Linda Nochlin, My Teacher
by Aruna D'Souza · October 26, 2018

The remarks below were delivered on April 15, 2018 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

The year that he died, Cézanne—then 67 years old, and someone who was by now being recognized as a paradigm-shifting painter, as a once-in-a-generation genius—listed himself in an exhibition catalogue as “Paul Cézanne, pupil of Pissarro.” He had never officially been Pissarro’s student, of course, but he had learned much from him, as they set up their easels together in Pointoise in the early 1870s, side by side; I suspect Cézanne absorbed as much about temperament as technique. In my imaginings of the scene, Pissarro calmed and focused Cézanne’s energies—didn’t mold his student so much as convince him to direct his talents to remarkable ends.

We are all, I think, students of Linda Nochlin, officially or not. She has convinced most all of us here—whether by cajoling or caressing—to devote ourselves to the pursuit of the remarkable, in big and small ways. As a teacher, she was brilliant. But she was also kind and empathetic, she was funny and sharp, and most of all she treated everyone as if they had the potential to change the way she, and the field, thought about art. How empowering that was, and how refreshing, too, her determination not to reproduce herself—to support work that challenged her own views, that took unusual paths, and that awoke new curiosities.

It has been 25 years since I took my first class with her at the IFA, and almost 20 since I finished my dissertation under her guidance. After I got my degree, Linda would always make the point of introducing me as her friend, which was a thrill and an honor; but I’ll admit, too, to loving when she slipped and called me, once again, her student. Because that is what I have always felt myself to be. It is an affiliation that attaches me both to her, my dearest Linda, and to a sprawling tribe of people who she nurtured and admired and loved over the course of her long life. She didn’t just teach you or me or any of us individually—she created a community, one that will become, I’m sure, a source of sustenance and inspiration to all of us in her absence. It is one of her many gifts to us.

Linda thought she was teaching me to be an art historian, but I realize now she was also, or even more so, teaching me to be a writer.

There were other professors at the Institute who drilled into me the mechanics of writing—Colin Eisler, for example, who would remove every adverb from my essays, denude my prose of its Canadian reliance on “which” versus “that,” and lament my fondness for the dependent clause, or another professor (perhaps Jonathan Alexander?) who introduced me to the joys of the Oxford comma. But Linda’s lessons were more profound, even if often coming in the most deceptively anodyne form.

One of the first arrived when I handed in the first draft of my dissertation proposal, a document I had crafted with equal parts anxiety and care. Linda took one glance at it and asked, “What’s the title?” I impatiently brushed off the question—the title would come later, I said. Let’s talk about the content. Linda stubbornly repeated the question. Why are you getting hung up on the title?, I asked, in not so many words, trying to shift the conversation to what I thought was the real meat of the proposal. She stopped me firmly. “Always start with the title,” she told me. “Even if you change it later. That way you’ll always have a guidepost to let you know what needs to go in and what doesn’t. A reminder of what you mean to say.”

For the past three years, I’ve been knee deep in Linda’s writing—editing a collection of her essays on modernism, to be published as a companion to the recent Women Artists reader. I was honored by her invitation to work on the new book, and felt a sense of urgency about it, as did she, in the creative frenzy of her last few years. It will not surprise you to know that the title of the volume—Making it Modern—was decided upon in our first conversation, before we had any idea of what the book would contain. From that first moment, Linda knew what she wanted to say.

I have experienced the selfish joy of having an accordion folder of Linda’s papers—including hundreds of handwritten pages and old dot-matrix printouts, all of which had to be deciphered, reordered, and retyped word by word—all to myself. It was, for a person like me—who decided very recently to become a writer as opposed to an art historian, to focus on that craft—akin to getting an MFA. What a solitary pleasure, to read and reread Linda’s deft prose, her sentences that trip along the page with such freewheeling spunk, the words you know she chose because they rolled around on her tongue just so, her eccentric (but never improper) play with punctuation so that a phrase read exactly the way she would have said it out loud. She loved the word “trope,” and she loved “topos” even more. She would never shy away from a bawdy word when necessary, especially when the reader might be in danger of over-intellectualizing what should be the sensual and earthy pleasures of art. She pulled references to history, literature, Spanish Civil war songs, fashion, and pop culture from an endlessly deep repertoire.

There were papers and talks in her files that I never knew existed: a whip-smart piece on the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857—how, in our many years of conversation, did this never come up?!—or a 1974 paper that insisted on seeing African traditions of bodily decoration on the same cultural plane as European “high art,” or a 1953 lecture at the Frick, when she was still a graduate student, that started with a quotation from Karl Marx—a defiant move at the height of the McCarthy era. There were others that I was reading for the thousandth time, it seemed. For all the surprises contained in the former category, there were just as many in the latter: how is it that an essay like “The Imaginary Orient” (1983) or her piece on Seurat’s Grande Jatte (1989) as an anti-utopian allegory could reveal new insights still, after all this time?

Linda was always firm about two things: first, that she was an art historian, and that she believed the discipline could illuminate as much as it could obscure when it came to art’s role in the world—that’s why she was so devoted to a feminist critique of the field, rather than a rejection of it. And second, that her work in art history must be responsible to something more than art—that she wanted to create a new public, one that could connect the dots between what was happening in a 19th
century painting and the forces that were shaping, and even deforming, their contemporary world. That’s why she wrote with such clarity, it’s why the authority of her ideas was conveyed with a tone of generosity and welcoming shared purpose, it’s why she was not above personal anecdote or wry jokes—and it’s why her titles were so intriguing. “Why have there been no great women artists?,” “The Body in Pieces,” “Sex and the Sepoy Mutiny,” “A House is not a Home,” “Portrait of the Artist as an Anti-Semite”—these aren’t signposts leading us down a path of specialization and esoterica, but towards a capacious view of art, of the world, and of the site and space of politics. Linda wrote to invite us all in to her radical, utopian, but endlessly clear-eyed imagining of the future. And I hope to follow her down that path, as a writer, and as—above all—her student.

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