A transcript of a recorded conversation between Linda Nochlin and Molly Nesbit in New York City, Jan. 28, 2011
Linda Nochlin taught at Vassar between 1952 and 1980.
MN: Linda, tell me, what are we looking at here (picture)?
LN: We are looking at a nun leaving the monastery…nunastery [laughs]. The nunnery.
MN: And this was your parting gift from Vassar College?
LN: At the party, there was a little party to wish me well, and that was the gift.
MN: Was it a nunnery in 1980 when you left?
LN: No, it was far from a nunnery, first of all it was coed. Second of all there had been a lot of political activism in the '60s and '70s. Everything was different. The courses were different. Students had much more power. When I first started teaching at Vassar there were, what do they call them? Pari, parietals, or something…
MN: Parietal hours.
LN: Whatever it is. When you can have men in your room only for a certain length of time; you had to sign in and sign out if you left. The freshman only had a certain number of weekend leaves. It was very, still very restrictive and I remember Sarah Gibson Blanding, giving her speech about how young women shouldn't have sex before marriage and they sure shouldn't have it on campus. When I first came, two women committed suicide because they were lesbians. One jumped out of North Tower and the other took something.
MN: When you first came, that means when you were a student?
LN: When I was a student. I entered in 1947-48. But there was still a lot of worry about lesbianism and you know girls falling in love with each other and having unrequited love. Anyway it was an issue, underground of course.
MN: Well Mary, Mary McCarthy made it more of an issue didn't she?
LN: Yes, she did, she did. But it was a real issue. Because in a way it was so hypocritical. Here were all these faculty members overtly living together in, I suppose they call it "Poughkeepsie marriages" rather than Boston marriages. But nice young debutantes weren't supposed to get messed up and stuff like that. And 80% of my class was engaged at graduation.
MN: Were you?
LN: Yes. I immediately broke it off. But I remember when I came back for one of my early reunions I think half of the class was divorced which is kind of interesting. My statistics may be off, but you know they didn't necessarily stay together. And it was a very odd situation—now I'm talking more about when I was a student— because on the one hand we were encouraged to think and some of the faculty, who had taught at male colleges, thought women were more adventurous thinkers and more interested in theoretical things like philosophy because they didn't have to make a living and they could really use their intellects for the pure, so to speak, beauty of it rather than just thinking of careers where they wouldn't need that intellectual power. It was also understood that most of them were not going to have careers, that despite all sort of encouragement by the faculty they were going to be head of the Junior League in Idaho or something. But a respectable number did go on to be doctors and lawyers, and some political figures.
MN: Let's see, you are part of the Class of 1951.
LN: Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis was in my class. There were debutantes and Gold Bobby Pins and still they had to wait on tables because everyone did. And so Vassar in many ways was a very democratic society. There were no sororities. Nothing like that. Everyone had to do the same chores. Still it was 1947 when I entered. Fairly close to the war. There were no maids. We did all the stuff. We cleaned the corridors, we made the meals, we did the bathrooms, et cetera.
MN: Now when you leave Vassar in 1980 is it still democratic but in a different way?
LN: Yes, I mean democratic in the sense that only a small elite group go to it. But there are people from public schools there on scholarship. Plenty of them. They make it more democratic. Certainly there is a democracy of intellect. If you're smart you get ahead. There's the newspaper, for political opinions and they're expressed very strongly. There are outlets for poetry writing, art making, and so on. Yes, I think it is democratic in a rather restrictive sense i.e. intelligence counts. That's not democratic.
MN: No, that's an elite of the mind.
LN: Yes of the mind and accomplishment and personality and so on. In a certain way, an ideal society.
MN: Now where do the arts fit into this democracy of mind and did their position change? You have a good 30-year range for comparison.
LN: Yes for example I would not major in art history because that was considered a debutante subject. That was not completely true because some very serious scholars did, but it's true that women who were going on to be social leaders in their town and running the local art affairs were preparing for that role. It was not, to me, a serious major, as philosophy was, and which I majored in. That was a hard major.
