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Mentors: The Making of an Art Historian by art historian Francis M. Naumann is a warts-and-all lesson in mentorship within prominent late-20th-century art historical circles: a world made up of mostly intellectual, moderately sexist males, all white. Along with many bawdy asides, the book recounts a period before the upper echelon of the art world became market-rigged.
Now 70 years old, Naumann, a scholar specializing in Dada, comes across in this partial autobiography as a mellowed, generous, steadfast, and articulate narrator. It is pertinent to Naumann’s narrative that he did not set out to become a Dada historian, but rather an artist who switched from painting to post-Duchampian conceptualism while at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) only to become one of the world’s foremost Duchamp scholars. Naumann authored the definitive history of New York Dada, New York Dada 1915–25 (1994), as well as Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, among many other books.
The wide-ranging Mentors focuses on the impact Duchamp’s work had on Naumann (who never met the artist), as well as two key professors at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Leo Steinberg and John Rewald (the latter a bon vivant doyen of Impressionist studies and foremost authority on Paul Cézanne), and the artist Beatrice Wood, who Naumann cold-called after seeing a 1917 photograph of her with Duchamp and Francis Picabia in Robert Lebel’s monograph of Duchamp. Mentors smoothly details how these four people influenced Naumann’s intellectual, professional, and personal life profoundly — particularly Wood’s roguish individuality and profound honesty. The author rounds out his surprising narrative with appreciative personal recollections of Robert Rosenblum, William Rubin, and Robert Pincus-Witten, who are presented through generous intimate details.
One example speaks to the corruption now more prevalent in the art world. In the mid-1970s, Pincus-Witten invited Naumann to write art reviews for Artforum, then under the editor-in-chiefdom of John Coplans. As Naumann tells it, his reviewing gig lasted only three issues because the reviews were too “negative” (Naumann’s word) and deemed hurtful to the magazine’s advertising revenues from galleries. So that was that.
Despite its emotional charge, this book is mostly a breezy and enjoyable read, its irreverent facts straightforward, its deft tone sincere, and its length relatively brief (204 pages). The yarns it weaves wind down long before the author opened his gallery on 57th Street with a show of Man Ray’s work in 2001.
Naumann’s cogent and clear communication style, and his integrity concerning his professional engagements, is a valuable lesson for any art historian overly steeped in didactic thought. He offers insight into his foibles and his past — he was adopted by Otto and Rose Naumann from an orphanage run by Catholic Charities in Albany. His parents worked in the factories in Little Falls, New York. His mother, Rose, an Italian-American garment worker, taught Francis to speak Italian, which would make a considerable difference in his career path. So would the department of financial aid at SUNY Fredonia, which opened the door to an intellectual and artistic passageway that wound through passionate artistic ambitions, into Italian Renaissance art studies, and finally to spelunking the Duchampian depths.
But at heart, Mentors is an accessible and richly detailed celebration of intense cross-generational exchanges between individuals who champion and challenge each other. Naumann’s cogent and open communicative style, and his personal and professional integrity, should be inspirational and valuable to all, for Mentors is an encounter with a fine and fiercely exacting mind.