Art Historians in Focus: Dr. Alistair Rider
By Alex Cohen
AC: What is your background in art history – how did you first become interested in it as a subject?
AR: I didn’t study art history at school, but I became interested in it incrementally during a year between school and university which I spent in Germany, in northern Bavaria. I got very interested in renaissance sculpture – there was quite a lot of it to see in the neighboring area. That stayed at the back of my mind, and then I came to do my undergraduate degree (at St Andrews). Initially, I had applied to study English Literature, but, thanks to the versatility of the Scottish degree, I converted to Art History in my second year – and that’s how the interest in the subject came about.
AC: And then you went on to do a masters and a PhD immediately after?
AR: Not immediately. I lived in Edinburgh for a year and got a job working as a secretary for the press officers at the Scottish Executive, which soon after became the Scottish Government. I realized that being a secretary was a tricky thing, and I wasn’t cut out to do that. Then I got a job working in an archive for The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, which was an organization responsible for recording Scotland’s built heritage. I really enjoyed that. In the evenings, I worked as an usher at the Festival Theatre and sold ice creams in the intervals, so I got to see a lot of theatre and opera! During that year, I applied to Leeds University and was accepted on their master’s program in Social History of Art, which I did for a year, and, then, during that year, I applied to do a PhD – also at Leeds – which I submitted in 2005.
AC: What was your PhD on?
AR: My PhD was on the American minimalist artist, Carl Andre, and it focused on the first half of his career, from the 1950s until 1976.
AC: Was minimalism something that you became interested in during your undergraduate years?
AR: It was. I first became fascinated by it during my third year. I was lucky enough to participate in the St Andrews’ exchange programme with the University of California, and so I got to spend a year in Berkeley. I took classes with Professor Anne Wagner, and it was under her instruction that I developed an interest in it. Back at St Andrews, I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on minimalism.
AC: Was there a point during your year off after St Andrews that you considered another career path?
AR: No, I always knew I wanted to be an academic – probably from as early as my first year as an undergraduate. I decided that universities were good things, and I realised I should spend the rest of my career among them. Which is not very imaginative, I guess…
AC: Though I’m sure a lot of people would love to have that sort of clarity!
AR: But converting that aspiration into a profession took a long time. I didn’t really have a proper salary until I was in my early 30s. It’s difficult to make it; I guess I was fortunate.
AC: So you finished your PhD in 2005 – what happened after that?
AR: I got a bit of casual teaching employment from the University of Leeds, and a small amount from the University of Derby, who were looking for someone to teach an art theory course to the fine arts students. That carried me over for a year. But it was a hand-to-mouth existence, because you are paid hourly, so it’s not a proper wage. I was only able to survive because rent was relatively cheap in Leeds, and I depended on other bits of money that I had saved, but it was a precarious time. Thankfully, I was lucky to then get a two-year post-doctoral fellowship from the Henry Moore Foundation, and I took that up at the University of York. My project was to turn my PhD into a book, and I also did a fair amount of teaching as part of that experience. During that time, I managed to get a contract with Phaidon Press, who agreed to publish my book on Carl Andre.
AC: What was your experience in California? Would you recommend studying abroad to current students?
AR: Yes! At that point, the University of California at Berkeley had a very strong art history department, although to this day it remains a very rich, exciting place to study art. I felt completely at home. There was an intensity to the education experience there, which I’d never experienced before.
AC: Are there any particular art historians that you were reading when you decided that you wanted to become an academic – or any that particularly inspired you?
AR: In my second year at St Andrews I took the core course in twentieth-century art, AH2002, although back then it was structured very differently. And during that module, I became interested in the American artist Jasper Johns, through reading Fred Orton’s book, Figuring Jasper Johns, which had been published a few years earlier. I just liked the tone of the writing. I can still remember reading it on the top floor of the library in one of those carrels that looks out over the sea, and thinking ‘this is very good, I like this.’ It was this that inspired me to go to Leeds, and to work with Fred Orton, which I did for six years.
AC: What was it about his writing that appealed to you?
AR: It was personal without being confessional; it exuded a sense of thoughtfulness, and gave the impression of an individual who endlessly inquisitive about Johns’ work. I think I was influenced a lot by this when I was writing my first book on Carl Andre.
AC: Do you have any advice for art historians who are wondering what they’re going to do with their degree, or how they’re going to apply what they’ve learned to their careers?
AR: The skills we learn in art history are the same as those we learn in other humanities subjects: critical reasoning, formulating an argument using sound evidence, structuring one’s thoughts in a coherent way, rhetorical persuasiveness. I think that when you graduate you can be quite limited in your perception of what you can do with your degree. I chose to stick with art history, but of course there are an infinite number of ways its skills are applicable to professional life. There are far more jobs out there than it is possible to imagine when you are in your twenties. That said, it can take many years to find one’s home in the world of employment, and it’s important to be patient.
AC: So, not being too rigid?
AR: Yes, and maybe even letting go of the idea of working for the art world. There are plenty of other ‘worlds’ out there that are equally rich!
AC: Did you ever consider working in a museum setting?
AR: I didn’t – it was the primary focus on learning, teaching and research that the university supports which I wanted to pursue. Of course, curatorship is closely involved with these matters too, but, for me, that profession was doing something different.
AC: What was your time at St Andrews like? What would you say to students that are still undertaking degrees here?
AR: Looking back, St Andrews has changed enormously. The University’s population has grown significantly. Higher education in the UK has also become more commercial: tuition fees have generated an entirely different kind of culture. I simply took it for granted that my local authority would pay my fees, and it saddens me that this is no longer the case. So, there’s far more financial pressure on students now.
I liked the quietness and smallness of St Andrews, and I enjoyed having the time for long conversations with friends. We used to walk along the beaches a lot. I think that’s something you can take for granted when you’re a student, but, looking back, I realise how great it was to have swathes of unstructured time. I don’t have that now!
AC: Do you feel as though that pace had something to do with your appreciation for universities as a whole?
AR: I guess so. Universities are places where you meet a lot of people who are the same age as you, and it’s easy to form groups around shared interests. My affinity was for climbing and hiking, and many of my friends were into those activities.
AC: What would be a good way into Carl Andre or into minimalism? Is there a particular book or author you’d recommend?
AR: I should stress that I do write about topics other than minimalism! My book on Andre came out in 2011, which is a while ago now. But I still love minimal art, and want to write about it more. I think the best entry point is to listen to the early music of LaMonte Young or Steve Reich. Or perhaps see an early piece of Yvonne Rainer’s choreography. There’s an intensity to the simplicity of their work which is transfixing. You don’t properly realise that until you see it live, but, once you do, that’s it: you could well be hooked.
Minimalism interests me as an art movement because it is extreme. It puts pressure on expectations about what an art work can be. The term ‘minimum’ implies that it exists at the far point on a range, or spectrum, somewhere quite far from what counts as ‘normal’. So, minimalism becomes a good point from which to think about questions of normality or expectations of what counts as satisfying within art. It’s the theoretical aspect of it that appeals to me.