On October 29, 2017, the world lost its first feminist art historian. That title, of course, describes Linda Nochlin, a leading academic who changed the world of art after she published her important essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”
In 2016, I had the honor of interviewing her for the Women of Abstract Expressionism podcast and only used a few minutes of our interview. In this episode of Art Movements, we release the whole interview (leaving out some in-between bits) where she discusses the role of women in the arts, how oppression impacts culture, and her personal friendship with Joan Mitchell and others.
I also briefly interview one of her former students, art writer Aruna D’Souza, to explain what Nochlin was like as a person.
And the music this episode is “Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G, Movement I (Allegro)” one of the most renowned compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach, who was Nochlin’s favorite composer.
* * *
The following is the complete transcript of the podcast. All narration is in italics, while the conversations are roman.
* * *
Linda Nochlin: It was what was expected. It was the doxa. If you’re living in the doxa, then you don’t see it.
Hrag Vartanian: Welcome to the October 11, 2018 edition of the Hyperallergic weekly podcast, Art Movements. This episode, we’re going to do something a little different and reach back into our archives, because last October 29, 2017, the world lost its first feminist art historian, Linda Nochlin. She was certainly much more than that title would suggest, but I think it’s fair to say that most people knew by her some variation of that term.
Two years ago, I had the honor of interviewing her for roughly an hour for our Women of Abstract Expressionism podcast, which at the time was going on at the Denver Art Museum. I only ended up using roughly eight minutes of my conversation with Nochlin for the final podcast, so in this episode, we’re going to play the bulk of the interview to remember a figure who changed the way we look at art. We’re going to allow you to hear some of her thoughts about Abstract Expressionism, what early feminists thought of pop art, Color Field, and other modernist art movements, and we’ll also touch on the role of women as critics, art historians, and of course, artists. All of this will be in her own words. For this episode, we decided to use the music of Linda Nochlin’s favorite composer, Johann Sebastian Bach. I discovered during our interview, she’s a big fan.
Linda Nochlin: Johann Sebastian Bach. I’m a Bach maniac, so don’t listen to me. A lot of people think this. I think was the greatest composer who ever lived. He was really a little retardataire,people were already giving up polyphony and going on to harmony, and to classicism, and leaving gorgeous baroque, which nobody should ever have left.
Hrag Vartanian: Okay, Bach, check. Then I reached out to art writer Aruna D’Souza, who’s a former student of hers, and she’s editing a volume of Nochlin’s writing.
HV: Hi, Aruna.
Aruna D’Souza: Hi, Hrag. Nice to be talking to you today.
Hrag Vartanian: I asked her what Nochlin was really like.
AD: Linda, for me, she was my teacher and I will always identify myself as her student. She was also my collaborator, my friend. She was like a surrogate family member for me. She was my mentor in many, many ways.
Hrag Vartanian: What did she think about the quote-unquote art world?
AD: I’m not sure, again, that she ever was interested in the art world as a kind of collective entity. She was interested in her art world. She always found something or someone to be interested in. What was amazing was the way in which she constantly had relationships with young artists, young writers who were doing different things. She wanted to know what was happening. She wanted to keep her pulse on it. She didn’t ever get jaded or cynical about the art world, because she never was invested in the art world, I think. She was always invested in the stuff that drove her curiosity.
Hrag Vartanian: She sounded like an astute teacher.
AD: Linda was a person who never wanted to reproduce herself in her students. She wanted her students to find their own way, to find their own voice. She had a very strong sense of who she could let run, and who she needed to rein in a little bit. She was very hands-off with me, except at the exact moments that I needed her not to be. She knew right then, she needed to have a talk with me about getting my dissertation back on track, and sort of getting done with it.
I remember that, because I remember realizing, this is a person who knows me very well, and I felt very known at that moment, by her. I loved that.
Hrag Vartanian: Does she have a favorite memory?
AD: The thing that makes me really smile, the time is I got married in the late ’90s in Whitefish, Montana where I sort of spent part of my childhood, which is on the edge of Glacier National Park. Linda came out for the wedding, and the night before the wedding, there was a rehearsal dinner party at my parents’ cabin, which was on the edge of a lake.
Linda walked in. She was in her, what? Mid sixties at this point. She walked in, she looked at my parents, and she looked out at the view and she said, “You know, I’m convinced the reason that impressionist landscapes are so much more satisfying than American landscapes is, how could American landscapists compete with this landscape? The impressionists had nothing to look at, and so they could really make art out it.” Then she dropped her clothes to reveal her bathing suit, and ran down the end of the dock and jumped in the lake.
