Remembering Linda Nochlin
For the past three years, I’ve been knee deep in Linda’s writing—editing a collection of her essays on modernism, to be published as a companion to the recent Women Artists (ed. Maura Reilly, Thames and Hudson, 2015). I was honored by her invitation to work on the new book, and felt a sense of urgency about it; while her contributions to feminism are rightly celebrated, they have sometimes overshadowed her equally profound impact on the study of modernism, not only in her writings on Realism and Courbet, but in countless essays and lectures spanning her long, preternaturally productive career.
The manuscript was submitted in September, and it’s now winding its way through the editorial process. Linda was so relieved when I told her I had finished. The task was not so easy, but then nothing worth doing ever is: it involved gathering almost 40 texts, most of which had to be transcribed from handwritten pages or old dot matrix printouts, and then arranged in a way that made sense—that was true to who she is as a scholar, a writer, an advocate, and a person.
I had the feeling I was dragging it out, especially in the face of what I knew to be Linda’s impatience to tie up her scholarly loose ends. (While this project was on the go, she was writing Misère, which will be published by Thames and Hudson in March 2018.) I worked on her collected essays in fits and starts, held back, I think, in retrospect, because I heard her request as a dying wish, and I could not bear to lose her.
And then, too, there was the selfish joy of having Linda (or her papers, at least) all to myself. What a solitary pleasure, to read and reread her writing, her sentences that trip along the page with such freewheeling spunk, the way you just knew she chose a word because it rolled around on her tongue just so, her eccentric (but never improper) play with punctuation so that a phrase read exactly the way she would have said it out loud. She loved the word “trope,” and she loved “topos” even more. She would never shy away from a bawdy word when necessary, especially when the reader might be in danger of over-intellectualizing what should be the sensual and earthy pleasures of art. She pulled references to history, literature, Spanish Civil war songs, fashion, and pop culture from an endlessly deep repertoire.
There were papers and talks in her files that I never knew existed: a whip-smart piece on the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, or a 1974 paper that insisted on seeing African traditions of bodily decoration on the same cultural plane as European “high art”, or a 1953 lecture at the Frick, when she was still a graduate student, that started with a quotation from Karl Marx—a defiant move at the height of the McCarthy era. There were others that I was reading for the thousandth time, it seemed. For all the surprises contained in the former category, there were just as many in the latter: how is it that an essay like “The Imaginary Orient” (1983) or her piece on Seurat’s Grande Jatte (1989) as an anti-utopian allegory could reveal new insights still, after all this time?
As my work on the manuscript progressed, I began to understand how much I had learned from her not simply about art history but about writing itself. Linda’s heath was worsening, and there were moments I had to make my best guesses when it came to transforming into polished prose her handwritten notes and marginalia. When I would show her the pages, she often couldn’t tell what was her own writing and what was my approximation. (Of course, I never got it perfectly right; her red pen was always at the ready to make the words her own again.) But how illuminating it was, how thrilling, to realize how much of her style and voice I absorbed, even as she always encouraged me (and I worked hard), to find my own.
The single most important writing lesson I ever received was from Linda. I was working on my dissertation proposal, sweating my way through many drafts and getting lost in the immaturity of my arguments. I finally handed her one of these attempts. She took one look and handed it back to me. “What’s the title?” she asked. “Title? I’ll figure that out later. What about the narrative?” I replied blithely, and probably a little annoyed at the nitpicking. “Always start with the title,” she insisted. “When you have your title, you have a signpost that will show you where you should be going.”
Sure enough, when we started working on her essay collection, the first thing we decided upon was the title: Making It Modern. It is the regret of my life that I won’t be able to show her the finished publication, but she knows it’s coming. Her gift to me—one of her many, many gifts to me—is that she gave me the chance to be a part of it. And that, in so many ways, she showed me where I should be going.
Aruna D'Souza writes about modern and contemporary art, food, and culture; intersectional feminisms and other forms of politics; how museums shape our views of each other and the world; and books. Her work appears regularly in 4Columns.org, where she is a member of the editorial advisory board, as well as in publications including The Wall Street Journal, Art News, Garage, Bookforum, Momus, and Art Practical.