In a toast at my thirtieth birthday party, Linda said something that has stayed with me since: “Marni is the closest thing to my own personal history.” We were both raised in assimilated Jewish families in Brooklyn and we both graduated from Midwood High School and Vassar College, decades apart, our intertwined histories having begun before we ever met. In fact, well before I met Linda, I knew about her, for she was legendary at Vassar, where she had also taught for years. By the time I got to college, Linda had moved to the CUNY Graduate Center, but her presence at Vassar was still palpable. We read her brilliant and finely argued books and articles in my classes—the pull and dazzle of her language and meticulous research a beacon of what students could aspire to do—and she came to Poughkeepsie occasionally, since her beloved husband, Dick Pommer, was still on the faculty there. It was thrilling to see her, a blur of red hair and energy whipping through the stacks of the library, the embodiment of thinking in action.
That the timing would be perfect and that I would get to work with Linda while doing my M.A. at Williams College when she was a visiting professor for a semester, and then a few years later at Yale, where she supervised my dissertation, seemed a pipe dream then. But to my greater surprise and delight, we became friends. What drew us together early on, even beyond the amazing coincidence that we had gone to the same high school and college, and both wear size eleven shoes, is a mutual love not just of art, but also of poetry. A shared sensibility (and outrageous shoe size) is not a small matter in a friendship!
In the almost thirty years I have known Linda, I have come to see that the friend who is generous, wise, funny, and passionate about her family and friends, modern dance, crosswords, Bach, race walking, Paris, marvelous clothes, poetry, fiction, and so much more, is inseparable from the scholar. This, I think, is the essence of her greatness. The words of Elizabeth Bishop come to mind. In “Poem,” Bishop writes in relation to a small family painting: “art ‘copying from life’ and life itself, / life and the memory of it so compressed / they’ve turned into each other. Which is which?” For Linda, as for Bishop, there is no distinction between art and life. That Linda wrote an unpublished novel in her youth titled Art and Life seems both prophetic and perfect.
It is easy to describe a person’s concrete professional accomplishments. It is not so easy to convey in words what a professor and mentor to thousands means to those of us who have had the joy of sitting in the audience during one of Linda’s mesmerizing lectures, or of talking with her over a meal in NYC, or while walking on the beach in Sagaponack, or under the Eiffel Tower. She has taught us about the pleasures of looking intensely, not just at paintings, but also at the world around us. She has encouraged us to see the foreground, the middle ground, and the background, and to appreciate the gray areas, the contradictions and uncertainties, in between. She has shown us how not to get “shut out of the house of meaning,” words from her triumphant essay on Courbet’s Painter’s Studio, which I am so delighted to hear my own students repeat. The clarity and poetry with which she writes—the crackle and elegance of her words, the style with which she delivers lectures, her large and fabulous rings winking in the podium light as she gestures to punctuate a point—have inspired generations of readers and students.
Linda’s influence is, of course, far-reaching. For me personally, the value of her example and her friendship is difficult to measure in words. A knot seems an apt image to capture the complexity of my thoughts about this singular woman. A little-known fact about Linda, which I learned while staying with her in Paris over twenty years ago when I was a graduate student, is that she is expert at tying knots. After a rich meal and wine, I dropped down onto my bed, which promptly collapsed, its mattress caving in atop the complicated rope system that formed its foundation. As she fixed knot after knot, Linda told me that her father had taught her how to tie knots when she was a girl. Even then, the metaphorical value of the knot was not lost on me. The interweaving of past and present, teaching and friendship, links us in profound and meaningful ways. She is always close as I write and teach, and I am never surprised when I hear the distant echo of her words in my own and I see the fine thread that leads me back to my mentor, my friend. Linda is an indelible part of my own personal history.
MARNI KESSLER is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Kress Foundation Department of Art History, University of Kansas.