Remembering Linda Nochlin

New York

Linda Nochlin, 2000. Photo Annie Appel.


LINDA NOCHLIN, who died on October 29, was an intellectual of the highest order. As a scholar and teacher, Nochlin demonstrated how critical attention to art could illuminate social life. More than expanding the canon of art history to include women artists and artists of color—though she was certainly instrumental in that regard—Nochlin revealed the ideological underpinnings of any process of canonization. She made major contributions to the study of realism, the focus of her 1963 dissertation on Gustave Courbet, and nineteenth-century art remained a primary interest throughout her career, which included academic posts at Vassar College, the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, Yale University, and New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. As a curator, Nochlin co-organized such exhibitions as “Women Artists: 1550–1950” (1976) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and “Global Feminisms” (2007) at the Brooklyn Museum, landmark surveys that cemented the place of feminist politics in top-tier institutions. It was perhaps as a prolific contributor to Art in America that she pursued the widest range of interests, spanning from medieval to contemporary art. Though Nochlin was ensconced in the academy, her articles and reviews suggest a resistance to the academicization of thought. Writing with style, insight, and characteristic verve, she brought a depth of historical knowledge to contemporary culture while revealing how the lived experience of present struggles can inform our understanding of the past. To honor her achievements, we asked historians and critics who worked and studied with Nochlin to reflect on her critical project.  —Eds.



Editor-at-large, Art in America

Linda Nochlin and I met and became friends in Paris in fall 1958, when we both had Fulbright grants for the academic year. Linda was in Paris to pursue dissertation research on Courbet. She was already a formidable scholar and accomplished writer; I was a much less advanced graduate student. We were introduced by our mutual friend, the Renaissance scholar Barbara Knowles Debs. From the moment I met Linda, I was dazzled by her brilliance, exuberance, warmth, and wit. During our Paris year, Linda and I often went to museums together, our visits followed by discussions over lunch on sun-drenched café terraces. Men would sometimes approach us, drawn by Linda’s stylish aspect and glamorous red hair. She spoke excellent French and was expert in fending them off. Interrupted or not, our discussions constituted a superb, ad hoc art-history seminar.

When the traveling exhibition “The New American Painting,” organized by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, came to the old Musée d’Art Moderne (now the Palais de Tokyo) in Paris amid fanfare and controversy, Linda suggested I visit the show with her. I barely knew that work, having spent graduate-school years in the Boston area; New York School artists were not being shown there. As we moved through the galleries, Linda talked about the artists and their works, attracting a small crowd. I had never seen anything like those paintings; nor, apparently, had the attentive museum visitors trailing us. I learned a great deal from Linda that year, including the fact that more interesting new art was to be found in New York than in Paris.

When our Fulbright grants ended in late spring, Linda returned to her teaching post at Vassar, and I to my studies at Harvard. A few years later, we bumped into each other at the Museum of Modern Art. I had moved to Manhattan and had started to work at ARTnews. She had recently finished her PhD at the Institute of Fine Arts, commuting from Poughkeepsie to New York. She was still on the faculty at Vassar, but came into the city fairly often. Recommencing our lunches, we started to make some plans. ARTnews’s editor, Thomas B. Hess, welcomed the suggestion that she write for the magazine, and a number of articles, some on historical art, some on current work, soon resulted.

During one of our lunches, I learned that Linda was preparing an extensive study of the social and institutional barriers faced by women artists from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century for a forthcoming anthology of feminist writings. She and I discussed whether ARTnews might print her essay a few months before the book came out, and whether the book’s publisher would agree to such a plan. It turned out we could do it. Her article, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” appeared in ARTnews in January 1971—a timely article for a highly politicized moment.1

Tom Hess decided Linda’s article should be the centerpiece of a special issue on feminism that would include artist statements. Those contributing were Elaine de Kooning and Rosalyn Drexler (a dialogue), Marjorie Strider, Louise Nevelson, Lynda Benglis, Suzi Gablik, Eleanor Antin, and Rosemarie Castoro. This brought long-entrenched historical issues up to the present and highlighted the routine and blatant sexism of the 1970s art world. (Symptomatic of the times: several well-established women artists, including Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell, refused to participate, not wanting to be associated with a project focused on women artists.) Hess’s editorial, “Is Women’s Lib Medieval?,” extended the topic to an earlier period, conjecturing that medieval women artists may have been freer than those in later periods. I contributed a commentary on the abysmal representation of women artists in contemporary institutions, and the widespread artist activism mobilizing for change. The magazine’s venture became part of debates well beyond the art world. Linda’s article was, in its way, a scholarly bombshell—an impassioned polemic, challenging, deeply researched, eloquent, witty, occasionally fierce. Her text, with illustrations, occupied twenty-three printed pages. Despite its depth and complexity, the piece—like all her work—was characterized by clarity and directness, implicitly claiming a place in the public discourse.2