MN: What did you write your senior essay on, do you remember?
LN: I didn't write a senior essay, I took heavy-duty exams instead.
MN: But you did take some art history.
LN: I took at least four courses, I took the introductory course, I took modern, which was I think a senior course, I took Northern painting and I took Florentine art.
MN: Well let's talk a little bit about Art 105. How was 105 taught when you entered in as a student?
LN: Well it was considered a course everyone had to take. For good reason, it was terrific!
MN: Was it team-taught at that point?
LN: Always team-taught. So you got the experts in that field doing it their own way and that to me is unsurpassed. Having one person teach the intro course, forget about it. I mean it may be good if you have some sparkling mind that sees all afresh. But on the whole I think it was wonderful because you got to see the methodology, the approach, the personality of a whole range of different people. And I mean I took 105 partly because everyone said you had to do it, but also because I had heard Adolph Katzenellenbogen give a public lecture on Chartres. And I was blown away. I never knew anything like that existed. You know: ideas, sensual beauty, architecture, history. It was like a gesamtkunstwerk. That was how I looked on art history. And so I took as much as possible without associating with those "debutantes" who were of course weren't; many were serious students.
MN: So Chartres and Katzenellenbogen opened the doors.
LN: Yes absolutely. Portals we would say. [laughs]
MN: Opened the portals and you walked through and then you go on to take classes with Agnes Rindge Claflin?
LN: I took… I think Chloe Brokaw did the ancient. And she was, she was a personality, a character but a wonderful teacher. And then Adolph did the medieval. And Leila Barber did the Renaissance. She was a marvel, a character and a half, wonderful. She'd been through the siege of Madrid.
MN: She's been through the siege of Madrid in the Spanish Civil War?
LN: Yes, yes.
MN: How did that happen?
LN: She had to be flown out. She was visiting Spain with Pilar da Madariaga I think or Sophia Novoa and they got caught and they were flown out. She used to describe that. And they were quite radical.
MN: Agnes was radical?
LN: No, but she was artistically radical and her persona, very you know self-directed genius. And then what else…
MN: Let's fill out the department. Leila taught the Renaissance. Did anyone else teach architecture?
LN: Yes Richard Krautheimer. Can you imagine anything better? He'd break a desk every time pounding. I could do it for you, I could reenact for you his lecture on the building of Saint Peters in Rome. It was one of the most thrilling lectures. We started like pilgrims. He did it as pilgrims would see it. You know crossing the bridge, the Gianicolo, then the street, the narrow winding streets. And these pilgrims had come a long long way. Narrow little streets cluttered with ancient buildings and poverty stricken dwellings and so on. And then suddenly you came to the end of it and the whole piazza suddenly opened out. That huge light filled space, and all of Saint Peters was before you. I mean it was like a vision. It was just fabulous. And then you know, you went in, and it was sensational. And he told us that Mussolini had torn down all those ancient obstructions on the spina which made it so dark and then made the opening so magical. And we all hated Mussolini.
MN: Even more.
LN: It was just dazzling, it was so wonderful. And then Agnes did modern and that was it I think.
MN: Nobody taught modern architecture?
LN: Yes, Agnes.
MN: Agnes probably brought it up.
LN: Sure, we had modern architecture. And we had our own art library, Philip Johnson had something to do with it.
MN: So then you go off, you graduate with your philosophy major and you come down to New York City and you're in graduate school as I recall at Columbia.
LN: At Columbia.
MN: But in literature.
LN: In 17th century English [laughs] Well I learned it up, that's all. I had always written poetry and I loved the metaphysical poets. That's what I really loved. And I wrote my thesis on Richard Crashaw and the Baroque imagination using a lot of art historical methodology and Greek, of course I had taken Greek. I tried to isolate a Baroque stylistic imagination. And then I had nothing much to do, I had some job with Partisan Review as a Girl-Friday, nothing very thrilling. Oh and I was working selling convertible debentures just to make some extra money in the summer.
