In a recent interview with Maura Reilly, published in the new anthology Women Artists: The Linda Nochlin Reader, there is a passage in which Nochlin recalls the origins of her famous essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Because I ran an edited version of this interview in the June 2015 issue of ARTnews magazine, where I am editor-in-chief, I had occasion to read the passage many times, and each time I read it, I was newly impressed by it.
It is a relatively straightforward, yet highly charged anecdote. It’s 1970. Nochlin is at the Vassar graduation ceremony. Gloria Steinem is the commencement speaker, having been invited by Nochlin’s friend Brenda Feigen. But it’s nothing from Steinem that prompts “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” It’s something considerably more banal. A question, asked as a kind of aside by Brenda Feigen’s brother, Richard L. Feigen, an esteemed art dealer. He tells Nochlin he’d love to show women artists, but he—in his own words—“can’t find any good ones. Why,” he asks Nochlin, “are there no great women artists?”
There have been many attempts to define what it means to have what F. Scott Fitzgerald called “a first-rate intelligence.” Fitzgerald said the “test” is “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” You might say another test is to take a snippet of conversation, a simple question posed without much forethought, and transform it into an entire intellectual program, and in the process alter the history of the history of art, and the impact of feminism on art, and the legacy of feminism in art. That is what Nochlin did with Feigen’s stray comment. “It haunted me,” she told Reilly. “It just lit up my mind.” In the essay that resulted from it, Nochlin attempted to answer Feigen’s question. Though she rightly puts the word “answer” in scare quotes—it might be better to say she investigated it, she unearthed the shards and gave us a convincing picture of the pot.
I have also been rereading that essay, which was first published in ARTnews in 1971. What is remarkable about it is its intellectual rigor, and the way it takes its time, but also how it is interspersed with a kind of wry humor. “If Giotto, the obscure shepherd boy, and van Gogh with his fits could make it,” Nochlin writes at one point, “why not women?”
I see Linda Nochlin at openings from time to time. Though small of stature, she is the sort of person for whom wine-addled crowds part. She is often wearing a half smile. She is one of art’s roving consciences; her presence is reassuring.
SARAH DOUGLAS is Editor-in-Chief of ARTnews magazine.