My parents were so impressed with this, like she comes in, makes this incredibly insightful pronouncement, and then jumps in the lake. That’s my favorite memory. That’s the thing that makes me smile. To me, it embodies everything she was. Brilliant, and vivacious, and not wanting to miss out on anything, and ready to take the leap whenever she felt like it.
Hrag Vartanian: On June 22, 2016, Linda Nochlin invited me to her home for an interview. She lived in a large apartment on Manhattan’s upper west side. I remember being nervous as I walked up and rang the doorbell. She greeted me with a smile, and she immediately made me feel at ease. She had piles of books and papers all around her home, which is probably something we come to expect from people who live the life of the mind.
We’d never met before, but we seemed to hit to off right away. At least her warmth made me feel that way. I admit, I was a little starstruck, but she was very easy to talk to. We sat in what looked like a favorite room of hers, under the shadow of a large 1968 Philip Pearlstein painting of Nochlin, and her architectural historian husband, Richard Pommer. When I asked her about the work, she called it her wedding portrait, and it’s a fine painting that challenges the notion of wedding portraiture, since Nochlin and her partner look almost bored as they don’t directly engage the viewer, but actually appear to avoid us, or maybe we caught them in an odd situation, at a moment they weren’t expecting. It’s an untraditional portrait, which seems appropriate for a figure who pushed us to see things in new ways. We sat down to talk, and I started by asking her why she thought it took so long for someone to focus an exhibition on the female artists of Abstract Expressionism.
Linda Nochlin: Well, I think that is very odd in a way, because there has been work on them, writing about them, and very big interest in them. They’ve had museums show. Certainly Joan Mitchell has, certainly, what’s her name?
LN: Krasner, and several other individual women aren’t Abstract Expressionists have had shows and attention, and writing about them and so on. Why there hasn’t been a show of them as a group is a very interesting question. I guess because nobody thought about it, and they sort of should have, because they are an interesting group. One of the questions is, can you tell just from looking at women’s Abstract Expressionist canvases, that they have to be by women? Are there any signs of gender or difference in their work?
LN: I think that’s a very interesting question, because the whole nature of such an exhibition is in some ways, modified or tinted, tainted shall we say? By the notion that women, per se, naturally, quote a horrible word which I never use, leave some trace of their gender identity in whatever they create. Could they say that the Elaine de Kooning was by a woman? If you equate being a woman, being delicate, and sort of light, and elegant or, I don’t know, whatever you do. Like a Watteau painting. That is to me, a feminine painting, quite deliberately, or a, I don’t know in some cases. Or the Rococo genres in general have been denominated feminine.
There’s not a trace of that, as far as I can see, in any of the work on show by the women Abstract Expressionists. They look much more like canvases by male Abstract Expressionists, and of course that’s the case with most women artists, maybe until now, under deliberation. Their work tends to look, interestingly, more like the male artists of their time than like the work of other women artists, separated from them by centuries. It’s just a fact.
HV: As a leading art historian, why did she think figures like Joan Mitchell, Lee Krasner and others were written out of the art history, years after they had been an active part of forming it?
LN: Because people who are not deliberately thinking about it are not going to think about it. They just take what has been given, the doxa, and repeat it, and repeat it, and repeat it. They don’t bother to branch out unless they have some purpose in doing so. I think this is going to continue. You might also ask the question, “Are the male Abstract Expressionists as a group better, more powerful, more innovative, more worth looking at?” It’s a question.
HV: How would you answer that question?
LN: I don’t know. I think somebody like Joan Mitchell is absolutely undifferentiable in terms of quality, if I dare to sue such a word, from any of her male contemporaries. Then there’s another question. Is it just a question of doing an occasional terrific painting, or is it a consistent one? The other question was innovation. Are the women artists as innovative? Are they presenting something new, as strongly?
I remember when I was pretty young, the head of our department at Vassar where I had been a student and where I was a very young teacher. I was in my early twenties. The head of our department was a marvelous woman named Agnes Claflin (sp?), and she invited women artists up to talk. There was a lot of women work in our collection, not because she was a feminist in any overt sense of the word, but because she taught at Vassar, built up the department. She believed that women and their work were as interesting and good as men, and that she probably could get them a lot cheaper, too. She knew what she liked.
