02 November 2017

Linda Nochlin Looked at Art. Art Looked Back.

Kathleen Gilje's Linda Nochlin in Manet's Bar at the Olympia is a  tribute to a great historian that is as layered as Manet's original; a young woman stands in the public eye, meeting the gaze of all comers.  As an aspiring scholar, Nochlin looked beyond the popular Impressionists to their forebears, the Realists,  who offered a revolutionary reinterpretation of art history:  'II faut etre de son temps' [“It is necessary to be of one’s time.”]   In her studies of the French painter Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), Nochlin saw more than just a magnificent recording eye  but more, an encyclopedic knowledge of visual prototypes.  Like Courbet, Nochlin would make her mark on history by reinventing it.   Gilje began her career as a conservator at the Capodimonte Museum in Naples Italy. From restoration to reinterpretation seemed a natural progression; her 'revised' version of Jan van Eyck's The Arnolfini Wedding would bring a smile to the face of all but the most hardened aesthetic sensibilities.   

She was born Linda Weinberg to a family of secular Jewish intellectuals living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. And  lucky to grow up just as New York City was becoming the center of the art world, usurping the place long held by Paris, then recovering from the twin devastations of war and Nazi occupation.   Vassar College, even in 1947, was no artistic backwater on the Hudson; its campus galleries were hung with paintings by artists as various of Agnes Martin, Joan Mitchell, Georgia O'Keeffe, Kay Sage, Florine Stettheimer and Veira da Silva.   Just as important for a developing aesthetic awareness was the presence on campus of women teachers and the school's brilliant background as a feminist institution.

When Nochlin posed the question "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?"  in Art News (January, 1971), she was already moving beyond its stated premise toward  a visioon more complex and more exciting than any previously dared.  Nochlin knew that she was creating a new version of art history that would require new materials as much or more than a new theory

Nochlin, together with Ann Sutherland Harris, curated Women Artists 1550-1950, an exhibition that premiered at the Los Angeles County Museum in 1976, followed by a satisfying appearance on Nochlin's home turf at the Brooklyn Museum  the following year.  If ever an exhibition deserved to be called earth-shaking,  this was it.  The doubters were forced to take notice. "The history of Western art will never be the same again" wrote John Perrault in Soho Weekly.     Even the reflexively misogynistic Robert Hughes, averred called it "one of the most significant thematic shows to come along in years."  Museums that had been asked to loan works for the exhibition began to brnig them out of storage for display more often after Women Artists was so enthusiastically received by critics and public alike.

Her interest in  history made artist Deborah Kass  alert to the ways Linda Nochlin turned art upside down and gave it a salutary shake.    A cursory look at images from The Warhol Project might lead the viewer to include Deborah Kass in the category of art appropriators that Andy Warhol  perfected with his Brillo Boxes.  In place of Warhol's cool detachment, Kass offers up heartfelt admiration for her subjects.  Orange Disaster - Linda Nochlin is, like others in The Warhol Project,  a series of variations on her chosen theme; its title is Kass's smiling critique of Andy Warhol's dead-ended irony.  One person's disaster becomes another's  turn of the world. Thank you, Linda Nochlin.

Read an obituary for Linda Nochlin (1931-2017) at New York Times.

For further reading:
Realism by Linda Nochlin, New York, Penguin Press: 1971.
Women, Art and Power by Linda Nochlin, New York HarperCollins: 1988.
Bathers, Bodies, Beauty: the visceral eye by Linda Nochlin, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press: 2006.
Courbet by Linda Nochlin, New York, Thames & Hudson: 2007.

1. Kathleen Gilje - Linda Nochlin in Manet's Bar at the Folies Bergere, 2005, courtesy of the artist.
2. Deborah Kass  - Orange Disaster - Linda Nochlin, 1997, Paul Kasmin Gallery, NYC.


Hels said...

Nochlin certainly did make her mark on history by reinventing it, but Courbet was not her only role model. Any modern artist worth his/her salt would want to create a modern reinterpretation of art history, although not necessarily a "revolutionary" reinterpretation.

I loved Manet's original Bar at the Olympia, and Kathleen Gilje's version is fascinating.

Jane said...

Hels, rather than do another obituary for Linda Nochlin, I wanted to focus on what inspired her in her work and how she = and it - inspired artists to do something like. Alice Neel, for one, who painted a portrait of Nochlin and her young daughter Daisy Pommer (in 1973). I think it's a compliment to be called an "Orange Disaster", when you know what it signifies. None of us would be what we are without her, so thank you, Linda. Rest in Peace.