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Interdisciplinary Arts Faculty Spotlight

Interdisciplinary Arts Faculty Jeff Abell


Professor Jeff Abell

Although Jeff Abell’s academic credentials suggest that his work might be easy to categorize—he holds an MM in Music Composition from Northern Illinois University—he chafes at the idea of being restricted to a single disciple. Rightly so: his master’s thesis performance had to be moved to the University’s theater department to accommodate the seven actors, live jazz band, recorded sound, video, film…and lasers. “Though I have a degree in music composition,” he says, “my work has always been interdisciplinary.”

“Though I have a degree in music composition,” he says, “my work has always been interdisciplinary.”

Abell discovered the Interdisciplinary Arts department at Columbia in 1981 and is now Associate Professor and Director of the MA program. He knew right away that he and the College were a good match. “The department had a commitment to looking at how the arts were related to each other and the fact that I was familiar with music, but could place the discipline within a broader arts context, was seen as a real advantage.”

Thirty years later Abell is a fixture of the department. He also continues to develop his own work which draws on music, sound art, performance, critical and creative writing, and photography to explore issues of gender and identity. His practice is constantly evolving as he experiments with new mediums and forms of expression, such as combining photography and hand-made paper. “I’ve recently been doing things like printing images on paper pulp,” he says, “experimenting with ways that photography and the medium that it’s printed on can be interrelated with each other.”

Abell has also remained connected to the contemporary art world as a writer, performer, administrator, and critic. During its heyday in the late 1980’s, Abell was associate director of the Randolph Street Gallery, an experimental artist-run space and the premier venue for performance art in the city. He was also a contributing editor for the New Art Examiner for eleven years and has written about the Chicago art scene for decades.

He also continues to develop his own work which draws on music, sound art, performance, critical and creative writing, and photography to explore issues of gender and identity. His practice is constantly evolving as he experiments with new mediums and forms of expression, such as combining photography and hand-made paper.

Of his multi-faceted professional reputation, Abell says: “A lot of people know me as a teacher, critic, and writer; many people know me as a performance artist; and some people know me as a musician and composer…I fully embrace the idea of being a ‘mutt’.” His students are similarly difficult to categorize. “I can’t say that there is a typical Interdisciplinary Arts student at Columbia,” he says, “in fact, it’s exactly the opposite—the program is incredibly diverse.”

What his students do have in common is that they have an ongoing artistic practice and are looking for a spark to ignite their work. In Abell’s opinion, Columbia is the perfect setting for someone looking to reenergize. “I’ve taught at many other schools and found that Columbia is a unique institution—there is a buzz here! Students really want to be here and are committed to making a career for themselves in the arts.”

And who better to guide and support those students than Abell, who understands what it’s like to forge a career out of a varied background. “When I was pursuing my degree, and demonstrated all these mixed skills and mixed interests, the faculty was convinced that I would never have a career—if I didn’t specialize, I was doomed. I think we now realize that specialization is kind of last century and that the whole notion of cross-platform, interdisciplinary sensibility is what we deal with on a day-to-day basis. The field of interdisciplinary arts has finally begun to validate itself.”

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