Making It Up: A Conversation with Kent Kleinman

Wen Zhuang
BFA PH 2019

 Rumor has it that Kent Kleinman, RISD’s newly appointed Provost, was locked out of Prov/Wash when he arrived for his first day on the job back in March (it’s nice to know we all have ID failures once in a while!). He has since settled into his office on the 4th floor after commuting back and forth for the first few weeks from his home in Ithaca, New York, where he served for a decade as the Gale and Ira Drukier Dean of Architecture, Art, and Planning at Cornell University. With roots in Berlin, Los Angeles, and New York City, and from a family of artists—Kleinman’s mother was an opera singer—the discourse around arts and culture was always part of his life. From this center, he has moved on to question and theorize the margins, and further, to imagine the possibilities for expansion in the institutions he finds himself in. I spoke with Kleinman three weeks into his tenure. His office was still sparingly decorated and he had an air of rigor and fervor for change about him—with lots of curiosity to match.

Wen Zhuang: First off, welcome and congratulations. I recognize what a big jump this might be, from Ithaca to Providence, from being the dean of one subject to the Provost of an entire school. How’s settling in been?

Kent Kleinman: It's been an incredibly warm welcome—from staff and students, my colleagues, and faculty. Now I very much want to get out of this office and into the studios—and I will be doing that for the rest of this semester and into the fall. What we do at RISD is an embodied set of practices and pedagogies, and you can't understand them in the abstract. To be a provost of a school like this, I have to try to understand the specificity of each practice, how people execute their work, what kind of tools, equipment, light, and space they need, what kind of proximity or distance from each other—these are fundamental conditions. I can't form any strategies before I get to each of the departments and meet the students and faculty, see the work and watch a crit.

WZ: How similar or different is RISD from the other schools where you have worked?

KK: I have spent some of my professional life at places similar to RISD in some respects. I taught at the University at Buffalo, and the way we taught architecture there could almost be read as a speculative art practice. Many of the studios used the city as site and material, with full-scale interventions into the built fabric. From there, I went to Parsons, where I was the dean of a division called the “College of Constructed Environments.”

WZ: I love that title—doesn't tell me much though!

KK: We made that up. It was a new college that had interior, product, lighting, and architecture design under one umbrella. Parsons is similar to RISD in terms of its creative culture, diverse faculty, broad scope, and intense work ethic.

From there I went to Cornell for a decade and had a comprehensive fine arts department under my watch. A significant part of my mission at Cornell was to advocate for the merits of art and design practices in a context that favored text-based scholarship and science-based research. I had to demonstrate how marks on a piece of paper could be as important as a scientific formula, how an image could be as revelatory as a published text. And I got good at that! What's really different at RISD for me is that I don't have to make that argument here. Everyone at RISD knows that making marks, shaping matter, building images can all be substantive inquiries into the human condition.

WZ: Was all this, the pedagogy and culture at RISD, mainly what drew you here, to this position?

KK: Definitely. I was a bit tired of arguing the case and wanted to be with people who felt as I do, that artists and designers do important work that needs to be recognized socially and culturally.

WZ: That's something I've been thinking about too. RISD hasn't always positioned art and design this way. I've seen a drastic change just within these past four years, where the institution feels much more open to both introspective critique and making holistic, long-term plans. But I can't help but be reminded that RISD is structured around a fundamentally strict, European, Bauhaus mindset. There’s been a sort of confusion about what kind of school we want to be, what kind of students RISD wants to produce. Your background is in 20th-century European modernism, so I am curious what you think are the strengths of your scholarship as well as potential setbacks you can foresee for a position like yours? How do you work within an art world and art schools that are reconsidering a lot of those traditional models?

KK: First off, I believe in expertise. My experience is that people who are really good at what they do and command their subject matter often have a curiosity about the world that is born out of confidence, and this allows them to collaborate productively. From an institutional perspective, at least in my value set—and I think the faculty will largely subscribe to this (though I don't know yet)—I don't believe we want to give up the critical skills that this school has always been associated with. But what I think is new, and this is what you're alluding to, is that this is just the prologue to a new and exhilarating project: deploying this expertise to cut across genres, to imagine work that is outside naxrrow disciplinary boundaries, to tackle new and urgent questions. How this cross-pollination happens is yet to be determined. I know it's happening in an ad hoc way now, which certainly isn't at all bad because people find their own partners. But if there's not enough latitude in the curriculum, ample degrees of freedom in the schedule, appetite for taking risks, and institutional support for work that as yet has no name, this important chapter will not be written, or at least not here at RISD.