MN: Convertible what?
MN: What's a debenture?
LN: For AT&T. That's what I asked but I learned what it was and since I had a pathological fear of phones I thought working for AT&T would be wonderful. And it was, it was very curative. A debenture is something you get if you own a share of AT&T stock. You get it and it permits you to buy more stock at a much lower rate. Of course I understood nothing about this but I learned it and I told people all about it on the phone. It was fun. Anyhow I was doing nothing, and over my little headset came the voice of Agnes Claflin saying the youngest member has dropped out to get married, would you like to come teach in the art history department, four undergraduate courses? I said sure! [laughs] And that's how I became an art historian.
MN: But you had to go to graduate school, right?
LN: No not yet, I didn't. I just went and taught. At 22, I was teaching people I knew as, you know, fellow students.
MN: What did you teach?
LN: I taught sections of Art 105, I taught part of Northern Painting, I shared with Agnes. I taught part of Northern and part of Modern lectures, and 105.
MN: Okay and am I remembering this right that Agnes told you your course load would be waltz time, three-quarter time?
LN: Well once I went back to, I decided at the end of that year to go back to graduate school, to the Institute, and she told me I'd be in waltz time, yes three-quarter time. So that's what I did. I taught waltz time and I took one or two classes at the Institute and that's how I went to graduate school.
LN: Yes, sort of…
MN: Not exactly.
LN: [Laughs] Staggering, is really the word.
MN: There is a saga in that, but let's jump over the saga. Why don't we skip to 1980 when you're leaving and everything is the same but different in the curriculum.
LN: Yes, yes.
MN: Because by then you've asked the question "Why have there been no great women artists?" which came out of your teaching, didn't it?
LN: Yes I decided when I came back from—I'd been on leave in Europe getting married to Dick Pommer and we were in Florence because he had an I Tatti Scholarship and I was writing my book on French 19th century art called Realism at the French Institute in Florence. Also being pregnant with Daisy. It was '68 and Europe was in a turmoil and I was in Paris during the fighting, the barricades, and it was all very exciting. And I came back and things were still very…
MN: In a big way.
LN: In every way and everything was happening. And somebody's wife, I think it was, in the Sociology department came to visit me and she said have you heard about women's liberation? And I think I said oh I'm already liberated, which, in a sense, was true. She said no I mean you know this movement which is coming into being and she left me Redstockings Newsletter, Off Our Backs, a whole lot of stuff that was printed on coarse paper with equally coarse illustrations. But with the most wonderful articles. And I stayed up practically all night reading this heap of information and it really was Paul/Saul on the road to Damascus. [laughs] Under the horse's belly. I, I really—it clicked. It was like a light bulb in the head.
MN: So did you hand it all to Dick?
MN: These Redstockings you were reading?
LN: No, no.
MN: Did you talk to him about it?
LN: Yes, sure.
MN: Because I can imagine he would have been very sympathetic and interested.
LN: Oh of course. And I there and then, I changed my senior seminar from whatever it had been to Women in Art. And I can remember all of the topics. And actually I've written about this in an article called "Starting from Scratch" which tells about this, the beginnings of women's art history at Vassar. The seminar was divided into woman as the object of art and women as artists. It was a two-part course. And a lot of what I wrote about, I mean a lot of what was in the course later turned out to be the curriculum of many an art history course: women in art history, women's art history, gender, et cetera et cetera. And it was one of the most exciting courses I have ever taught. People begged to do more than two seminar reports. We didn't know anything. We didn't know the person who made the fur-lined teacup was a woman. The discoveries were amazing and of course Vassar was a very rich source of archives and documentation because it had been a women's college way back when. And there were a lot of extremely interesting materials there. Later on, when I was writing about John Reed and the Paterson Silk Strike Pageant as an art event—the Pageant Movement had a big female component—the Vassar library had all the back issues of the Pageant Master, all this information about this enormous pageant movement which was really art pageantry. It was a form of art: proto-performance on a mass scale. And women were experts in it. A pageant involved sometimes a cast of fifty thousand people. It was fascinating. I really want to go back to it. That article was published and republished. A lot of people have now written longer things, but Vassar was a prime source. You aren't going to find that material in a lot of men's colleges, I don't think.