We had the most beautiful Florine Stettheimer in our library. We had a Georgia O’Keeffe. We had all sorts of things. Anyway, Grace Hartigan came up to talk, and I was just blown away. I was blown away. First of all, she came up dressed in jeans and a black turtleneck sweater. Everyone else came in a neat suit with high heels. She used vile language, which very much struck me. She used curse words and so on, without even thinking of it. She was very clear about what she was doing, and I loved her work. Those store windows, they just got me. Those brides in the store windows. I thought they were fabulous.
Of course, I didn’t think pre-feminism. I really didn’t think of whether it was by a girl or a boy. It just didn’t interest me. it was just terrific painting, and this was such an interesting, forceful person. it was a very interesting thing to do, to invite women artists up to talk. They weren’t all like that, by any means, but she was part of this very vanguard group, and I thought those women wearing the wedding dresses and so on, I thought those were brilliant and very innovative, sort of a little bit like what Larry, what’s his name, was doing, to bring the figure sort of back in. Larry Rivers. I just saw Berdie. Where did I see them? Oh, I guess at the Whitney not portrait show. Again, it just knocked my socks off.
HV: What were the reactions when Grace Hartigan came, because it was an era where female artists were still probably not as prominent.
LN: No, they weren’t.
HV: Right. How did people react to that? Were there certain … What were the conversations?
LN: Vassar was all women.
HV: But what were the conversations going on? Were people excited by the fact she was a woman, or were they kind of-
LN: Yeah, I think they were. Sure, they were, but they knew to just accept her as an artist, and not to bring woman-ness up at that time. That would be considered in a way, insulting. Pre-feminism. She was an artist, and she was a big time artist. She was a powerful artist, and she had a style. These were wonderful … We had a show of her work, of course. It’s interesting that if you sort of unconsciously, as we Vassar people did, believe in women’s equality, just didn’t ask that question. We just accepted them as first rate artists, and you were very glad to see their work, and we were brought one, and all that.
HV: Do you feel like … You’re saying you didn’t ask that question, but were you and your colleagues, were they trying to erase that aspect? Because I mean at the same time, did it-
LN: No, not really. We were trying to naturalize women’s presence in the world of art. There were so many works by women artists in our collection. We had not just Grace, we had Irene Rice Pereira. We had one of hers, and she came up to talk. Our sculpture teacher, Concetta Scaravaglione was a woman, and a prominent one. She had done a lot of stuff in the WPA, you know, public works. We had a woman painting teacher, Rosemary Beck, who was just marvelous.
I don’t know. Going to Vassar and teaching at Vassar, at least for me since I’d gone there, I just expected that women would do what men did and be just as good at it. Of course, that illusion broke down once you left Vassar, and all our wonderful students became head of the PTA in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania instead of doing anything. But we had a lot of, at the time, doctors, lawyers, professional women. People who did things, but just nothing like now. It was not expected in any sense.
It was a strange set of contradictions. We sort of accepted that women were going to be artists but we must have been aware that they were not shown quite as much as men, and were not getting as much talk. I guess I just didn’t think about it, until the women’s movement. You need a movement to crystallize what that’s all about. Otherwise, it can mean a whole lot of things, you know? Like I said, Grace Hartigan just seemed like a marvel, like a creature from another world, a woman of power and force and so on, but that didn’t meant that we immediate thought, “Oh, why are women being excluded?” We didn’t think of that. We were accepting her, and we were having women coming up and talking to us all the time.
It’s very contradictory. The women’s movement came as a big crash. It really was like a, what’s that word, that opens your eyes?
HV: Yes, yes, yes.
LN: What happened to Saint Paul, when he fell off his horse?
LN: Epiphany, epiphany. That’s right. Epi, phanos, yes. It was like an epiphany. It really was. It would happen more and more and more, then you’d sort of see what was really going on in the world, and how women were being treated, and how they were being excluded, and how, despite that all, some of them were very triumphant. In a way, it’s always if you are one of the major exceptions, it is always an advantage to be one of the excluded.
Bonheur was the leading, in terms of popularity, the leading artist in the 19th century. Probably more people knew her work, certainly than Manet or Cezanne or anything. Also, she was very canny. She had contract with the most famous printmaker of all time, so if you couldn’t afford a Bonheur, which, who could? Everyone had a print of The Horse Fair in their home. Everyone knew who she was, but she was very much looked down on the by avant garde, of course.
HV: Just, I’m going to pause it for a second. There is a quote in your essay “A Rage To Paint,” Joan Mitchell and the issue of femininity, that I wanted to bring up, because I think it’s very relevant to the Abstract Expressionists, particularly, which is, “Biography, in fact, often looms large in such cases, precisely because of the absence of recognizable subject matter. The gesture seems to constitute a direct link to the psyche of the artist. Without even an apple or a jug to mediate the emotional velocity of the feeling in question.” Now, that would suggest to me that an movement like Abstract Expressionism would actually foreground women’s identity, in their work.
