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by Charlie Finch
The new studios for the lucky and talented four dozen students in the Columbia Master of Fine Arts program on 125th Street, west of Broadway, were the home of the top secret Manhattan Project to create the A-bomb during World War II.

Going down to the basement of the studio building, one can still see the giant turbines where the great Columbia physicist Leo Szilard tried to crack the secrets of the atomic nucleus. He succeeded, of course, and later became a leading campaigner for nuclear disarmament.

Apparently, there were no actual radioactive elements used on 125th Street -- those were at Los Alamos.

We like to travel incognito to the new studios, at the invitation of a handful of students, but the program is glutted with art-world luminaries, giving critiques, weekly visits, auditing classes or just popping in to strut their celebrity stuff.

"Last semester, Vanessa Beecroft audited Rosalind Deutsch’s feminism class," one student told us. "She asked a lot of questions during discussion periods."

Recently, the red-hot painter Dana Schutz visited an art student’s studio. "She asked me if I cleaned my brushes," the student commented. "Then she recommended that I scrape the ‘murkiness’ from my canvases! I told Dana, ‘But then my work would look like yours!’" Schutz was not pleased.

Sometimes Columbia’s elite students get paranoid about their famous visitors. "One guy last year was painting flying penises," a student protested. "Cecily Brown dropped by his studio. Soon, there were flying penises in her new paintings!"

With all this celebrity bigfooting, it’s no wonder that most Columbia MFAers have to pull all-nighters to get any actual work done.

"Collier Schorr switched the week of her critique on us at the last minute," another student griped. "It screwed up my schedule totally."

Nevertheless, 33-year-old Gareth James, a British painter represented by Elizabeth Dee, who replaced Jon Kessler as the head of the Columbia MFA program on a rotational basis this year, gets high marks.

"Gareth is patient and accessible," said one admirer. "We exchange ideas for hours, and he has us reading Bertolt Brecht."

Among recent docents, Terry Winters and Richard Phillips received some praise. "Winters really cares about what we’re doing," another pupil enthused. "And Phillips hung around for a long time. He was sincerely interested."

Kara Walker got a failing grade. "She was spacey and just didn’t give a damn."

Overall, the Columbia MFA program reminds us of Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio in its 1950s heyday, when Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando dropped in, to intermingle with student unknowns.

To top it off, this week Dana Hoey, Rachel Harrison and Jan Avgikos visit Columbia for a tagteam style crit. About this triple threat, one student sighed, "There will be a lot of passive aggression in the room."

May we offer Columbia a modest proposal? A three-month moratorium on celebrity slumming, so its lucky and talented students can get to know each other, and get some work done.

CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).