What I’ve realized most from Linda Nochlin: language helps crystallize thought. Her direct and deceptively casual prose is the combination of the colloquial and formal, something she says she learned reading Delmore Schwartz.
Writing a book about the women’s movement in art in the 1970s, I have reflected on the many ways Linda Nochlin changed how we consider women, art, and genius. From the outset of that groundbreaking 1971 essay, we know we are in expert hands. “Why have there been no great women artists?” she begins, “The question tolls reproachfully in the background.”
She asserted, famously, that the answer was not to dig up forgotten flower painters or say there are different kinds of “greatness,” but to question “greatness” itself. Aside from executing a much-needed shift of logic—arising, no doubt, from her Vassar philosophy-major background—all that followed, in syntax alone, is elegantly framed.
And that is what I wish to point out, Nochlin’s deft touch as a writer. In a short reminiscence, she later recaptured the Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus feminist conversion that led to the “Why” essay: how, in 1969, an acquaintance handed her from a bulging suitcase a heap of roughly printed, crudely illustrated essays, “Off Our Backs” and “Redstockings Manifesto.” How she read until 2 a.m., making discovery after discovery, “opening doors into an endless series of bright rooms [...] each moving me forward from a known space to a larger, lighter unknown one.” An illumination one experiences in the very reading.
In the “Why” essay, she dismantles the idea of genius itself, how we mystify it like “the golden nugget in Mrs. Grass’s chicken soup.” Her writerly “refulgence,” as it was once put, is no accident. She penned sonnets at age fourteen, received an M.A. in English literature from Columbia University, has a 1,000-page experimental manuscript (kept in a box in her room). It was composed in the afternoons in Paris in the late 1950s when she was toiling mornings on her famed Gustav Courbet dissertation.
If she hadn’t so effectively disassembled the concept in her essay, well, I would call it genius.
CAREY LOVELACE is a critic, curator, and playwright based in New York.