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Linda Nochlin: the American art historian who first pointed the finger at institutional barriers as the explanation for the absence of great female artists from the canon

She changed forever the way people thought about the mythology of artistic genius, and the masterpiece theatre version of art history

Linda Nochlin at Paul Kasmin Gallery in 2014 Photo: Clint Spaulding /PatrickMcMullan

When you have known someone for many years—say 35 years, which is approximately how long I knew Linda Nochlin—it is hard to pinpoint the exact date or even circumstances of first encounters. Possibly, it was at the New York City Ballet, in the glory years when George Balanchine presided over it.

I had certainly read her work before I met her in person. Her 1971 foundational essay, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?, changed forever my thinking—like legions of others’—about female artists, the mechanisms of canon formation, the mythology of artistic genius, and the masterpiece theatre version of art history.

It is scarcely necessary to summarise her truly radical interventions in the field (and outside of it), as they are cited in the dozens of other obituaries that have appeared since her death. However, I have been asked to write about her in a more personal register, which was painful, but may help to explain why she was not only esteemed and celebrated, but loved. Obviously by her family and friends, and also by generations of her students, colleagues, artists, editors, gallerists, curators, research assistants and those who hosted her in countries all over the world. But also by her house cleaners, her doormen, her cat-sitters—all those who dealt with her in her everyday life.

Here is a snapshot from my memories of her. It is 1987 and I am in the PhD programme at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where she is a professor. These are the days of 35mm colour slides and projectors, housed in what we called the slide library. Here, side by side, professors and students rummage for the exact slide needed for teaching or seminar presentations—which is always the one that has gone missing. “Why can’t I find slide X?,” I complain. To which she responds by singing: “When I’m not near the slide I love, I love the slide I’m near.”

Original point of view

Here is another snapshot. It is 1988, and along with Sarah Faunce, the curator of European Painting at the Brooklyn Museum, she has organised an exhibition of Gustave Courbet. Among the works on show is Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde, a painting that she had addressed in an essay. Nochlin has taken me on as a contributor to the exhibition catalogue. As we look at the painting, I observe that, given the gynaecological point of view Courbet employed, it should not be possible to see the model’s left breast. But Nochlin then quickly drops to the floor (fully clothed, of course) to demonstrate that from a certain angle it was indeed possible to focus on the sex of the model and to include her breast.

A third memory: it is 1986 and she has her office hours in the subterranean warren occupied by the art history department. The office door is open, and there she is, lying flat on the floor, and one of her students is walking on her back (she had back problems). “That’s great, keep it up,” she gaily encourages. It says something about her egalitarian relations with students, and indeed with everyone with whom she interacted.

Maybe that was one of the reasons she was first drawn to Courbet: she too was a person of the left. Her concern with social justice and her anti-militarism matched his, although unlike Courbet, she never went to prison. But her last completed book, which will be released in March, is entitled Misère: the Visual Representation of Misery in the 19th Century.

Down to earth

There was something about her very physicality that was lovable. She gestured, hugged and loved to eat and drink (especially Martinis). She was for years a dedicated jogger and immensely proud of her speed-walking awards (won when she was in her 60s). But if two of my anecdotes are to do with her on the floor, I think that their vividness in my memory is associated with such expressions as being “grounded”, or maybe with the quality of “down-to-earthness” and even “earthiness”, all of which were aspects of her character.

Despite her many accomplishments (including her poetry), her epicurean delight in ballet, music, literature and, of course, art, she was no cultural snob. In fact, her pleasures also included crossword puzzles—she was an adept—and watching the television drama Downton Abbey. I have known few people who manifested such a joie de vivre, an appetite for life undiminished by the loss of two husbands and serious illnesses. And did I mention that she was funny, with a keen sense of the absurd?

Despite the clichéd expression, it seems entirely accurate to say that to know her was to love her. She will be sorely missed.

• Linda Nochlin (née Weinberg), born 1931, died 29 October 2017