Famous College Dropouts Who Made It in the Art World

From Harmony Korine to Robert Hughes, Yoko Ono and John Cage.

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Yoko Ono. Photo courtesy of Patrick McMullan.
Richard Avedon.
Photo: Courtesy Patrick McMullan.
Japser Johns. Courtesy Patrick McMullan.
Japser Johns. Courtesy Patrick McMullan.
Yoko Ono. Photo courtesy of Patrick McMullan.
Yoko Ono. Photo courtesy of Patrick McMullan.
Keith Haring.
Photo: Courtesy Designlovr.net
Robert Hughes.
Photo: Courtesy Patrick McMullan.
Harmony Korine.
Photo: Courtesy Patrick McMullan.
John Waters.
Photo: Courtesy Patrick McMullan.

Some people want the mortarboard; others want the skateboard. Read our list to see who was too groovy to graduate from college. And truth is, famous college dropouts in the art world are deep on the ground.

1. Richard Avedon, Columbia University
A onetime student of philosophy at Columbia University, Avedon grew up in New York City, where he studied philosophy for two years before leaving to be a photographer for the Merchant Marine. Avedon, who was a contemporary of James Baldwin, eventually found his own fame as a photographer for Vogue Magazine and later drew praise from post-structuralist philosopher Roland Barthes.

2. John Cage, Pomona College
Cage studied a variety of subjects over two years at Pomona but failed to see the value in completing his education and left for Europe where he would begin to experiment in music composition. His “silent” musical composition 4’33”  (In Proportional Notation) (1952/53) should not be confused, numerically speaking, with his 1982 etching Déreau No. 33.

3. Jasper Johns, The University of South Carolina
Johns, whose work is often cited as an influence for many of the significant movements in art after 1965, was actually encouraged by his professors at the University of South Carolina to move to New York and begin his career, which he eventually did without his degree in 1948 after three semesters at the school.

4. Yoko Ono, Sarah Lawrence
Shortly after dropping out of Sarah Lawrence College, Yoko Ono became heavily involved in the New York City downtown art scene as a key member of the performance group Fluxus. She has also won two Grammys, one as an artist and producer in 1981 and one as a video producer in 2000.

5. Keith Haring, Ivy School  of Professional Art and School of Visual Arts
Known for his street murals and subway graffiti as much as his social contacts, Haring left school in Pittsburgh after realizing that he had no interest in making commercial art and moved to New York, where he briefly enrolled in SVA before dropping out to run the streets with the likes of Madonna, who dropped out of the University of Michigan, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who never finished high school.

6. Robert Hughes, The University of Sydney
As an undergraduate, Hughes was a key figure in the ‘Sydney PUSH’ movement–a group that included Clive James and was made up predominately of Hughes’ classmates at the University of Sydney. But he left the university without graduating and went on to become one of the greatest art critics of the 20th century. Hughes “never wrote a bad sentence” and was the author of several influential books. He considered himself a painter first and was elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1996, despite his lack of scholastic credentials.

7. Harmony Korine, New York University
The producer and screenwriter, whose paintings were on view this spring at the Park Avenue Gagosian Gallery, attended NYU for one semester before dropping out to focus on skateboarding. Korine’s fortune soon changed after director Larry Clark discovered him skateboarding in Washington Square Park and, taken by the young Korine, challenged him to write a script for what would eventually become Kids.

8. John Waters, New York University
Before becoming one of the most innovate filmmakers of his (or any) generation, Waters, who is currently represented by Marianne Boesky, attended NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts “for about five minutes” in the fall of 1964. For his part, he claims he has no ill will toward the university, saying, “It wasn’t NYU’s fault, I don’t blame them. I was out of my mind. I never went to class. Back then I was on LSD, Speed, and diet pills. I was up a lot. I had to see four movies a day; I couldn’t be going to class except to steal textbooks and then go sell them back so I had money to go to the movies.”

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