LN: Yeah, but I don’t think that’s true. I say seems or something. I mean, naturally, as I say, all art is mediated. Abstract Expressionism, very strongly by other art, previous art, hypothetical art, whatever you want to say. Nothing is simply a direct gesture. Even if you go like that, splat, you’re splatting with Picasso in the back of your mind, and other splatty artists before you, expressionist artists, Munch or something. But I think some of the Abstract Expressionists struggled very hard to get rid of that past, that mediation.
HV: In this-
LN: It’s very hard. Picasso struggled at times to draw like a child. It’s very hard for an adult, trained artist to forget all the laws of perspective, and foreshortening and all that. You can look at some of the people like John Flaxman at the end of the 18th century, who was trying to be a quote, primitive, to look like a pre-classical Greek. He always forgets, he was … a little foreshortening. He can’t resist. He gets a little anatomy. To get rid of that, is hard work.
I once had a party with my friend, a “draw like a child” party, to see if anyone could, using my own daughter’s kiddie stuff as a comparison. Practically no adult could really draw like a child. In a certain sense, getting rid of any mediation is almost impossible. You know when Picasso saw a Jackson Pollock, he said, “Oh my God,” he said, “Everything that I have struggled not to fall into, he did.” He felt that Pollock had removed all barriers to whatever it was.
I don’t know. I think the critique, I suppose, is always that women Abstract Expressionists were not innovators. That was terribly important for Abstract Expressionism, to be original, to go back to origins, to get rid of influence and so on. I think that was one of the major things. If you didn’t have balls, you couldn’t be an innovator in that way.
HV: What else were the factors that were mediating women’s painting, or women artists and their work? What were those, maybe they’re obstacles, or maybe you’ll call them structures that didn’t exist? I don’t know. What were they?
LN: Well, I think the social order was the main thing. I didn’t think … Necessarily a lot of that work should have been in the shows of Abstract Expressionism, right along with the men, but it was seen as a sort of secondary, after-the-fact, imitate, unoriginal. It was sort of begging the question, if you didn’t have balls and a penis, you couldn’t be original. I mean, that’s what some of those guys were really thinking, if they thought about it at all.
HV: Do you think that the female artists, or most of them, were unoriginal, of that Abstract Expressionist movement?
LN: Well, I’m not such a proponent of originality. I’m not sure that whatever we mean by originality … Can there be originality? Yes, a Jackson Pollock, when you first saw it, I remember going to those shows. I just couldn’t believe it, I mean, they were so different from anything, anything I had ever seen. There was no point saying that it was. It was. It was like a shot. It was amazing. Just as, when I first saw the first Rauschenberg show with the goat and all that, I was a very good person, because even though I knew art very well, I really got knocked off my feet by things that were this new.
Of course, I had not seen intermediary stages, or evolution. I just went to the big shows and that was that, but they were original. There’s no question. At least to the public, they were.
HV: How about the work of Lee Krasner? During that period, was she seen as original? Was Elaine de Kooning seen as original? Was Joan Mitchell seen that way?
LN: I knew Lee. She glommed on to me, or we glommed on to each other at the beginning of the women’s movement, very early. I took a group of Vassar students, seniors seminar down to New York when she was having a big one-woman show. It must have been in the middle ’60s, I guess. I wish I could remember where it was, whether it was the Whitney, or somewhere, or a gallery. Big show.
I took them around, we talked. Another woman joined up with us as we were going around. Lee was with us. I remember, I liked the work, I admired. At the end of it, this woman who we never had clapped eyes on, came up to me and said, “Oh, I loved your talk, but why are you talking about such awful work?” Lee’s standing there, really very embarrassed. It was actually quite good work. I’ve learned to appreciate it still more now. I think she’s a very good artist, but she’s not an artist that makes me extremely excited, let’s put it that way.
HV: But who did she think were the most notable women of the moment? Who did she think would be remembered in the same breath as the other painters?
LN: Of all of those, Joan Mitchell is, to me, the one. The most brilliant, for me original, aesthetically powerful. I think she is the major woman, if you have to … I suppose what’s her name, is also very good.
LN: Helen Frankenthaler. I would say probably I’m leaving out somebody who I love. I just can’t remember. Those two, on very different scales, in a way like Rothko versus de Kooning, you might say, those two are. I would say those are major artists, those two women. They really are. There’s no question.
