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Studying Under Peter Agostini at UNC Greensboro

Photo in Alexis Cairns Artists Profiles Project

Peter Agostini, 1960

Stephania: Peter Agostini was famous. What was it like being a student of his?

Breck: I had Agostini for a watercolor class and a painting seminar. He was a typical New Yorker and could size you up quickly and could tell you things you needed to hear in few words.

Stephania: Like what?

Breck: One time he told me something that I have never forgotten. It was my first semester. The professors were doing a critique of a graduate student. Agostini said, “Criticism can kill a young artist.” I didn’t know if he was trying to tell me how to do critique or if he was telling me because he could see I was a kind of sensitive young guy. I don’t know. I remember it in my own teaching, though.

Stephania: What was Agostini like in the classroom?

Breck: He was a sculptor primarily. In painting, he used to emphasize that you need to go IN to the picture.

Stephania: What does that mean?

Breck: He meant, a lot of people feel, the painting has to imply depth or needs to play with depth or depth needs to be a part of it, even though it’s a two dimensional thing. Not everybody would agree with that.

Stephania: What else did he say?

Breck: He said, like when we were setting up and working on a still life, “Don’t just look for the color of the object, look for the color that’s in the air outside the object.” That’s pretty profound.

Stephania: So do you do that? Do you think you look for the color in the air around the objects you paint?

Breck: Probably not as much as I should!

Stephania: Speaking as a non-artist, I am curious. How do you do it?

Breck: You look.

Stephania: That seems a bit disingenuous!

Breck: You look! I look and try to figure out what color I see. When you paint you are painting not just an object, you are painting the area around the object and under the object and between it and other objects. So looking for the color of the air outside can help you pinpoint where the object sits in space. It can help locate it in space for the viewer, too. It has a place to be. It has an environment. It has a place in which it belongs. The space around it. That’s where it is, that’s the space it’s in, and that’s where you try to place it in your painting. I think I’m getting too intellectual here. But the color that you see around an object? You’re trying to articulate space when you’re doing that.

Stephania: What other things would he say?

Breck: He would say to ask yourself, “Is it here or is it there?” He would also often say, “Art is about the search. It’s not about the finding, it’s about the search.” That means once you find it, you have to put it aside and go do something else.

Stephania: Meaning?

Breck: When you’re making art or creating, he compared to it to a search. Like when you are working from life, where does the edge of the object occur – over here? Over there? You need to constantly be looking.

Stephania: Are you talking about proportions?

Breck: Partly. But color, too. Or if you’re working conceptually or you’re a writer, you need to be looking for what you want to say, then when you find it, you’re done. Quit working on it. Work on something else.

Another thing he was big on was the castoff. The thing you make art of. The thing you were ready to throw away. THAT’s what you make art out of.

Stephania: Did he like to use found objects in his sculpting?

Breck (opening Macbook and pulling up images): Not exactly. I found some good examples of his work online. He would take plaster casts of things like crumpled pieces of paper or cardboard and such and exhibit them.

Photo by Alexis Cairns in Artist Profiles Project

“The Hurricane,” by Peter Agostini, 1962, plaster

Here’s one of the rear end of a horse.

Stephania: Is that humor on his part? A horse’s ass?

Breck: No, not at all. He found horses very erotic. He used to say that the rear end of a horse is a lot like the rear end of a woman. Agostini said that art was sexual. He also said that I was more intellectual. He was talking about my art. It wasn’t as sensuous as he felt it ought to be, I think.

“Horse,” by Peter Agostini, 1941

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

Stephania: What kind of work were you doing then, mainly abstract expressionist?

Breck: No, working from life. At UNC Greensboro at that time, it was working from life, representational work.

Stephania: Do you think he was right about you?

Breck: He was right in that I was more intellectual as a person than sensual as a person. I think the intellectual side probably helps me as a teacher, to explain things to students.

Stephania: How much do you think your work is influenced by Agostini?

Breck: Some. Not as much as by Andrew Martin. And not as much as by Maud Gatewood or Robert Marsh. But you asked about abstract expressionism. Agostini knew the abstract expressionists – knew Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, those guys. He was closest to Franz Kline and Arshile Gorky. He said that Gorky was the one who knew art history, and that Gorky was the one who told the others about art history. Peter was probably “second generation” abstract expressionists, but he knew those guys.

De Kooning, Pollock, Rothko, Barnet Newman, Clyfford Still, they were the first generation. But they all hung around together, all of them. Joan Mitchell. She was one of more of a second generation. They would hold forth a lot at the Cedar Tavern Bar in NY. There was a PBS series narrated by Dustin Hoffmann called “Strokes of Genius.” When they were doing the episodes on Gorky and Kline, they interviewed mainly Peter Agostini.

Peter could cut to the chase real quickly, though. He could get to the meat of the matter.

Another thing he would say was “Don’t jazz it up.” Don’t embellish it. Don’t guild the lily. That’s what I took it to mean.

Stephania: I feel like you succeed at that. You don’t overdo your paintings.

Breck: I try not to.

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