It’s possible that one of the most important things Linda Nochlin has done is to have launched her best-known salvo in the form of a question. “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” was not just an indictment (though it was that, and a forceful one). It was also an invitation. It’s true that early in the essay, she dismissed the inquiry as specious (“The question [...] falsifies the nature of the issue”) before briskly preempting defensive responses (“The feminist’s first reaction is [...] to rehabilitate rather modest, if interesting and productive careers”). And of course the essay’s title promised an answer, which indeed she boldly provided: it’s not the fault of our genes or our stars, but our institutions. In 1971, that merited a forehead-slapping shout, yes! Resoundingly influential though Nochlin’s conclusion has been, it is only part of the story. Crucial to all her work is prying things open, from representations of woman warriors to those of nursing mothers. What is the body language of David’s Oath of the Horatii? How is it gendered? Who exactly is Delacroix’s Lady Liberty? As she wrote in 1999, “I don’t feel at ease with closure, with establishing connections, with setting down truth with methodological consistency: it’s too phallic, too redolent of the old man with the beard giving us the word form the mountain top, engraved in stone [...] I find depth, or the pretention to it, suspect. Give me surfaces and lots of them: facets, not deep pools of profound meaning.”
This is a wonderfully, and deceptively, humble statement of purpose. Not many writers are up to the challenge it poses. It bespeaks an uncommon degree of honesty and curiosity, and hints at Nochlin’s equally rare generosity—and sense of humor. She is unusual, too, in keeping company with living artists, and with critics, while remaining a historian of previous centuries, the 19th in particular. Now that we’re well into the twenty-first, it is clear the imbalances of power against which she has always inveighed aren’t easily rectified. It’s a good thing she’s still on the job.
NANCY PRINCENTHAL is a writer and art critic. Her most recent book is Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art (Thames & Hudson, 2015).