By Haley Harvey
Instead of standing at the front of the room, he sits among students. In front of him sits a paper cup of water, cough drops strewn about and a bulky, old-school projector filled with individual film slots of the paintings he discusses. He doesn’t bother with the modern overhead projector nor a PowerPoint presentation.
Victor Youritzin’s passion for art which at the University of Oklahoma has spanned for 46 years, is clear during his lectures, even to the adults sitting in the Thurman J. White Forum Building. Today, speaking about American paintings of the 19th century, he goes through the images and pays great attention to the details in every painting, frequently using words such as “marvelous,” “dazzling” and “magnificent” as he points his green laser at different areas of the works. He speaks very quickly and precisely, noting the shapes, shadows and lighting, overflowing with insight as if it’s a secret he just can’t keep.
“He gave us more information than we could ever absorb in the hour of class time,” said Gloria Groom, a former student of Youritzin’s. “He would speak about the paintings with such love and understanding of the techniques of the time, how and why they were done. He is just a born teacher.”
Throughout his life he has carried with him admiration of art. From his childhood, to his time as a student and eventually to the classrooms at OU, where he has taught since 1972. After officially retiring in 2016, he continues to teach part-time on campus and spreads his love of art to anyone willing to listen.
Groom, a Tulsa native, surpassed the Oklahoma borders to go on to the Chicago Art Institute, where she is the European Painting and Sculpture Chair. She says it was Youritzin’s class on paintings of the 19th century that inspired her career.
Donna Merkt, another former student, is the curator of education and marketing at the Mabee-Gerrer Museum of Art in Shawnee, Oklahoma. She says Youritzin had a genius way of helping students see what made art important and relevant.
“The experience of examining art with Victor has continued with me always. I find myself asking, ‘What would happen to this artwork if this brushstroke were missing?’” Merkt said, noting one of her old professor’s often-used lines. “He made art very accessible, explaining how the artist’s choices contributed to the viewer’s experience.”
Youritzin’s lifelong passion for teaching traces not to a gallery, but back to when he coached his younger brother in football in a nearby park growing up.
“I love coaching,” he said. “Any time I see somebody playing some sport, whatever it was, I’d go and try to help them out. I just love trying to help people do better with whatever they’re doing.”
Growing up in the artistic Greenwich Village, New York, during the 1940s, Youritzin was surrounded by creative influence.
His family possessed various talents in the realm of fine arts. Youritzin’s father was a gifted photographer and worked as an aeronautical engineer, and his mother was a pianist, writer and gifted ballerina. At only 12 years old, she danced at Radio City Music Hall and toured with famous Russian dancer and choreographer Michel Fokine.
“I wanted to show you this,” he says as he rummages through his brown leather bag, revealing an orange envelope. He pulls out a printed copy of the program from Fokine’s 1928 performance in Cleveland. He points to the top, which reads “Le Reve De La Marquise: Michel Fokine, Vera Fokine, Tania Koshkina.” Koshkina would later become Youritzin.
Despite his artistic neighborhood and family, he didn’t always know he wanted to pursue art.
An extremely bright student, Youritzin attended Trinity School, a top college preparatory school on the Upper West Side of New York City where he graduated as valedictorian.
He spent his years as an undergraduate studying architecture at Williams College, which produced highly trained students in the arts and museum field. He refers to the “Williams Art Mafia,” a term used to describe a group of well-trained alumni who run many of the top modern art museums and galleries in America, to exemplify the skilled individuals who were products of the institution.
He went on to Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, however he didn’t like the Ivy League school at the time.
“It was a very great school, but the critics would disagree with each other all the time,” Youritzin said.
It was then that he began to consider transitioning his studies to art, having always had an affinity for identifying quality artistic skill.
He traces his criticism of art back to his childhood when he, his mother and younger brother stayed up late at night, listening to music with the help of his mother’s infallible musical taste. They would analyze it thoroughly, asking, ‘Is this the right pianist touch? Is this the right phrasing? Tempo? Etc.’
