and some other graduate students from music, not to mention Scott. With Scott, there was a kind of a mind meld.

Interesting. I was thinking about Scott when you were talking about going to the scrap yard to scrounge material for your class. He has pieces for percussion that that involve some scrounging, too.

He’s an amazing composer.

I couldn’t agree more.

Probably most of the students you taught have been a major in something else. Do you have a sense of what they got out of their work in the arts that carries over into their career outside the arts?

First of all, there’s been a surprising number of students who were in sculpture or maybe in Annabel Wharton’s architecture classes, who’ve gone on to study architecture. And there are a certain number who were on a different Duke path but changed their major, actually changed it to art, from math, pre-med or whatever it was.

But I think the other group is larger—students who excelled in art, at least in the classes with me, but went into a profession outside the arts. Actually, over the years, I’ve written many recommendations for students like that. Usually, it’d be an undergraduate who took one of my courses as a sophomore or a freshman, and then took another course or two with me later on, which usually constitutes a fairly intimate understanding of a student. That’s somebody I’d end up writing a grad school or med school recommendation for if they asked.

I couldn’t comment on the student’s prowess in the field they were planning to study but I could talk about work ethic, curiosity, ability to think outside the box, to think creatively, to improvise. These are skills I’ve seen people in my classes develop as they’ve studied with me. Art classes are one of the best places at Duke to develop some of those skills, and they’ll help the students no matter what they do.

The bottom line is that I think if you’re doing a good job of teaching, then you’re learning a lot from the students, too. It’s reciprocal. That was the idea at Black Mountain College, which was a model for cooperative interchange without such strict boundaries between student and teacher. The teachers were actively working alongside the students. My father went to Black Mountain, as did my dear friend, the artist and former Duke psychology Professor Irwin Kremen, with whom I’ve collaborated for many years on sculpture, so I come out of that philosophical strain, and I brought it into my teaching.