Due to unforeseen and unexpected circumstances, I arrived in the 1980s at a boarding school in Wallingford, Connecticut. I immediately liked my surroundings. The students were smart and came from all over the world. I took up smoking cigarettes and listened to a lot of post-punk music from England. A big cocaine bust ensued, which was profiled on the television program 60 Minutes. This was clearly the place to be.
And there was Bill Cobbett. I had seen plenty of art before arriving at Choate, mostly in Chicago, Boston, and Mexico. I had not known, however, that you could study art history as an academic subject. I took Bill Cobbett’s course (he also taught economics but I didn’t take that) and became a disciple.
Bill Cobbett was British and he took art very seriously. He didn’t look like a particularly serious person: he wore baggy corduroy trousers and his graying hair was a mess of short-cropped curls. Later, when I began teaching art history myself, I would slip sometimes and say re-Nay-sance, like Bill Cobbett, instead of Renn-i-sance. I’d laugh and tell my students my first art history teacher was British, which sounded rather fancy even though I was from Kalamazoo. (He also said cle-Res-tory instead of Clear-story to describe the upper windows of a Gothic cathedral. There were more of these Britishisms but these are the ones I remember.)
I became the Art History Girl: the go-to person to consult on how to pass a class that was actually rather difficult, with all the dates and weird artists’ names to memorize. But there was more. Bill Cobbett thought more of me than I thought of myself. Once, when he was monitoring after school detention, he read through the attendance roster and when he got to the S’s he said, Martha, what are you doing here? Meaning: you’re not a delinquent; you don’t belong here with these prep-school thugs. I shrugged. I’d probably skipped a few classes.
I arrived at college knowing I would major in art history. I already had Bill Cobbett’s imprimatur, so it didn’t matter when the resident advisor, a law student, told me within hours of moving into the dorm that art history was a useless and stupid thing to study. I took two art history classes every semester. I didn’t like my first school, the University of Chicago—although there were some great art history professors—so I wrote a long review for the school paper, comparing Maori art at the Art Institute of Chicago to Duchamp (!). This was my first published piece of criticism and it helped me transfer to Columbia, where I wrote paper after paper about works hanging in the Met. Even today I can walk through European Paintings and point them out: wrote about it, wrote about it.
I studied in Florence and traveled from Paris to Paestum looking at art. I went to galleries downtown. This was before the age of the Intern, but I worked at Interview magazine for three years, right after Andy died. Near the end of my undergraduate years I was sitting in my advisor David Rosand’s office. He looked at my transcript: I’ve never seen anyone take this much art history, he said. I shrugged. Bill Cobbett.
Later I went to graduate school and became a critic. When I met people in the art world who went to Choate—many also went to Williams College, which has a similar record of producing art fanatics—I’d ask, Did you take Bill Cobbett’s class? Of course.
Not too long ago—maybe a decade now—I received a Choate bulletin in the mail announcing a trip Bill Cobbett was leading to look at art in Italy. I considered going, then I changed my mind. I didn’t want to spoil my first serious exposure to art history. Better to leave the re-Nay-sance as it was, back in the ’80s, with the cigarettes and post-punk music and the now-mythical Bill Cobbett.
MARTHA SCHWENDENER is an art critic for the New York Times.