“I was always interested in quality,” Youritzin said. “Music, choreography, all of the arts, what constitutes the best? I think all the principles of art and what constitutes good art are the same, whether literature, music or whatever it is.”
To those who don’t share the same interest in the world of fine arts, it may seem as if artistic studies have lost their luster amid the growth of our digital world. With many students studying medicine, law and business, the empirical studies of art seem lost in the world of more practical majors. Art history may be seen to some as, well, history.
Youritzin is one who possesses an appreciation of art and has the desire to bring awareness to it. Appreciative of its influence and all that surrounds it, he decided to dedicate his life to sharing that with his students.
During his time at Columbia, he received an invitation from a friend to attend a lecture by a famous German art historian who introduced him to the New York University Institute of Fine Arts. It was there, in a beautiful mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York City, that he decided to leave his architecture studies behind and study art history.
“I thought, ‘This is very nice. I think I’ll transfer here and get out of Columbia,’” Youritzin said with a chuckle, having been accustomed to walking home from his classes in a more dangerous part of the city.
He spoke with the dean of admissions and, given his stellar record at Williams and Columbia, was accepted on the spot.
The thought of teaching didn’t occur to him, however, until he went to a party at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with some friends from NYU. It was there he was informed of an open position at Vanderbilt University from someone who had left on sabbatical.
A New York native, he was hesitant about moving out of the Northeast, having never been south of Staten Island. He jokingly refers to the “View of the World from 9th Avenue” map, featured on the cover of the New Yorker in 1967, as a visual representation of his reservations. It illustrates the rest of the United States as far, barren and irrelevant in comparison to the Empire State.
Youritzin doubted not only the new location, but also his own ability. He recalls having nightmares the whole summer before.
“I thought, ‘Can I do it? Am I going to be up for the job?’ The minute I walked into class to my desk I felt totally comfortable, and I knew right there. Teaching is my life,” Youritzin said.
“And I never looked back.”
After a year at Vanderbilt, Youritzin taught at Tulane where he met his first wife, Glenda Green. He finally made it to Oklahoma when Green wanted to be closer to her family in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. He came to Norman as an assistant professor at OU in 1972, and stayed ever since. Ten years following his divorce from Green, Youritzin married Cynthia Kerfoot to whom he was married for a year and a half. They divorced but remain a couple, having been “companions” for 33 years, and have no children.
Youritzin has received many awards and recognitions throughout his career. In 1997 he was a recipient of OU’s highest teaching honor, the David Ross Boyd Professorship, as well as the 2001-02 Most Inspiring Faculty Award from OU’s scholar-athletes.
“He knows so much about art and art history. He’s highly educated and has been an international expert for the better part of three decades,” said Chris Elliott, director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the university, who works in the Forum building where Youritzin currently teaches. The institute is dedicated to providing lifelong learning and personal growth to adults over 50.
“He does such a good job of explaining what you’re looking at and why it’s important. How to actually look at a painting, even down to the minute points of how your brain – how your eyes actually scan a painting. Nobody else can do it like him,” Elliott said.
Teaching is what he does, but also learning from others as well. When some football players were struggling in his class, he recalls inviting them to his home to help and giving them an exam, which they passed. The roles then reversed, and he asked them for their help with a certain request.
“‘Well, now I’ve taught you something, maybe you can teach me something,’” Youritzin said. “I can kick a 35-yard drop kick field goal, but I never learned how to kick a spiral because I was a running back, not a kicker. They were so happy to teach me how to kick a spiral. It was a big deal for them.”
He said he feels privileged to have taught numerous art courses at the university, and to have helped contribute to the success of his students through art appreciation.
“There’s an art to teaching,” Youritzin said. “It’s an art form. A way of sharing good things with other people.”
When asked where his favorite place on campus is, his answer is simple.
“Wherever students are.”