Linda and Tom planned the following year’s ARTnews Annual, a thematic anthology titled Woman as Sex Object: Studies in Erotic Art, 1730–1970. Linda’s article, “Eroticism and Female Imagery in Nineteenth-Century Art,” was followed by studies on related topics from a diverse group of scholars, both female and male. Her penchant for humor (and her skill in drawing broad attention to a scholarly text) is reflected in a much-reproduced pair of photos included in her article: the first, a coy French shot (ca. 1890) titled Achetez des pommes (Buy Some Apples), in which a young woman naked from the thighs up offers a tray of apples as well as her bare breasts; the other, Achetez des bananes (Buy Some Bananas), showing a similarly unclad male model (photographed by Linda) who presents a tray of bananas above which dangles his penis.3

When I moved from ARTnews to Art in America in late 1974, Linda and I continued to work together. Over many years, the magazine had the privilege of publishing a continuing stream of her essays and reviews. (This had begun earlier in the 1970s, under Brian O’Doherty, who preceded me as editor.) Altogether, working from a somewhat imperfect index, I estimate that she wrote about forty articles for A.i.A. (That sounds like a lot, but it’s a fraction of the complete list of her publications.) She would also suggest topics and writers (among them several talented young critics who had been her graduate students), and helped in conceptualizing many special issues. The magazine owes her a lot.

Linda had such diverse interests and expansive expertise that you could go to her for a scholarly historical piece, a contemporary critique, or a forcefully argued political polemic. Brilliant results would be promptly forthcoming. Standouts, in my memory, include a dazzling analysis of Picasso’s use of color; monographic pieces on Florine Stettheimer and Jenny Saville; “Body Politics: Seurat’s Poseuses” (the title speaks for itself); “Learning from ‘Black Male’” (defending a provocative and divisive exhibition at the Whitney in 1995); and “Saluting ‘Sensation’” (sticking up for the controversial show that came to the Brooklyn Museum in 1999, where it drew the ire of Mayor Giuliani and the Catholic League and made headlines for months). These last two articles grappled directly with issues of the day, but Linda brought penetrating political insight to all her subjects. She sometimes made oblique references to a family background suffused with radical politics.

“The Paterson Strike Pageant of 1913” (May–June 1974) is an offbeat, and intriguing, manifestation of Linda’s interest in political subjects. The article, which appeared in an issue devoted to public art, investigates the massive popular pageants of the early twentieth century. The Paterson Strike Pageant took place at Madison Square Garden with an audience of fifteen thousand. Such participatory theatrical extravaganzas—on patriotic themes or commemorative of historical events—were often entangled with issues of immigration, terrible labor conditions, or, more grandly, the clash of capital and labor.

Linda’s astonishing productivity continued almost to the end of her life. Only in her last year or two did she relinquish her teaching, her public appearances far and wide, and her visits to colleagues and old friends in Paris and London. Work never stopped. The year 2015 brought us Women Artists: The Linda Nochlin Reader, a collection of her essays on individual artists and on feminist topics, edited by Maura Reilly. Forthcoming is another volume of essays, edited by Aruna D’Souza, and a third book, a study of misère—misery—in nineteenth-century art, illustration, and political cartoonings. The new book, completed shortly before her death, studies the artists who registered the conditions of desperation and squalor created by the Industrial Revolution. As the world changes around us yet again, Misère: The Visual Representation of Misery in the 19th Century will doubtless cast light on what we’re confronting today.


Kenneth E. Silver

Professor of modern art at New York University

Before I knew Linda, when I barely knew about her, I saw her fly through the fine arts department at New York University. This was about 1970 and I was an undergraduate. I heard someone say, excitedly, sotto voce, “that’s Linda Nochlin!” She was on her way into or out of a meeting with either H.W. Janson or Robert Rosenblum. I can recall the sense of a whirlwind—great energy, very attractive. Did I hear a bit of her famous deep laugh? Maybe.