HV: One of the things I noticed is, there were a lot of women showing in some of those 10th Street shows.
LN: Yes, yes.
HV: Then when it came time to write the history, when it came time to actually, after the movement sort of ended-
LN: It was like women couldn’t figure in that. They just weren’t … It was kind of natural. You look at any art history textbook for the last 100 years, and see how many women are mentioned in it. See. Practically none in most of them.
HV: Were people conscious in the ’60s that all of a sudden, these women were being swept aside?
LN: In the ’60s? No, I think until the women’s movement. Until it became a conscious, theoretical and activist program, people didn’t notice. Maybe some people noticed. I’m sure the women who were excluded noticed, yeah, but did the write about it that much? Not that much. Grace did a little.
HV: In case you were wondering, the Grace she mentioned is journalist Grace Glueck, who’s best remembered as a New York Times art writer and editor from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. She wrote more than most about women in the arts during that period.
LN: You read, for instance, I love English mystery stories. I love the ones from the ’30s and ’40s. They are all, without almost any exception, so anti-Semitic. Just the normal parlance. “Oh, he’s an ugly little Jew, isn’t he?” Constantly. People that you would never think of as necessarily … Nile Marsh, Agatha Christie, bless her heart. I mean, Jews, I mean the names are made fun of, or they’re moneylenders, or cruel, or unpleasant, or have no manners, or trying to make their way …
I mean, they’re always depicted badly. This is taken for granted. It isn’t that these people are necessarily overt anti-Semites. This is the way you thought, and I think that was true about women artists. The irony being that in the big, bold, United States, artists were thought of sort of pansies, or et cetera, et cetera. Effeminate. Then the Abstract Expressionists made sure that that was not the case, that they were real men. The maleness, I think, was very important. They didn’t want to get mixed up with women.
HV: do you think that’s why maybe it’s taken so long for women in Ab Ex?
LN: I think partly. That is much the case, that the low opinion of artists, you know. I mean, we had very important artists before then, one of whom was a woman. Look at Georgia O’Keeffe. She’s probably the best known modernist artist of the period.
HV: Tell me a little bit about Joan Mitchell.
LN: About her as a person?
HV: Well, a person, but also because one of the things about your essay that really made an impact on me was this differentiating between rage and anger. That, again, we were talking about the masculine persona that the Ab Exers were really sort of championing, I think. Maybe that’s the word. Do you think that that was necessary for her to be counted, and to have a place?
LN: Well, she was a fierce character. She was not a little sweet, shrinking violet. She was very intelligent. She came from an upper class family. She had had a very good education. She was not a person who had to come up from nothing, and she had had a very good art education. I think her mother was associated with that poetry magazine out in Chicago. She came from circles that understood poetry, art, et cetera.
I think she had a hard time of it. She had some difficult relationships. She had money. That was nice, and she had this beautiful house, in which Monet had lived in the gardener’s cottage that I used to go out and see her at. She often, I think, was unhappy, but she always worked, no matter what. She drank a lot. A lot of the male Ab Ex … In that, she was certainly one of the boys in that, because drinking was, I don’t know if you can say looked on with favor, but it was certainly done in excess by many of the painters.
HV: Her personal friendship with Joan Mitchell came up again and again, so I wondered if the artist had openly discussed the way she felt about being ignored compared to her male counterparts.
LN: All artists complain. They could be the most popular artist that there is. Yeah, sure, she complained and complained that men got something she didn’t, and blah, blah, blah. But she also admired and liked some male artists too. She wasn’t totally unreasonable about it, but yeah, she did feel, and she was, in a sense. She didn’t get big shows at big museums until quite late, as opposed to some of her male contemporaries.
HV: How did she see the feminist movement, in terms of … Because now all of a sudden this thing showed up on the scene, and was sort of looking at our history anew, and maybe in ways that may have contradicted what she maybe thought.
LN: Yeah, well, she wasn’t a kind of card-carrying feminist, but she was against any world that kept her out, yes. It’s hard to say. I don’t think she was a self-conscious feminist. She was mean to women like she was mean to men. Sometimes, even her good friends, whom she had for years.
HV: Can you give us a little sense of sort of the social milieu we’re talking about here? In terms of, when you went to a gallery opening, were there certain things women were expected not to do? Could you go up and just talk to anybody? I’m trying to understand, because I know there is a social history there that some of us aren’t aware of.
