Sue Ferguson Gussow is something of an institution. The figurative artist attended the Cooper Union from 1953 through 1956, and, for more than 50 years has served as a much beloved instructor and mentor to generations of students at the New York school. Her courses have been mandatory for all architecture students since 1980, a pedagogical change made under the deanship of John Hejduk (1975–2000) and many voluntarily enrolled for a second or third round of classes with Gussow. Cooper Union’s Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture is hosting her latest exhibition, Sue Ferguson Gussow: Retrospective. On view through November 17 at the college’s Arthur A. Houghton Jr. Gallery, Retrospective showcases a mix of oil paintings and charcoal or pastel drawings.
Installation views of the exhibition at Cooper Union's Arthur A. Houghton Jr. Gallery. Photos courtesy The Cooper Union/João Enxuto
Gussow’s student days at the Cooper Union saw the ascendence of abstract expressionism, and while her work is distinctly figurative, there are echoes of that movement’s emotional immediacy. “Drawing is both compulsion and connection,” explains Gussow in a statement of her practice and why the figure has played a central role in her work. “There is intimacy in capturing the essence of a person.”
For Nader Tehrani, professor at and former dean of the architecture school, drawing and representation are essential to Cooper Union’s pedagogy. “The presence of freehand drawing as a mode of thinking is probably at its best in her class. I think that all that we have made about going completely digital was a false debate,” he said. “Both allow for a different type of instrumentality with respect to thinking, the ability to see in a different way.”
Gussow’s paintings and drawings can be found in museum collections from the Brooklyn Museum and the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, to the Dallas Museum of Art. Solo exhibitions of her work have been staged at Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center—she was a visiting artist at the school from 1982 to 1983—and The Center for Contemporary Art, in Bedminster, New Jersey, among other venues.
Robert and Dave, oil on linen (1996-1997). Image courtesy the artist, The Cooper Union/João Enxuto
In the lead up to the exhibition, Gussow and Steven Hillyer, a 1990 graduate of the School of Architecture and current director of Cooper Union’s Architecture Archive, rifled through iterations of pieces to be included in the show and quickly realized the difficulty of assembling a lifetime of work within the confines of the Houghton Gallery. (Hillyer is also a subject, with his husband, of one of the exhibition’s charcoal drawings.) They divided Retrospective into three themes: portraits, largely of Gussow’s family and friends, many of whom are former students and colleagues; drawings and paintings of dresses—in this circumstance, those worn by German ballet dancer Karin von Aroldingen; and still life-style studies of dwellings and floral arrangements. In total, 86 works are on view as part of the exhibition.
Gussow’s style and approach is myriad. Some works draw upon negative space to highlight their subjects while others deploy layered impasto to establish depth and contrast. In the case of the charcoal portraits, viewers see a greater exercise of realism. But across the board, the work displays a great care of subject and setting, and, in a tour with the artist, a plethora of personal anecdotes. After all, as Gussow notes, “these images fill my studio and my home. Their memories stay with me and keep me company long after a work is completed.”
More information about Sue Ferguson Gussow: Retrospective, including gallery hours, can be found here. The show is free and open to the public.