Nan Rosenthal (1937–2014)

Nan Rosenthal. Photo courtesy the Estate of Nan Rosenthal.

I HAD THE PLEASURE of Nan Rosenthal’s friendship for about thirty years. Her wit and witticisms remain with me, as fresh as ever. We often consulted on art-world matters of shared interest, over a landline phone or in person. It was hard to keep our attention on the job rather than drift off into a laughing match, following one ironic observation with another. Some of the laughs were silly, others not so silly. The best bits of humor—the not-so-silly laughs—usually came at the expense of illustrious colleagues, and maybe unfairly. We didn’t think it was unfair at the time. Perhaps more than anyone I’ve known, Nan could see into souls. She could pinpoint what was right or wrong about a person, and then reduce the matter to a witty phrase. Officially, Nan will be remembered for her various writings—on Yves Klein, Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns, Anselm Kiefer, and many others. These have entered the art-historical canon. Her friends will recall her wit, but this was of the moment and thoroughly contextual. It can’t be recorded and shouldn’t be.

I met Nan in 1984, in connection with a College Art Association session she was planning. She needed to add poststructuralist theory to the mix of presentations she had assembled. She had enlisted a well-respected theorist, who then dropped out. Nan recruited me as a replacement. In that pre-Google era, I can’t imagine how she found my publications, which were in a number of obscure journals. Yet, to encourage my participation, she tailored her invitation to my own special interests. This turned out to be a bit of an act. After the conference, she admitted that she had taken a chance without knowing much about me. This first encounter was a demonstration of Nan’s professional skills (perhaps elements acquired during her early years as a journalist), which would have served her well in many lines of work. One quickly perceived that she was intelligent, amusing, cajoling, thoroughly charming. But most of all, she was resourceful—so if something needed to be done, she would figure out how, prevaricating as necessary. I think this was all part of Nan’s professional smarts, her canniness.

Nan was a perfectionist, not only with respect to the details of scholarly documentation and curatorial practice, but especially concerning any public performance, where directness and clarity were required. If she chose someone to do something, it would have to be done as she would do it—perhaps with some anxiety but in the end perfectly. This fact corresponds with the experience of a number of younger professionals who had the good fortune to serve as Nan’s assistants and interns over the years, particularly during her curatorial stints at the National Gallery of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Nan was totally nurturing, but she also set the highest standard and could be severely critical when things went awry. One way or another—to put it in neutral terms—she would induce people around her to meet her standard. In this regard, she was a great teacher of both art-historical and curatorial matters and also of professional protocols. From Nan, I learned more about how my field was operating than I had learned from the graduate faculty responsible for my degree. Like her humor, much of what Nan taught me shouldn’t be repeated.

Nan was a person of enthusiasms, and she would put her faith in people who seemed right to her, then she would create a network of such people, who would profit from knowing each other. I was one of numerous younger colleagues with whom Nan chose to collaborate and, through the collaboration, to instruct. In many respects, Nan was my closest art-historical colleague, even though the arc of her career largely removed her from academic work, bringing her into the museum, where she was involved more with artists and collectors. Through Nan, I first met many of the artists about whom I would come to write, as well as some of my favorite curatorial and art-historical colleagues, and even some of my future students. Nan shared her contacts and friendships extraordinarily generously—in collaboration rather than in competition. Her humor could be wicked, but it was private—a brilliantly modernist form of venting. To the contrary, her professional life was marked by its openness and a generous sharing of responsibilities.

Artists respected Nan for her remarkable care in both curating and writing. In turn, she revered works of art and the artists who made them. During her New York years she became especially close to a number of major figures, including Ellsworth Kelly, Jasper Johns, Chuck Close, and Joel Shapiro. Her husband, Henry Cortesi, a bachelor until age fifty-four, proved an ideal match for Nan’s wit. Not only did he share in these many friendships with artists, but his marriage to Nan brought her the highest level of happiness.

Richard Shiff is an art historian and Effie Marie Cain Regents Chair in Art at the University of Texas at Austin.