LN: I don’t know. I can’t remember. Yeah, I don’t think there was an active fear on the part of women going up and talking, no, of course not. I think somebody like Grace or Joan, or some of the big women artists, sure. I don’t think it was like, you know, in Manet’s time where Berthe Morisot had to get somebody to take her to things, or Mary Cassatt was very indignant because people didn’t want her to attend a show by herself, and she wanted to do it and so on.
HV: Who was that? I’m sorry.
LN: Mary Cassatt. No, it wasn’t … I think you could more or less do what you wanted. But, I have to tell you something funny. In 19 … When was it? It must have been the ’60s. My mother-in-law, and a girlfriend of mine were trying to get into a quite elegant bar near 57th Street, and we were not allowed because we were three women together. You had to have a man with you, otherwise you were considered to be a prostitute. Look, I mean my elderly mother-in-law, but no. Women asking for seats in bars were not allowed for that reason. Isn’t that interesting?
HV: Did that include the club?
LN: Oh, I don’t think so. I don’t know. I didn’t go to that very often. I knew Kiesler, that’s how I got to that, yeah. Frederick Kiesler. I went once or twice. Really very brave, but enterprising.
HV: Was there a different between being allowed into downtown bars as opposed to midtown or uptown?
LN: Oh, probably. Probably. I don’t think … This was Rumpelmayer’s, I think. That was very elegant. But I mean, you don’t think about that. Can you imagine anyone now telling two or three women going to a bar that they can’t come without a male escort? Please. I mean, things we take for granted now were not sort of take-for-grantable at that time, really.
HV: How about in terms of the writers, the critics? Were they treated as equals?
LN: Well, there were a lot of big time critics. Of course now, I can’t remember their names, and I knew them, too. Who wrote about … Oh, there’s Betsy Baker, who was the co-editor first of Art News, along with Tom Hess, and then the editor of Art in America. Now, that’s a powerful figure. She also happens to be one of my two or three best friends. I see her all the time now.
I mean, she had power. A lot of gallery owners were women, though they didn’t necessarily show women artists, by any means, but there were a lot of big time gallery owners who were women. There were women. Barbara Rose was certainly a very important and powerful figure, writing art criticism. I’m sure there, what’s her name? Katharine Kuh, even before that. No, I think women … Maybe there weren’t as many, but they certainly were a powerful presence, I would say.
HV: What was holding them back, or holding them back in terms of maybe including these women in histories, or writing about them more prominently, or addressing some of the issues that may have been unique?
LN: They just didn’t think about it. Until you have a formation, a consciousness … Consciousness was not raised. There are a lot of things. They might have asked, “Why aren’t there more blacks being written about?” Nobody asked. There were a few, but generally it was just accepted there weren’t going to be too many black artists showing, or being talked about at all. There were some few, few, few, but that’s how it is with the Docks. That’s how it is. You just accept that’s how it is, and then suddenly a person says, or a few people say, “Hey, why …” But it has to be part, to me anyway, people don’t notice it, or they notice it and they flick it off like a fly. Unless it’s part of a kind of organized and self conscious … And then, wow, does it come.
HV: But we’re still facing that today, and that’s one of the questions, why I’m interested in this question, because even today, I mean certainly, women are not represented in the art world, at least not on every level, certainly, other than maybe art students, where you still kind of see a lot more maybe female students, but as soon as that starts going up and they become in terms of-
LN: Yeah, well, you probably have more female curators than you used to have. You certainly do. The Museum of Modern Art is a very good example. There’s a very strong women’s presence of the curatorial, right at the top.
HV: I riffed off the point that the Museum of Modern Art had strong female curators, and I asked her, “What was missing then? Why aren’t things changing faster?” The conversation turned to the idea of oppression and its impact on art, an important topic. Nochlin believed it was a big factor.
LN: You know, I think a group that has been oppressed does not produce in quite the same way as an un-oppressed group, not at all the same way. The same amount, the same figure, the same quote, originality, but I think discoveries are made all the time. You know, in other countries like Poland, wonderful women artists. They’ve got shows of … No, they’re not household words yet, but I think little by little, or lots by lot, women artists are coming up.
I mean, look at some of the recent, let’s say, MOMA shows. There have been people I’ve never heard of, and one or two I can’t pronounce, but I think there are simply marvelous women artists. I mean, just wonderful. The Bauhaus show revealed, I think, to an extent there were powerful women presences in the Bauhaus too. That is, there could be new ways of looking at past movements that might bring out some of the …
HV: Then do you think that there is a role, or maybe the way we write history might be involved in this kind of exclusion?
