Linda Nochlin was a pioneering art historian, liberating the discipline from the constraints of formalism and a view of art that was as chauvinistic as it was limited. But knowing Linda was even more impressive. She was my teacher, mentor (along with Rosalind Krauss), dissertation advisor, and friend. One remarkable story tells much about her humanity and grace. When I entered the Ph.D. program in Art History at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 1978, my mother had just died. I was living with my terminally ill father and ailing sister in a low income housing project. Within a few years, Linda began teaching at CUNY, having moved there from Vassar College. She took an immediate interest in me.
Talking with Linda one day, I admitted with considerable embarrassment that I had never been to Paris, even though I was studying modern art and teaching it at Hunter College. Actually, I had never been on a plane, so impoverished was my family. I told Linda I could never afford the trip. She made an astonishing offer: if I packed the books in her (modest) Poughkeepsie home office and re-shelved them at the Graduate Center, she would pay my airfare to Europe, with money to spare for lodging and food. I, of course, quickly accepted
A few weeks later, as I gingerly loaded books into cardboard boxes, Linda’s husband, the brilliant architectural historian, Richard Pommer, half-jokingly griped that less than a day of mindless work did not merit a trip to Paris. But Linda was being Linda. She was indulging in a characteristic act of unfettered generosity—her way of declaring that her student, whose talent she believed in, deserved to study abroad, that it would make him a more conscientious scholar, and that through her largesse it would happen. Linda unquestionably changed our field. She also changed my life.
Maurice Berger is Research Professor at the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture, University of Maryland, Baltimore County. His essay series, Race Stories, “a continuing exploration of the relationship of race to photographic portrayals of race,” appears monthly on the Lens blog of The New York Times.