An Anecdotal Footnote

A short flashback to Paris, 1958 – 59, where I first met Linda Nochlin, already a formidable scholar and accomplished writer, who was soon to become a good friend. We both had Fulbright grants that academic year. Well along in her Courbet research, she lived and wrote in a proper apartment with her husband and their four-year-old daughter. She knew what she was doing in Paris. I was less clear. I camped out in an unheated chambre de bonne, rent-free in exchange for English lessons. The money I saved went to the French National Railways, as I made frequent visits to museums and cathedrals and such all over France and beyond. Thanks to the laissez-faire French university system, the two professors I’d planned to study with barely showed up in the fall term—one just before Christmas, the other not at all. Library access in Paris was difficult. Deciding that my art field trips were “work,” I indulged my wanderlust guilt-free.

After Linda and I connected through an introduction from our mutual friend, the Renaissance scholar Barbara Knowles (later Debs), we often went to museums together, our visits augmented by discussions over lunch on sun-drenched cafe terraces. These discussions constituted a better art history seminar than the absentee French professors could have provided. Men would sometimes approach us, drawn by Linda’s stylish aspect and glamorous red hair. I admired her civilized rebuff to one insistent offer to buy her a drink: she said, decisively, “Non merci, monsieur, je suis une femme sérieuse!” That winter, the Museum of Modern Art’s traveling exhibition, “The New American Painting,” came to the old Musée d’Art Moderne (now the Palais de Tokyo) in Paris amid fanfare and controversy—it was the first comprehensive presentation of the American Abstract Expressionists in Europe. Linda suggested I visit the exhibition with her. I barely knew the work, having spent my graduate school years in the Boston area. (Ben Shahn, who gave the 1956 – 57 Norton lectures at Harvard, was almost the only contemporary American artist considered in our “modern” courses there.) Going through that show with Linda was a revelation, and as she spoke, she attracted a small crowd that grew as we moved along. I had never seen anything like those paintings; nor, apparently, had the French museum visitors trailing us. I learned a great deal from Linda that year, including the fact that more interesting contemporary art was to be found in New York than in Paris.

The Fulbright grants concluded in the spring. Linda returned to her teaching at Vassar, and I to my graduate studies at Harvard. Several years passed before we crossed paths one day at the Museum of Modern Art. I had moved to Manhattan and had started working at ARTnews. She had recently finished her Ph.D. at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, and was living and teaching in Poughkeepsie. Recommencing our lunches, we started to make some plans. ARTnews’s editor, Thomas B. Hess, welcomed the suggestion that she write for us, and the articles that soon resulted included a piece on a Pissarro retrospective (published April 1965) and another on Philip Pearlstein (published September 1970).

Then came “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” The art world was of course highly politicized. Feminism, then familiarly known as “Women’s Lib,” was in the air, along with civil rights agitation, antiwar protest, artists’ strikes, and social turmoil. Linda was preparing an extensive study of the problems impeding the careers of women artists from the Renaissance through the 19th century for a forthcoming anthology, Woman in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness (1971). She and I discussed whether ARTnews might publish her essay a few months before the book appeared, and whether the book’s publisher would agree to such a plan. It turned out that we could do it. Hess suggested we make her article the centerpiece for a special issue on feminism and bring artists into it. The contributing artists were Elaine de Kooning and Rosalyn Drexler (a dialogue), Marjorie Strider, Louise Nevelson, Lynda Benglis, Suzi Gablik, Eleanor Antin, and Rosemarie Castoro. Several well-established women artists, including Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell, refused to participate in a project about women artists. Hess’s editorial, “Is Women’s Lib Medieval?” extended the topic to an earlier period. The magazine’s venture became part of debates well beyond the art world and resonates to this day, as reflected in the June 2015 issue of ARTnews on women artists, which contains, among much else, an interview between Maura Reilly and Linda Nochlin. (Much of the January 1971 ARTnews material can be found on the magazine’s current web site.)

The entire 1971 package was soon reissued as a paperback book, titled Sexual Art Politics: Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? (edited by Thomas B. Hess and Elizabeth C. Baker, 1971). Then came another anthology, Woman As Sex Object, Studies in Erotic Art, 17301970, co-edited by Thomas B. Hess and Linda Nochlin (ARTnews Annual XXXVIII, 1972). Linda’s lead article, “Eroticism and Female Imagery in 19th-Century Art,” is followed by entries she brought together from a diverse range of scholars—six female, six male.

When I moved to Art in America in late 1973 (where I remained until 2008), Linda and I continued to work together. Over the years, Art in America had the privilege of publishing a rousing sequence of her essays, some historical, others on contemporary developments. Standouts, in my memory, include a dazzling analysis of Picasso’s use of color, monographic pieces on Florine Stettheimer and on Jenny Saville, politically inflected ones such as “The Paterson Strike Pageant of 1913,” “Learning from ‘Black Male,’” and “Saluting ‘Sensation,’” and many more on historical, feminist, and other subjects, but I have already exceeded my allotted space, and all that is for another day.

Contributor

Elizabeth C. Baker

ELIZABETH C. BAKER is a writer and editor. She edited Art in America for thirty-four years.

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