My next Linda sighting was at Yale, when she came to give a lecture. This was 1973, and I was now well aware of just who she was: I’d read “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” and studied her book Realism for Robert Herbert’s “Peasant Painting” seminar. But she was taken up that evening by several of my classmates, including my good friend Carol Ockman, and so once again I saw her at a distance. I had no real basis for approaching her, and I did not.

But the third time, in 1976, was the charm—a dinner party at Danielle Rice’s in Paris. From the moment she walked into the party, I was smitten. In love with Linda. My first impression at NYU was now corroborated—a kind of animal vitality that just knocked my socks off. Smart, funny, aglow with life. And she seemed taken with me. Linda and I made a date to get to know each other a few days later, when we smoked a very good joint at Harry Mathews’s apartment on the rue de Grenelle, where she was staying. We became friends for life that night.

Now, if my thoughts about Linda here seem only slightly colored by her thrilling art history, that’s not because I have been impervious to the power of her intellect or the brilliance—and glorious ease—of her writing. To the contrary, it’s hard to imagine the art history of the last half century without Linda Nochlin. But more immediately, I can’t imagine my own history without Linda. She and her husband Dick Pommer recruited me for my first job, at Vassar, and Linda cleared the way for my second job, at Columbia.

What’s more, Linda taught me about survival. I could give you several instances of how she did this, but let me offer just one. Many years ago, I was asked by a major museum to write a catalogue essay for the retrospective of an important contemporary painter. I gladly agreed to write on what at the time was a rather controversial subject, the queer aspect of the artist’s work (no, neither Rauschenberg nor Johns was the artist in question). But just as I was getting started, I received a second call from the curator who now politely asked me not to write the queer essay, but instead to write on another, more conventional, topic. I was incensed and felt somehow humiliated by the momentous offer that had been made and then so rapidly withdrawn. I was about to resign from the project in protest when I thought to call Linda for moral support. Well, I got moral support, but not the kind I had expected: “Don’t withdraw from the project, Ken—you should be in that catalogue,” Linda said, in a comforting tone. “If they’re taking back their initial offer it’s probably because the artist himself has objected. Write the essay they want—you can always publish your queer piece somewhere else. Don’t let your anger get in the way of your inclusion.”

In the end, I did as Linda advised. I wrote the anodyne catalogue essay—interesting if not revolutionary—and I published my queer reading in a small volume for Rizzoli commissioned by Norma Broude. Linda taught me how to hold on to my politics and some semblance of morality without sacrificing my well-being. A lesson in survival, which I owe to my beloved late friend Linda.



Professor of art history at Hunter College

Within hours of reports of Linda Nochlin’s death beginning to circulate on social media, the tributes began pouring in. She was lauded both for her groundbreaking scholarship and for her contributions as an inspiring teacher and mentor. Many knew of Nochlin primarily through her 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” one of the foundational documents of feminist art history. All the while these much-deserved accolades were rolling in, my mind was on another notable aspect of Nochlin’s intellectual project, one often overshadowed by, but nonetheless deeply connected to, her feminist writings. This fall, I’ve been teaching a course on twentieth-century realisms, in which I’ve looked closely with my students at several of Nochlin’s publications on that subject. These include a major early effort, an essay that appeared in the pages of this magazine in 1973, under the title “The Realist Criminal and the Abstract Law.”

The article was preceded by a period more than a decade long of intellectual engagement with the topic of nineteenth-century Realism. In 1963, Nochlin had filed a doctoral dissertation at the Institute of Fine Arts titled “The Development and Nature of Realism in the Work of Gustave Courbet.” (During my first semester of graduate studies at Yale, I was fortunate to take one course with Nochlin, a seminar on Courbet, before she left for a faculty position at the Institute of Fine Arts.) Her earliest professional efforts included a sourcebook of writings on realism and tradition in art between 1848 and 1900, and a survey intended for a general readership, Realism, which was published by Penguin in 1971—the same year that “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” appeared.

