Q+A: Peter Hristoff
In 2014, the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired two works—a painting and a collection of works on paper—by artist Peter Hristoff (BFA 1981 Fine Arts). This led to his being considered, and ultimately chosen, for the institution’s new 15-month artist-in-residence program, which he began last September. This position at the museum, the first of its kind for a visual artist, allows Hristoff access to the Met’s entire collection and archives as both a source of personal inspiration and as a jumping-off point to develop educational programs involving the general public, young adults and college students.
Born in Istanbul to Bulgarian parents in 1958, Hristoff was raised in a family of artists. In 1963, he and his family immigrated to New York, where he still lives today. His heritage, as well as near-Eastern history, has long influenced his art, which mixes classical, contemporary and personal iconography and includes not only painting and drawing, but also the ancient craft of rug-making. His combinations of original and traditional motifs are brought to life by Turkish weavers, all of whom are women. With the goal of providing an economic reward to the weavers and to nurture an endangered craft, Hristoff founded the Priene Hali Project, a workshop in rural Turkey.
Hristoff’s commitment to the arts of his native region and his passion for teaching, which he has done for a number of years in SVA’s BFA Fine Arts and Visual & Critical Studies programs, is what led the Met’s Islamic Art and Education departments to choose him for the residency—the purpose of which, as the museum describes it, is to “use the Met’s historic collection as a touchstone to celebrate the robust living traditions of the Islamic world.”
Hristoff took some time not long ago to talk with me, a former student of his, about the residency, the impact it has had on his teaching and art and the role of the Met in his life.
When the museum chose you for this residency, did they tell you how they wanted you to spend the 15 months, or was that left up to you?
It was pretty much left up to me. Once I was selected, they were incredibly generous. The residency, which is sponsored by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, had a planning phase built into it, so from January until June of 2015, I got to know the museum and its galleries in greater detail, to decide what kind of projects I wanted to do. Since then, I have given talks at the museum on prayer rugs and on the influence of Islamic art in my work. I am also developing projects and classes connected to the exhibition “Court and Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs,” which opens on April 27.
I’ve been given a lot of liberty to do different types of programs that revolve around my teaching philosophies and my studio practice. I think one of the reasons why the Met selected me is that I represent a kind of thinking that it’s not one thing or the other. You can be a teacher, an artist, and there can even be an overlap between those two.
You don’t have to give one up for the other.
They’re really not two separate things, and that’s always been my philosophy in terms of trying to bring as much of my work into my teaching, and then bringing what I get from the students back into my studio.
Can you tell me about some of your teaching activities at the Met, and what teaching in the museum is like?
The Met has, very graciously, given me the opportunity to teach some of my SVA classes there. For many years, I’ve been doing drawing marathons at the College, and I’m now doing them at the museum as well. I also recently did a program for the museum, for teenagers who are interested in careers in the arts. We had a drawing session in the Greek and Roman galleries where I brought in live models in masks and period costumes to pose with the objects—with the statuary—and the students drew them.
What I want in these classes is to create an environment where no one is intimidated by what they’re drawing. The museum houses these great, timeless works of art, so to make students comfortable and not self-conscious about their own work is a challenge. Using live models is a way to loosen them up. Students are encouraged to focus on gesture and movement, rather than detail, and then that kind of looseness carries over into their studies of the statuary. I’ve been doing this for so long that I’ve acquired a certain knack at getting students to relax and draw unselfconsciously. That’s really my goal.
I remember having that feeling of looseness when I took your class.
When people draw without being self-conscious, wonderful things happen. Everyone can draw. We all have the ability to make marks and for them to be beautiful and interesting.
Another part of your residency is maintaining a blog on the Met’s website. Has writing always been a part of what you do?
I believe that writing is very important and that when one is a creative individual, with discipline you can challenge your creative thinking and channel it into different practices. I don’t think that it is so difficult for us to be Renaissance people. I see that with my students. When you have a certain visual sensitivity it’s not all that difficult to then translate that into a literary or critical sensitivity to put your ideas out there.
Do you have a personal project that you are working on during the residency?
Yes, I decided that I would try to re-create as many of the pieces in the museum that interest me. So I spend one day a week at the museum drawing and I try to complete one small sketchbook on each of those days. From that book, I pick out the works that I want to reproduce as paintings. I’m creating my own Metropolitan Museum of Art, with my reproductions. I started during the planning phase of the residency and I’ll stop—or I think I’ll stop—when the residency is over. Otherwise, I could spend the rest of my life doing this.
I feel like I’ve completely reconnected to a study of art history, because when you focus on the various collections you inevitably make connections between the different cultures. I’ll think, “Wait a minute, where did I see something that looked just like this?” And I’ll remember it was another piece, made 200 years ago on the other side of the world, and start realizing how certain things are of abiding interest to humans and will reappear in art, sometimes with variations, sometimes in a way that’s almost identical.
For example, when you walk through the American wing and visit its visible storage gallery you see Pennsylvania Dutch wooden trunks, and the floral motifs—the tulips—that decorate them are basically of Islamic origin. That makes you think of the way these images have traveled from one place to another, and continue to do so.It’s like being back in school. I’ve always enjoyed being in school, obviously, or I wouldn’t be teaching. But it’s one thing to enjoy being in school as a teacher and it’s another to enjoy being a student. I like being in the other position again.
Going there every day with the purpose of studying the collection and making art from it must be something special.
It’s very special. As you become more and more familiar with some of these objects you start to truly understand their cultural significance and you start to understand why certain works really resonate with a kind of—I know this is going to sound a little bit corny—but with a universal message.
One day I came to the museum to work and the newspaper that morning had been absolutely frightening. Every article was about negation and destruction and fear. And I walked through that incredible hallway with these ancient artworks from Greece and from Rome and was reminded of the beauty that we are capable of. It gave me a peace of mind. I was able to suppress my anxiety or at least balance it. Yes, as humankind, we’re capable of the most horrific atrocities, but we’re also capable of creating incredible beauty. I think that’s a great gift that art, and institutions that support the arts and make them available to view, give us.