Our friendship of long standing has taken place in private meetings, public conferences, and email exchanges (we live on opposite coasts). Linda Nochlin and I relate on many levels—as art historians and poets, in our devotion to feminism, and in the history we have witnessed during the course of our long lives (we are now both in our eighties). Since first meeting her in 1973, I have never ceased to wonder at and admire Linda’s passionate and wide-ranging interests and commitments and her endless energy and sweetness. I find her a deeply inspiring friend and role model.
Here are five memories of encounters with her over the last eighteen years.
When Linda visited me in California to lecture at my college, I decided to take her on an outing. As I drove cautiously along twisting mountain roads, she boldly sang Spanish Civil War songs (which she knew by heart) for half an hour.
For my contribution (“Of Self and History”) to Aruna D’Souza’s 2001anthology, Self and History: A Tribute to Linda Nochlin, I recorded a series of exchanges in her New York apartment. Much of what we talked about was triggered by Linda’s huge collection of photographs. Over the three-day visit, I gained a sense of the richness and splendor of her life as we sat looking at photographs that ranged from a smiling child crouched on a Californian beach (1941) to a bold figure standing alone in the Hawai’i Volcano National Park (1998). Perhaps what most stands out in my memory of this visit is Linda’s rooting around in a cupboard to find her 1958 − 59 Paris diary and a handwritten manuscript of the novel she was working on at the time. I asked her, “When you left the novel unfinished, did you feel that you’d made a choice to become an art historian, or did you figure out that you would be an unusual art historian for whom writing would remain central?” I can still hear her voice as she replied, “Well, I don’t think I was ever that conscious, although clearly I was torn in Paris at that time. Let’s face it, I did both there. I knew I wanted to be an art historian but I wanted to write novels too. I just wanted to write.”
I was lucky enough to be given an extravagant birthday celebration with events, exhibitions, and a festschrift in rural Wisconsin at the Poor Farm, a new art space installed in what had once been part of the Midwest’s system of “poor farms” (somewhat akin to almshouses in England). I had invited Linda, who couldn’t attend, but who—out of the blue—sent me an amazing poem, “I couldn’t make it to the Poor Farm,” which has haunted me ever since.
It started off:
“I couldn’t make it to the Poor Farm
But I know what it’s like,
I’ve seen it in my dreams, always on a hill
A lawn of weeds in front, a few bent figures
Scattered here and there, postures unforgiving,
… I know what it is like from reading
About the dispossessed in England, the misérables in France,
… from Jacob Riis’s clever photos
… from Daumier, Courbet and the London Illustrated News,
I know what the Poor Farm is like and what it’s not
It’s not nice.
…So you went off to the Poor Farm, the last resort, too sick, too sore,
Too tired, too poor for anything, anywhere else
But the Poor Farm on the Hill.
…I never made it to the Poor Farm on the hill—
But I might still,
Count no man happy til the day he dies, said
The Greek writer.
Maybe it’s better to die than to go to the Poor Farm,
But still it’s probably better to be kept alive
If not to thrive…
On July 11, Linda sent me an email: “I am out in Long Island with my friend Maura, trying to finish my collected writings on women artists for a deadline, but also enjoying perfect weather, birds tweeting sweetly, saying good night, swimming in the pool, walking on the beach, flowers in the garden—what more could one ask?”
On April 17, I sent an email to Linda: “It is the middle of the night in Berkeley! Am (strangely) reading Lawrence Durrell’s Justine and thinking of Egypt and love affairs! Do you do this too?—Idly peruse your bookcase and find something you haven’t read for years, and sit there reading, mesmerized?”
Linda responded immediately: “Yes, I do. Most recently Cecil Beaton’s Diaries. Just a bunch of gossip…but, as you say, mesmerizing!”
MOIRA ROTH is Trefethen Chair of Art History at Mills College in Oakland, California.