“The Realist Criminal and the Abstract Law,” which was published in two parts in successive issues of A.i.A., represented Nochlin’s setting forth of a major scholarly statement within a relatively broad historical frame. While Courbet and the nineteenth-century Realists serve as a constant touchstone, she draws on a wide swath of Western art history, from antiquity to the Renaissance to the present day (among her instructors at the Institute of Fine Arts had been H.W. Janson, probably best remembered as the author of one of the most widely read art history survey textbooks of all time). The range of her argumentation is evident not only in her treatment of visual art but also in her discussion of literature and film, and in her engagement with scholarship in related disciplines, including Roman Jakobson on metaphor and metonymy and Erich Auerbach on mimesis.

Several aspects of the “Realist Criminal” essay are emblematic of Nochlin’s broader scholarly project, intertwined with but not totally assimilable to her writings on feminism. For one, the piece demonstrates her abiding investment in linking the historical and the contemporary. That connection is already evident at the beginning of the first installment, a two-page spread where Jan van Eyck’s Man with Red Turban faces off against a signature frontal, photorealist portrait by Chuck Close (painted in the preceding year). Indeed, in “The Realist Criminal,” historical examples are used to build a case for the continuing viability of realism for contemporary art-making. Nochlin had already begun setting out that case several years earlier, when she curated a 1968 exhibition at Vassar College along with another instructor there, Mary Delahoyd. Titled “Realism Now,” the show included work by Richard Artschwager, Robert Bechtle, Richard Estes, Jane Freilicher, Yvonne Jacquette, Alex Katz, Sylvia Mangold, Philip Pearlstein, and Sylvia Sleigh, among others.

Nochlin’s essay for the “Realism Now” catalogue, like her “Realist Criminal” article, makes explicit that her defense of contemporary realism was at the same time a critique of the dominant model of modernist criticism at the time, represented most conspicuously by the figure of Clement Greenberg. That was, of course, the basis for the title of her article: with modernism’s ultimate aims having been delimited, by Greenberg and his followers, within a relatively narrow path of reductionist abstraction, any full-on commitment to conventional modes of figuration effectively branded one an outlaw (the portrait by Close featured in the A.i.A. spread consequently comes off like a mug shot). Nochlin’s critique of Greenbergian modernism focused not only on Greenberg’s insistence on restricting the available technical repertory for practicing artists but also on the hierarchy of values such a framework conveyed—in other words, its political dimensions. As Nochlin took pains to point out, realism, with its focus on the particular over the universal, the transient over the permanent, the close-up detail over the generalized view, had long been associated with the lower classes and less prized registers of human experience (the domestic, the bodily, et al.). This move to revise an existing critical discourse by recuperating what had been either overlooked or undervalued is clearly of a piece with the feminist project Nochlin was pursuing around this same time, motivated not by the tension between realism and abstraction (or the real and the ideal) but rather by the conflict between the culturally inscribed categories of feminine and masculine.

Nochlin’s work on realism might prompt us to consider a reshuffling of the deck, a rethinking of the ways we tend to classify critical approaches to art from that era. While one might ordinarily locate Nochlin’s sociohistorical approach at a remove from the theoretically informed postmodernism of Rosalind Krauss and others identified with the October school, a closer look suggests that the two were impelled by the same set of critical conditions. Both came out of frustration with the overly rigid prescriptions of Greenbergian formalism, which, as had become quite clear by the early 1970s, could not adequately account for many of the most vital aspects of contemporary art in that period. Of course, they took diverging paths in response to those circumstances. While Krauss and her October colleagues gravitated toward newer categories of art-making like Minimalism, earthworks, and Conceptual art, Nochlin for her part refused to abandon the ages-old medium of painting. (It’s fitting, then, that her image is most indelibly preserved in several painted portraits, whether Pearlstein’s depiction of her with her second husband, Richard Pommer, or Alice Neel’s portrayal of her with her daughter Daisy.)

Nochlin was unwilling, that is, to abide by either the prescriptions of modernist formalism or the postmedium proclivities of postmodernist criticism. Her inclination to stick to her own path, even when it may not have been particularly popular or in fashion, is instructive in and of itself. At the same time, a resurgence of interest in figurative painting in our own moment, as evidenced by attention to the work of artists such as Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Toyin Ojih Odutola, speaks to the continuing relevance of Nochlin’s perspective for contemporary art. As her work inevitably begins to be reconsidered in the coming years, any appraisal of her legacy will need to take account of the full range of her scholarly project.




