Linda Nochlin’s Students Remember a Teacher Who Revolutionized Art History

Alexxa Gotthardt
Oct 30, 2017 10:11PM

Kathleen Gilje,Linda Nochlin in Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 2006, oil on linen, 37 x 51 inches. Image courtesy of Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, New York.

Linda Nochlin, a pioneering scholar who famously shepherded feminist theory into the art-historical canon, died yesterday afternoon at the age of 86. She is best known for “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” a searing takedown of gender inequality in the art establishment.

When the essay was first published by ARTnews in 1971, it promptly began to shake the deep-seated patriarchal underpinnings of the art world by asserting: “The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education.”

Other groundbreaking writing followed. Woman as Sex Object: Studies in Erotic Art, 1730–1970 (1973) and Women, Art and Power (1988), for instance, combined Nochlin’s incisive intelligence with her passion for communicating art’s cultural influence. She used humor and wit to communicate her interests, too. In 1972, she responded to an erotic French photograph of a nude woman holding a tray of apples at chest level by creating a new image. Buy My Bananas, as she titled the piece, replaced the lady with a nude man, and the apples with a tray of bananas held just below his penis.

She also contributed innovative research and writing to scholarship on 19th-century French artists like Gustave Courbet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Georges Seurat, and groundbreaking essays on radical contemporary feminist artists from Louise Bourgeois to Sarah Lucas.

Beyond her wide-ranging scholarly achievements, Nochlin is also remembered for her intellectual generosity and persistent support of aspiring art historians, delivered through many years teaching at Vassar College, Yale University, and New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, where she was a professor from 1992 until her retirement in 2013. (She continued to write after she left NYU; her newest book, Misère: The Visual Representation of Misery in the 19th Century, will be released in March 2018.)

As word of Nochlin’s death spread, the impact of her scholarship and teaching became apparent across social media through countless tributes from museum directors, arts educators, artists, scholars, and students who had studied with Nochlin, or had been inspired by her prolific body of work.

On Monday, many of her former students emphasized Nochlin’s rare ability to simultaneously project openness, generosity, and intellectual rigor.

Tricia Paik, now the director of the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, recalls her first interaction with Nochlin. It was 1993, and Paik was gunning for a spot in the graduate art history program. “I remember being very nervous as the Institute was my first choice and I really wanted to study with her,” Paik tells me. “I’m sure she knew I was nervous, but I recall her openness and kindness, paired with her sharp wit.”

Paik secured the position as a student under Nochlin, and describes the professor’s influence on her life and work as a powerful trifecta. “First of all, her scholarship, both in print and in person, was truly formative,” she notes. “Secondly, her breadth of knowledge was remarkable. And lastly, just being in the presence of such a leading female role model, knowing that she was supportive of you, I believe gave me the confidence I really needed when I was just starting out.”

Art historian and Artsy’s Curator at Large Matthew Israel, who studied with Nochlin while pursuing his M.A. and Ph.D. in art history at New York University, underlines Nochlin’s altruistic spirit. “The words that keep coming to me as I think about Linda are generosity and attentiveness,” he explains. “She was so generous with her knowledge and time and she seemed to truly listen and consider what you had to say. I was consistently amazed how she could be one of the most famous art historians in the world but also give anyone she was in conversation with both her attention and input.”

Karen Chernick, a freelance art writer and regular Artsy contributor who also studied with Nochlin at NYU, agrees: “She was incredibly human and understanding, but at the same time, you had to deliver the goods,” she says.

Janne Sirén, director of Albright-Knox Art Gallery, who took Nochlin’s courses between 1993 to 1996 at NYU, also credits Nochlin with creating an environment that was simultaneously supportive and intellectually stimulating. He remembers Nochlin recounting that when, during one seminar, a student was too nervous to present her own work, Nochlin read the essay in her stead. “That’s a memory that brings [Linda] back to me, because it was very much like her: fierce, driven, a fighter, a visionary, a torchbearer, but also always there to help those who weren’t feeling like it was their moment to be on stage,” he explains. “She always found a way to be supportive.”

But Nochlin also pushed her students to challenge themselves. “At the same time, she was a demanding teacher. Once, I complained to her that I couldn’t read a French text, and she responded by saying, ‘Well, you need to learn French!’” Sirén explains with a laugh. “So I went to France to study French for a summer.”

Sirén also credits Nochlin with his early interest in education. Before becoming a museum director, he taught art history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “She really influenced me from the vantage point of being a great teacher. She ignited my passion for that field.”

Adam Rizzo, now Philadelphia Museum of Art’s museum educator, took classes with Nochlin from 2008 until her retirement in 2013. She also inspired him to enter education: “Linda taught me a great deal about art history, but what I took away from my classroom experiences with her was how to be a good teacher, listener, facilitator, and mentor, which is something that I bring with me to my job every day as a museum educator,” he says.

Nochlin’s power as an educator was enhanced by her own healthy sense of humor. “I remember walking past a particular painting of a reclining nude at the Met with Linda, which prompted her to call the artist a ‘complete boob,’” Rizzo recalls. “I also remember assigning ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ to my undergrads at NYU. I only labeled the article as written by L. Nochlin—no first name—and many of them assumed that the writer of the article was a man. That gave Linda a mighty chuckle.”

Nochlin’s academic playfulness occasionally veered into daring territory. Another former student, Jongwoo Jeremy Kim, now an associate professor of Art History at the University of Louisville, remembers a powwow with Nochlin at the Institute of Fine Arts’ Marble Room. “We Googled ‘David Beckham nudes’ when she was writing about Sam Taylor-Johnson’s David (2004), a video portrait of the footballer; we completely scandalized everyone with our all-too-visible laptop screen filled with delectable male flesh,” he explains. “The lesson? Serious scholarship doesn’t need to be boring.”

Indeed, Nochlin not only challenged her students to take risks and broaden their perspective—her scholarship challenged the entire field of art history to become more inclusive. “She was such an important figure for representing the unrepresented in art history,” Chernick notes.

“I would say that having Linda as a teacher has influenced me over the years to continue to question who is visible in the art world, and to challenge why that is,” Rizzo adds. “Art institutions have a choice in deciding what stories and whose stories they tell, and Linda’s voice is always with me in trying to affect positive change in that regard.”  

“She was brilliant, of course,” explains art writer and former Nochlin student Aruna D’Souza of the trailblazing historian’s far-reaching impact. “But she was also kind and empathetic, she was funny and sharp, and most of all she treated everyone as if they had the potential to change the way she, and the field, thought about art. How empowering that was, and how refreshing, too, her determination not to reproduce herself—to support work that challenged her own views, that took unusual paths and awoke new curiosities.”

Alexxa Gotthardt