But you framed your question in terms of my own scholarship and I don’t want to be evasive. My subject expertise is 20th-century European modernism. My scholarship, however, has focused at the margins of the canon, looking hard at works that upon close (sometimes obsessively close) inspection shouldn’t exist in the oeuvre of that architect or writer, and indeed were made to disappear in the relevant literature. I became interested in modernity’s peripheral zone and the historical editing of modernism’s meta-narratives,  because I was taught the core material by some extraordinary teachers. I needed the canon to situate and stimulate my own work.

WZ: That’s definitely the sense I got when I read some of your scholarship. With Mies, you focused on a pair of understudied houses, or with Loos, a seminal villa that had never been documented, let alone theorized, in any detail.

KK: My co-author, Leslie Van Duzer, and I focused on a house by Adolf Loos in Prague, which was off the radar in part because people couldn't easily get past the Iron Curtain, but also in part because it was incompatible with the then dominant understanding of Loos’s contribution to the modern project. We managed to get in to the Villa Müller and discovered a magnificent, complex, sensual, and contradictory work of architecture. We had no choice but to document and try to theorize the building—it had us in its fangs! I had a similar experience with two houses by Mies van der Rohe that were generally written off as “compromised” works, a term wholly inconsistent with this architect’s mythic function in the modern pantheon. However, Haus Lange and Haus Esters had long been used for site-specific installations by a number of seminal 20th-century artists who—with precision, gentleness, and utter lack of bias—were able to identify and celebrate architectural qualities in ways that traditional Mies scholarship could not.

WZ: Can you speak about the transition from making to writing, or the importance of writing in your work?  

KK: I think questions about object, image, language, material, writing, marking, and performing are modality questions rather than substantive ones. There are so many ways to inquire into the human condition—through a mark, a word, a gesture. Concrete poetry is equally word and image. When I worked on my books, I drew all the time; the books were drawn well before they were written, for drawing is a mode of cognition. Scholarship and language-based investigations are not in opposition to material practices—they can feed one another. You write a sentence and it sponsors a piece of work; the work talks back to you and reveals language from a new perspective. You pick up a pencil to write and you end up with a drawing. I value this reciprocity and don't think of myself as either a maker or writer.

WZ: I think students today feel very paralyzed in just making, thinking, doing—due to political unrest, existential woes, and so on. When tracing your career trajectory thus far, were there moments you really felt stuck and challenged? And how did you remedy those?  

KK: Every day I feel challenged. I certainly don't have the answers. I think I've got some interesting questions, but so do you. We're in this together. We don't play the same roles but it's a project we're involved in together. What I love about U.S. higher education is that the hierarchy is quite flat and members of the academic community have agency.

WZ: The hierarchy may be flat, but what about access? RISD just announced an increase in tuition rates.  

KK: Unfortunately, annual tuition increases are normal. Somewhere between 3% and 4% is what you're going to see at nearly every private university across the country. But tuition increases are not sustainable for all but a few well-endowed universities who can offset these increases with financial aid. Dealing with the tuition barrier is a five to ten year project to which I am deeply committed. Higher education is a way for people to take control of their lives, structure their future, and contribute to a better world. Access is key. But this is a long-term problem. We can't solve it overnight, and we’ll never solve it completely, but I am convinced we can knock it down to a manageable scale.

WZ: What are your other priorities?

KK: I'm committed to the notion that the excellence of any top-flight school is determined in large part by the excellence of its faculty. I'd love to get to a point where we're able to recruit even more world-class faculty and support their creative and scholarly work at a higher level than currently. And of course, I suspect we need some curricular innovation, perhaps a few radical mini-experiments to test new structures and ideas. But you know, I haven't poked around too much yet, and these are all nice, big, juicy challenges for teams of faculty and students to work on.

WZ: I have two more fun questions, to wrap this up.

KK: All of these questions have been fun.

WZ: Current books you're reading? Anything exciting?

KK: I'm reading, and I’m not just saying this for this interview, a book by the head of the Interior Architecture department, Liliane Wong, titled Adaptive Reuse: Extending the Lives of Buildings. I discovered the book, didn't know Liliane at all, then met her downstairs on my second day here, and said, “I'm reading your book!” It was a nice way to meet.

WZ: And finally, anything else you would like to disclose or hint at—something exciting, surprising, even foreboding?

KK: Not yet! I have been here for only a few weeks and haven’t had any bad surprises at all. Quite the opposite!