While Linda Nochlin is rightly credited as a groundbreaking, transformational, and rigorous art historian, we sometimes forget that she was also an art critic, though I’m not sure she herself dwelt particularly on the difference between the two roles. All that she was as a scholar—brilliant, incisive, ornery, contrary, funny, and deeply humane—seemed magnified in the freer-form mode that art magazines allowed her, Art in America above all. In an era when many of her friends and former students in the October circle had an outsize effect on critical taste, she played a crucial role, insisting, in an almost perverse way, on questioning fashionable opinions. If everyone was focused on Minimalism, she would insist on maximalism—unless, of course, that maximalism was getting too de rigueur, in which case she would take a left turn again. It’s not that her arguments and assessments weren’t deeply felt. Rather, she was always looking for what others had overlooked.

Two articles from the early 1990s stand out for me in this regard. The first was “‘Matisse’ and Its Other,” a 1993 essay on two simultaneous blockbuster shows in New York that season: the Museum of Modern Art’s Matisse retrospective and the Guggenheim’s survey of Russian avant-garde art, “The Great Utopia.”1 Nochlin states outright that she is not at all interested in questions of “quality” when it comes to the Matisse show especially—in fact, she dispenses with those considerations in one quick sentence: “I will merely remark on the fact that the exhibition included some wonderfully bold, experimental and gorgeously idiosyncratic work on its first floor, and a great deal of formulaic, stereotyped, energyless and repetitive painting on its second floor.” For Nochlin, something much more interesting is afoot: the fact that the show “has received such unanimously high praise from such a wide variety of vantage points and so little negative criticism leads me to ask what is at stake in all this adulation. What values are being upheld, or reinstated, in this uninterrupted paean to the old master of modernism that makes ‘Matisse’ and the Matisse discourse so especially significant at the moment?”

To answer this question, one must, Nochlin contends, pay attention to the Matisse show’s foil, “The Great Utopia. “Matisse” represented “a collective sigh of relief” (“No feminism, no social critique, no ambiguity—no ideas, in short: just beauty, pure line and color on canvas at their richest, fullest and most satisfying”), a celebration of “high bourgeois cultural values” connected to the recent collapse of the Soviet Union, a historical seism that was being read in a post-Reagan, post-Thatcher West as capitalism’s “most radical justification.” In stark contrast to this zeitgeist-driven act of dancing on the grave of the Evil Empire, “The Great Utopia” was a reminder of the values and energies that brought the Communist experiment into being, with the values of that revolutionary moment. In other words: scratch the surface, and both exhibitions—not just the one explicitly dealing with art and politics—are deeply ideological.

Nochlin’s 1995 review of Thelma Golden’s exhibition “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art” at the Whitney Museum of American Art is an even more radical intervention: it stands as one of the only unequivocally positive reviews the exhibition received in a mainstream art magazine. And she was well aware of the fact: she framed the negative reaction to the show—“a flood of cheap, anti–‘political correctness’ rhetoric”—as firmly entrenched in the current culture wars. But this, she reminded her readers, was merely a historical turn of the wheel: “Whatever one makes of the current jihad against political art, the fact remains that the great Western tradition of art has always included questions of identity, of ethnicity, of national and ethnic representation, and, indeed, outright political debate within its capacious embrace. Only very recently has Western art been distilled—or reduced—to an essence of pure form, in which any tincture of social comment is considered a taint.”

It is not simply her willingness to take seriously an exhibition that other critics were writing off as a degraded “identity politics” approach to curating that makes this essay significant, however. It is that she treats the article as an object lesson for her readers. Noting that she saw the show on the heels of viewing the Poussin retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris, she enumerates the ways in which “Black Male” prompted her to reevaluate the work of an artist who is at the very center of the Western canon—how it allowed her to see things she had never seen before, to “look at this brilliant, classical, but quirky artist differently.” While she cautioned that “the point of the ‘Black Male’ show is not, primarily, to enable the viewer, black or white, to revise the great Western tradition,” she was certainly urging her fellow (white) critics to see through their biases so as to resist what she saw as the culture warriors’ biggest threat: turning Western tradition into a “ritualized entombment, the burial celebration of dead artifacts by ossified sensibilities.” We would do well to heed her warning.