PRINT January 2018


Linda Nochlin

Linda Nochlin, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY, ca. 1960s.

FOR THOSE OF US who knew her, there is no summing up Linda Nochlin. Where to start? With “Matisse Swan Self” (the title of the poem she wrote about a drawing of a swan Matisse made the year she was born)? With the Royal Portal of Chartres (the subject of a lecture that Adolf Katzenellenbogen gave one day to the students at Vassar, where Linda went to college, and where the Portal and the doors of art history opened for her)? Or with her recipe for meat loaf? The pink lemonade promised by the Utopian Charles Fourier? All these things mattered to her, but many other things did as well—her family, her politics, early music, the ballet, her cats, her friends. The life of her mind went together with life.

Perhaps it makes the most sense for me to start in the dark theater of Taylor Hall, where Vassar art history was and is taught. There, her voice, sounding like no one else’s, held forth, always accompanied by slide projections of nineteenth-century paintings. We heard her voice looking and speaking—of David (she assumed we knew what she meant when she talked of probity in his Oath). We learned about the Realism that allied itself with the Revolution of 1848, a Realism that refused to accept defeat. We learned about the moral and political stakes for any work of art, no matter who made it. And then we learned that women had to negotiate the corridors of education to be heard at all. That was the point of her question “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” in 1971. All knowledge had to find the way to be put to higher use. Her own voice was used, consciously, in this way, always. What we all remember about that voice was that its conviction was grounded, that it was often hilarious, that it had perfect pitch, that it came at you with Positive Clarity.

What we all remember about Nochlin’s voice was that its conviction
was grounded, that it was often hilarious, that it had perfect pitch,
that it came at you with Positive Clarity.

Regarding the Clarity: Nochlin was a great woman art historian, but let us not cram her accomplishments in a pigeonhole—she was, remember, a swan. Her feminism proceeded from her realism, that Realism with a capital R, and never separated from the political perspective of a Left that insisted on the pursuit of happiness, liberty, and life for women and men alike.

Regarding the Positivity: It was a focus. It trained her approach on enlightenment and beauty and joy—it expressed her own brightness. The last lines of her “Matisse Swan Self” poem put it beautifully:

All the possibilities are there:
Mystery of swans
of lakes
of lines
of purity, of choosing.

Misère, her last book, is ready to be published this spring.Despite the title, its chapters will be replete with her belief in the possibility of positive change. Nochlin had no illusions about the rise of Trumpism and the times through which we ourselves are passing. She was ill these past years, but in the moments that remained to her, she made it a point during each visit to leave her -interlocutors happy. As before, she slipped us a few words of encouragement so that we would not despair. This is what it will mean now to use the Realism with a capital R. The heights of Positive Clarity do not fade. The refusal to accept defeat lives on. It’s there in her art history, her writing. Her words still teach us to see in the dark.

Molly Nesbit is a professor of art history in the department of art at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY.