Take Five with Adam Van Doren ’84, GSAPP’89

Adam Van Doren ’84, GSAPP’89 is an artist, author and filmmaker. He teaches at Yale, where he is also an associate fellow, and has exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., among other institutions. Van Doren has been a visiting artist at the American Academy in Rome, and his work is included in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; The Wadsworth Atheneum; and The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He is the author of An Artist in Venice and The House Tells the Story: Homes of the American Presidents. In addition to Top Hat and Tales: Harold Ross and the Making of The New Yorker, Van Doren has directed the films Mark Van Doren: Portrait of a Poet and James Thurber: The Life and Hard Times, which was shown on PBS and was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Van Doren lives with his family in New York City.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I arrived as a freshman from Evanston, Ill., where I had gone to high school and middle school (I was born in Boston). My early aspirations were to attend art school and I had considered the Rhode Island School of Design, but I decided, in the end, it was much better to pursue a liberal arts degree. I had known about Columbia because my family has had a long association with the University: My grandfather Mark Van Doren GSAS 1921 taught English and Humanities for more than 40 years, as did my great-uncle Carl and my uncle Charles GSAS’59. My father, John Van Doren GSAS’52, got a Ph.D. there. It was inspiring to be on the same campus they had been. I also thought NYC would be an exciting place to explore art.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

I was assigned to Livingston Hall (now Wallach) and I had a small room, but it was a single overlooking the campus, which I liked. Second semester I moved to the newly built East Campus dorm, where I lived in a suite with three roommates. It seemed quite luxurious at the time, and I enjoyed — again — having my own room. It was also nice to be living in a quiet corner of the campus, away from the fray.

What Core class or experience do you most remember, and why?

The Lit Hum class I had with Professor Barbara Crehan GSAS’80. She put so much effort into the discussions and always asked penetrating questions in our seminar sections. I still hear her voice when I think of The Iliad and The Odyssey. She was a shining example of a dedicated faculty member who took the Core very seriously and believed in its value to achieve a large understanding of the world. I have kept her in mind as a model during my teaching years at Yale.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

I became an architecture major, and enjoyed Avery Library to study. It was fun to take a break from my studying and pick out from the shelves a random large folio of a particular artist’s or architect’s work. I also liked walking around and looking at the models of famous buildings that were on display. And, if I really wanted to procrastinate further, there was the café on the lower level. I also used to like sneaking up with friends to the roof of Pupin, where you could see a great view of the city at night.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

I suppose I would have gotten more involved in Spec. I had done cartoons for my high school paper, and had thought about drawing for the Columbia paper, but there was already a fabulous cartoonist at the time named R.J. Matson ’85, who I didn’t think I could compete with. In general, I found my time was hard to spare, given my heavy load of homework — especially in the architecture studio — and my hours as a DJ for WKCR for the bluegrass music show “Moonshine,” which I did on Saturday afternoons. My interest in folk music came from my playing the banjo, which I performed on occasion with classmate Robbie Fulks ’84 at Postcrypt Coffeehouse and at the Furnald Folk Fest.