Robert Murray began teaching fine arts at SVA in 1971. "That's the same year I bought my first airplane," says Murray. "And
40 years later, I'm still teaching and I'm still flying." Although Murray was trained as a painter and printmaker, he is primarily a sculptor. He is best known for his monumental abstract works of painted steel and aluminum, which can be found in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.
Originally from Canada, Murray moved to New York in 1960 and was influenced by the sculptor David Smith and especially the painter Barnett Newman, who took him under his wing and introduced him to many of the well-known abstract expressionist painters and sculptors of the day. "Newman was incredibly generous," Murray says. "He was always talking to and helping out younger artists; he would visit their studios and really spend time with them. He always said, 'You give as good as you get'—and I always keep that in mind."
Murray carried on this spirit of generosity as a teacher at SVA, most notably in his relationship with a young student named Tim Rollins, who transferred from the University of Maine to study at the College in the mid 1970s. "When Tim first arrived in New York, he was totally overwhelmed," says Murray. "He had never been to New York before and he was very shy. At first he really struggled to find his place at SVA." Rollins turned to Murray for advice and the two became close. "Bob was incredibly warm and really listened to me," Rollins recalls. "He was so porous and open. He is like his work. He makes steel look fluid—and he himself is fluid. He was 'down home,' which was just what I needed."
After graduating from SVA in 1977, Rollins went on to teach art at a public school in the South Bronx, where he eventually launched an after-school program with a group of middle-school at-risk students who called themselves K.O.S. (Kids of Survival). Together they developed a collaborative strategy by which one person would read aloud from a selected text (often a literary classic) while the other members drew, relating the stories to their own experiences. The project grew rapidly; K.O.S. set up studio space in Chelsea in 1994 and then expanded their workshops to other schools and art institutions nationally and internationally. More than 20 years later, the project continues to flourish. Work done by K.O.S. is in collections of more than 95 museums worldwide and has been exhibited at such institutions as the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the Tate Gallery in London; and the Museum of Modern Art.
Although the work of Rollins and Murray is quite different, Rollins sees a similarity in their processes. "Bob's work is really collaborative," he says. "He has the idea and then works with fabricators to implement it. His work is simultaneously beautiful, classical and radical. That's what I aim to do with K.O.S.—be both radical and transcendent." ∞