LN: Yeah, I think, absolutely it would. Absolutely, it would be, but on the other hand, as I say, I think oppression works. It has always worked. Those who are oppressed, not given education, expected not to express themselves publicly, are supposed to be supporting members of society. You know, all you have to do is read Simone de Beauvoir. She’s got it all in there, that women did not have any long-term goals. They’re just there to do the material stuff, to keep the boat afloat, so to speak.
If your brought up with that as a thought, you’re ruined. You really have to work hard to get out of that, because it’s in your head. It isn’t necessarily overtly out there in the world. I think lack of confidence, lack of feeling that you could be large, you can transcend. The word is transcendence, that’s what she said. Women were brought up. Part of becoming a woman was to understand that you had no transcendence, that you were imminent. Everything was just day-to-day. Read her. She has all of that in there, and she explains very well why things are as they are, both historically and contemporaneously.
HV: Now, was that something that you’ve noticed, or is that something that happened in other movements, or in other types of artistic … Because I know that your own epiphany happened a little bit in California, when you saw-
HV: When you went there and you saw Woman house and all these other types of projects.
HV: I’m just wondering whether that distance was partly-
LN: Partly, but that was … I don’t know. Maybe. I think New York women figured it out pretty soon too, I think. I don’t know. I’m not that familiar with California. I just can’t really say. We did have our first woman show, the historical one, out in California, and partly because the women artists out there demanded it. They wanted to show that there was a history to women.
HV: So in that way, they were kind of interested in the history more for themselves.
LN: Well, not more.
LN: Not more, but they wanted something to back up. You know, I mean, male artists have thousands of years to fall back on, so to speak. You read somebody like Harold Bloom, the Anxiety of Influence, and she may emphasize it more than one might think, but the idea that you’re part of an inheritance, and a kind of dialectic of inheritance of that, Shakespeare, is sort of both emulated and knocked out by Milton, and then Milton and Keats, or something, so that there is this whole … What shall I say? Chain, a great chain of creativity in the male world. You try that with women? Hard. Harder.
HV: n the early feminist movement, what did they actually think about Abstract Expressionism, or did they even think about it?
LN: That’s very interesting, because very quickly I think, a lot of women artists rejected that as male stuff. Painting itself got rejected as a masculine dominated activity by many women. You didn’t do that. You did cloth work, or collage, or performance, or something else that was not as infected with male domination. That was one, but there were so many different branches I can’t say that was the only one, but that was one idea that painting was kind of, had been taken over too much by men, that it was hopeless.
HV: Finally, what did early feminists think about the other art movements of the era? Did they just see them all as part of the patriarchy?
LN: It was even more a rejection of, what do you call it? You know, flat … Color Field. That was seen as the real enemy.
HV: Well, that’s interesting considering the true, kind of, the person who people associate with the beginning of Color Field was often Helen Frankenthaler.
LN: No, no, no, no. The strict, not flat. Color Field. Then the pattern and decoration was seen as a kind of feminine response to Color Field, that it was kind of decorative and all over. Look into pattern and decoration, which was very much seen as against the standard Color Field domination of the time.
HV: How about the relationship of feminism and pop art?
LN: That is very interesting, because I have a student, a former student who’s been very active in rediscovering female pop artists and reinserting women into the pop art world. That is Kalliopi Minioudaki. She and other people have done … There was a show in Philadelphia of female pop and so on.
I mean, you look around, in the case of pop, you really have to work hard, but she found some very interesting artists who had been quite well known in their own time.
HV: Was that part of the conversations of the emergence of feminism in art history and in art? Were people thinking about pop art and the relationship to it?
LN: Yeah, I suppose somewhere, but somehow women didn’t get much footage in there somehow. You’d think it would have been an idea venue, so to speak. There were some important women pop artists who are being rediscovered, but they didn’t make a splash like Andy Warhol. No.
HV: I guess I’m finding it really interesting how you’re talking about Color Field being kind of like the opposition-
LN: The enemy.
HV: … The enemy, right.
LN: At one point.
Hrag Vartanian: I guess, looking back, I’ve never thought of it as a masculine thing. It doesn’t, or at least it doesn’t seem that way to me, so I’m kind of curious. Did it feel ideological? Did it-
LN: It felt masculine, simplified, without any delicacy or, I don’t know, whatever it was they wanted. Decoration, pattern and decoration. Something. That was more associated with feminine.
HV: Helen Frankenthaler never factored in, and people didn’t see her-
LN: Maybe, yes. Yes, she did. People had all kinds of theories and ideas, many of which I didn’t share, like centralized imagery, God forbid. I mean, you know, because women have a uterus, they have to do centralized imagery. I mean, you know.
