Remembering Linda Nochlin
Linda Nochlin was my dissertation advisor at the Institute of Fine Art, New York University. I had been working with her second husband, Richard Pommer, and edging towards specializing in architectural history, as he was such a brilliant scholar and teacher, and had been very supportive of my work—he once said I wrote like an angel. But in April 1992, during my second year of grad school, he died of brain cancer, having endured treatment while still delivering intricate and beautiful lectures through much of that spring term. Linda left Yale and joined the IFA that fall, inheriting me as a student. She readily accommodated my drive to work on non-French art—it was likely a relief to have someone choose to study something she had not much dabbled in during her career. She was a terrific lecturer, and the Linda lean-in is something I will never forget, but hardly have the panache to do in my own classes. In the grand lecture room at the Institute she would be fixed behind the lectern, tapping the edge of it now and again with the underside of one of her oversized rings for emphasis, and often wore reading glasses to look at her notes. There were moments when she would lean into the top of the podium, push herself into our space, look over her glasses and out at us, the light on the lectern illuminating her features, and let out the Nochlin "hmmm?." This was a sound difficult to describe—a cross between Yoda's sage murmur of contemplation and self-agreement, and a deep emission of satisfaction at a fine point well delivered. The Nochlin "hmmm?" implied that she had said something of import, but that there was room for further contemplation—in a way that distinctive sound was her intellectual approach in aural microcosm.
When I commenced my dissertation she told me that I needed to fix on a title first before we could even begin to discuss it – that the title would guide me all the way through. She was correct, it gained her approval, and then she set me off into the world. I appeared out of the ether a few years later with my four finished chapters ready for her to read. She then sat me down and said that since this was the final assignment I had to write for her it was necessary I write an introduction and conclusion, even though I was hesitant to do so – the chapters seemed to me to speak for themselves. She was correct that I needed the bookending materials, but she was incorrect on the former count. Everything I have written since has been, in a sense, written for her. We are the creative aggregate of those who guide us in our educations. Her writings, like those of my other mentor, Robert Rosenblum, are marked by clarity and an air of revelation. They ring with self-assurance and rightness and are laced with the writer's engaging personality. I will ever aspire to them, and will miss going over to West End Avenue to deliver to her my latest book or catalogue.
A few years ago there was an article in the Village Voice on the French film actress Isabelle Huppert who, like Linda, loves Paris, speaks French, is inherently stylish and radiant, and is a great performer. The accompanying photo was wistfully captioned: “Imagine the last quarter-century of cinema without her.” Imagine the last half-century of art history without Linda Nochlin. Not a pretty prospect. An undisturbed pantheon of male modernist heroes. A history of Impressionism with little mention of Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, or Eva Gonzalès. The continuance of the unchallenged acceptance of the male point-of-view in looking at cultural productions. Today, less opportunity and exposure, perhaps, for the likes of Rachel Whiteread, Pipilotti Rist, Eve Sussman, Cecily Brown and hundreds of others, who in our day and age are not thought of as essential woman artists but, most welcomely, simply as essential artists. Art history notwithstanding, it is even difficult to imagine New York without her, and one spot in particular—Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle, where we shared many a martini. Loston Harris at the piano. And when you got the Linda lean-in at Bemelmans it meant that the tedium of endless letters of recommendation, administrative work, the grind of teaching in one's sunset years were far behind her for the day, that the conversation was good and pleasurable, that the ideas were percolating. That there was going to be at least one more round. And then I would pour my tipsy advisor into a cab and she would head off across the Park and into the night. Safe passage, Linda. You will be ever missed.
Jason Rosenfeld 11.4.2017
JASON ROSENFELD, Ph.D., is Distinguished Chair and Professor of Art History at Marymount Manhattan College. He was co-curator of the exhibitions John Everett Millais (Tate Britain, Van Gogh Museum), Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (Tate Britain and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), and River Crossings (Olana and Cedar Grove, Hudson and Catskill, New York). He is a Senior Writer and Editor-at-Large for the Brooklyn Rail.