Mentors: The Making of an Art Historian
(DoppelHouse Press, 2019)
Reflecting at the end of his memoir Mentors: The Making of an Art Historian, renowned Duchamp scholar and gallerist Francis Naumann notes a “mysterious echo” between his lifelong obsession with the readymade and he and his wife Marie T. Keller’s adoption of their three children who “could be thought of as having been already made, or in the context of Duchamp, readymades.” Naumann and his twin brother Otto (b. 1948, Albany, NY) adopted together were similarly readymade. (Naumann has also written about the central role of replication in Duchamp’s work, and considers himself and his twin, who is also an art historian, as replicates of each other.) Although we might associate the readymade with Duchamp’s air of detachment, this resonance between the readymade and adoption is heartfelt for Naumann, as is his entire memoir exploring the intertwined personal and professional influences on him: notably the art historians with whom he studied as a graduate student in New York in the 1970s and 80s—Leo Steinberg and John Rewald, as well as Robert Rosenblum and Robert Pincus-Witten—who became his lifelong friends, along with the artist Beatrice Wood, and even Marcel Duchamp, whose intellectual and personal influence on Naumann was profound although the two regrettably never met.
Transitioning from the working-class background of his parents, to a studio artist, to the realm of academia, Naumann found in Steinberg and Rewald two possible models for living the life of an art historian: the former living primarily in the realm of ideas, the latter a sensualist living a life of luxury, supported by collectors who compensated him for his expertise. Naumann naturally adopted the mannerisms, choices, and lifestyles of his mentors, even in one humorous passage buying the same European cologne as Rewald after he smelled it on another art historian and was thus convinced it must be what successful art historians wear. From Steinberg, Naumann learned that writing begins as inquiry that starts from the detailed examination of an artwork, and from Rewald that such writing needed to take a compelling narrative to engage readers, as in his classic The History of Impressionism (1955) in which he tells tales of the painters’ lives more than he analyzes specific works. Naumann’s memoir itself adopts both approaches by highlighting the intellectual impact each had on him through personal stories underscoring that our intellectual mentors affect all aspects of our being.
This holistic reach of a mentor’s influence can even be felt in the intimate spaces of sexuality, and Naumann recounts following their models with ambivalence. Early on he thought Steinberg “was exactly the sort of teacher I wanted to be” because he was “attracting…girls” who “flocked to his side like groupies at a rock concert,” though Naumann was disturbed to discover Steinberg actually slept with at least one student. He tried to emulate Steinberg’s seduction strategies, relayed to him by one of his professor’s former lovers, and the two men had phone conversations, at times fraught with Oedipal tensions, about their “respective sexual escapades.” Rewald took a reluctant Naumann on an uncomfortable tour of 42nd Street porn shops and sex clubs and later asked Naumann to join him in visiting a bordello—something Beatrice Wood, in fact, encouraged Naumann to try. Although one’s private sexual life may not necessarily have anything to do with one’s professional life, Naumann’s revelation of these stories in a book specifically about “the making of an art historian” allows the reader to see how patterns of sexual comradery among prominent male scholars reinforced the masculinization of art historical scholarship—analogous to the masculinization of museum spaces that Carol Duncan described in her article “The MoMA’s Hot Mamas” (1989), which centers on a critique of Picasso’s brothel scene Les demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). The link between private sexuality and the masculinization of the field is revealed in a telling line in which Naumann jokingly justifies hiring a prostitute for his former professor as “legitimate research” for the author of “The Philosophical Brothel” (1972)—Steinberg’s famed analysis of Les demoiselles—on his 70th birthday in 1990.
Naumann broke with that sexist world when, to both Steinberg’s and Rewald’s befuddlement, he took an interest in the work of Beatrice Wood, an accomplished California potter who had been a member of the artist circle that regularly met at the apartment of the Arensbergs, collectors of Duchamp’s work. Naumann first met Wood in 1976 during the course of his research into New York Dada when she was 84 and he 28, and he played a tireless role in reigniting her art world career through his devotion to writing about and exhibiting her work—something he has continued to do for other forgotten women Dada and Surrealist artists including Mary Callery, Henrietta Myers, and Maria Martins. Wood became Naumann’s “closest friend and confidant” until her death at 105 in 1998, and he writes that she “affected my life more than any other single individual I have ever known.” He traveled to the west coast to visit her often, and Naumann tells anecdotes of her infectious bawdy humor and ability to laugh even at death. She defied gender norms inverting power relationships by flirting with young men, disarming them and putting herself in control, as she did upon first meeting Naumann, even later telling him when he almost reached 39 that he was getting too old for her—a refreshing reversal of Steinberg’s and Rewald’s fascinations with younger women. Above all, what Naumann describes as her “unfailing generosity of spirit and profound honesty” is what comes through in his own writing which presents his and his mentors’ vulnerabilities, flaws, and intimate lives. (She too had written a tell-all memoir that he helped her publish.)
If the readymade is intertwined with adoption, perhaps it is not so much because the adopted child is “already made” but because of the choice made by one to adopt another as their child, mentor, or mentee; “to adopt” comes from the Latin adoptāre meaning “to choose for oneself”—and one recalls Duchamp’s defense of Fountain (1917) in which he wrote that whether or not the artist made the object with his hands is of no consequence because: “He CHOSE it.” Adoption is a moment of becoming—in the case of the found object chosen by Duchamp it becomes art; the people who adopt and are adopted become part of a new relationship in an irrevocable commitment that binds and transforms both parties. The course of Naumann’s life directed by his choice to adopt different aspects of his mentors, shows how we become ourselves through the ongoing transformation spawned by these relationships.