HV: That was an actual idea that people had?
LN: Oh, yes. Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro and you know, they were very much into centralized imagery. Even Lucy Lippard had a little bit bit. You know, as though this was natural to women. I mean, it’s also, if you look, asymmetry goes with added sophistication, sort of so-called primitive peoples did very centralized things, but you weren’t allowed to say that.
LN: After all, men are centralized too in a certain sense. May not be a womb but there is something in the middle there. No, I never believed in that at all. I thought it was fun. If you wanted to make up a theory and base your idea around it, fine. But don’t tell me it’s nature made women do centralized imagery.
HV: Do you think there are a lot of things that the story of Abstract Expressionism is still missing?
LN: Do you think it’s still missing? Well, I mean, people have been looking up black people who were involved in it, and finding some. Sure, there are probably women. I don’t know, what else are you going to find? I think this woman show, Women Abstract … should be a very interesting show. I’m interested to see what people will say about it, because it’s such an interesting topic, as you can see. I mean, what you want to make of it? Are we going back to some kind of essentialism? God forbid, I hope not.
HV: What danger do you see in that essentialism?
LN: Well, there’s some natural way for women to paint through all time. I think, as I say, I think women artists of any period look much more like the male artists of their period, as do the women Abstract Expressionists. I mean, a woman Abstract Expressionist looks less like Mary Cassatt than she looks like Willem de Kooning. I mean, that’s just obvious.
Nor do I think women should feel some sort of obligation to make their work look like women’s work. I hope they don’t. You know, if they want to, they can. There may be very interesting. I think Paula Modersohn-Becker, who had a marvelous show in France recently … I mean, she was attempting to sort of unite Cezanne with, not feminism, femininity, with what she thought of as earthy femininity. Pictures of mothers and babies, and peasant women or so on. She died when she was in her early thirties. It’s hard to say what she would have done, but she was trying to do a kind of feminine essentialism seen through Cezanne, which is a fascinating idea. I wish I had the catalog of that show. Must have been wonderful.
I think women have thought in different ways. Somebody like Florine Stettheimer, what an interesting example. She hated Beethoven. I hate Beethoven too. She loved Mozart, that’s what she … She knew what that was all about. She very deliberately made her work feminine, even the frames, everything.
HV: One of the interesting things you mentioned was, when you talk about Joan Mitchell and you also said Helen Frankenthaler might be two of the figures that are some of the most prominent, they were also two of the most affluent, I would say, of that circle. Now, do you really think that was a huge part of that? Do you think it’s because they had that freedom? What do you think of that role that played?
LN: Yeah, I think it helps, of course. Money helps, but money often doesn’t help, if you have to be a society woman and make your debut, and conform to that kind of a life, you’re not going to have too much time for making art, or good art.
HV: What was unique about both of them, you think?
LN: Well, you know, Helen Frankenthaler came from a certain kind of New York circle. She went to Dalton, where she had excellent art, what was that, there’s a museum about him in Mexico. He taught there. Tamayo, Rufino Tamayo. She came from a place where art was important, and the Dalton school, of course, would have. Then she lived with men, who were big in art. Just as Georgia O’Keeffe had her big man, she did too. Joan Mitchell came from a world where art and poetry and so on were valued, went to art school, Chicago. They were not nobody. They didn’t come from uncultivated, uncultured places.
HV: They also weren’t imprisoned by what you said, sort of in terms of the socialite culture.
LN: No, no. They weren’t.
HV: Or becoming mothers or something.
LN: It was a possibility to be Bohemian, to be poetic or what not. You know, there was a dance world. I’m sort of the same age as Frankenthaler, maybe a little younger or older, but you know, there was a world of culture there, and that encouraged, if you got in the right part of it, it was an avant garde world that wasn’t frowned on or looked on as crazy. There were plenty of avant garde outlets in many fields, so I think that’s part of it.
HV: Well, it’s great. Thank you so much.
LN: I hope I said something or other. I guess I did.
HV: That was very useful. We are talking to Linda Nochlin about women of Abstract Expressionists. Thanks so much, Linda.
LN: Oh, you’re welcome. This was really fun. I love to talk about this.
Hrag Vartanian: The music featured on this episode was “Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G, Movement I (Allegro),” which is one of the most renowned compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach, who, as I mentioned, was Nochlin’s favorite composer.
I’m Hrag Vartanian, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Hyperallergic. Thanks for listening, and enjoy your week.