MN: I'm sure not—you can never underestimate the power of a library.
LN: That Vassar library, wow!
MN: It makes many things possible.
LN: Yes it did.
MN: Including expansions of the kind we're talking about, and it can continue to do that, right?
MN: But everybody has to be paying attention to keeping the library powerful.
LN: Oh, there's no question. There's no question. Even with Google. I mean Google is great, when you can't remember when someone was born, bing, and you have it right there. Or you need some dry fact. I use it constantly, I mean you know, because I keep forgetting things. Google is very handy. But as far as doing real, archival or, or historical research the library is a must. And Vassar was an inspiration. Not only that, there were all these books by women authors. I mean there were the complete works of Mable Dodge, or rather Mabel Dodge Luhan. I read her when I did research on all these people—Natalie Barney, all that set in Europe, and Mabel Dodge Luhan and all of the people around her in New Mexico and so on. And Vassar, and Vassar had all of it, absolutely all of it.
MN: We've got all of Victoria Ocampo's magazine Sur.
LN: There you are. And not only that, but Agnes was instrumental in getting work by women artists, way before there was a women's movement. I remember when I was a very young teacher, it might have been the first year, Grace Hartigan came up to talk to us. And we had a big Grace Hartigan show. And I was just dazzled because you know we all wore skirts and she came up in her paint covered blue jeans and smoked all during her talk. And she was just marvelous I mean she was a true artist. I later reviewed her memoirs actually for Bookforum. But it was so wonderful because you know to see, though I knew already and I did painting myself and I knew artists, but to see how an artist's mind works. Somebody asked her, of course, what has been the greatest influence on you Miss Hartigan? And she, she really thought for a minute and she said "that Titian in the Frick. The left sleeve. The way the paint is on the left sleeve." She concluded her greatest influence. And suddenly, click again. A light went on. No, but I mean that it was clear that there were women artists. I mean we had a sizeable number. Georgia O'Keeffe was in the collection.
MN: And Florine Stettheimer.
LN: Florine was one of the people I wrote about, partly under the inspiration of the work at Vassar. So I knew and of course the whole impact of Vassar as an all women's institution made me think women could do everything, anything. I mean there's no question.
MN: But meanwhile, at the same point in time that art history gets tipped into feminist issues and feminist politics and its questions take feminist directions, the college is going coed.
LN: Which is in 1970.
MN: Yes, and the feminism is part of a larger curriculum. It's not as though we go coed and the curriculum gets feminized instantly. It was not. There were some other processes of adaptation working too. Between them a different balance gets struck in the way we study and ask questions after 1970.
LN: Well it becomes gendered.
MN: But it also becomes social, much more overtly. I remember this vividly because of course this is the time when I walk into a classroom at Vassar College. And there was a sense—I know when I took Art 105, I remember you lecturing about modernity, very forcefully. It was coming down to the abbreviations in Monet's brushstrokes, a kind of condensation of modernity there. And I also remember Dick [Pommer] putting the modern together with Roman when we studied antiquity. Gas stations being shown next to the Coliseum as he told us about the ancients…
LN: He had a very bold outlook about these things yes?
MN: Well in retrospect it was more like a revolution. He was actually putting the revolutions into architectural history and those discussions right at the beginning.
LN: Right, because his own position was in a state of revolution too. Just as I was looking towards gender issues, women's empowerment, et cetera, he was looking. He changed his field from Renaissance architecture to modern architecture and learned up a whole new vocabulary, became interested in worker's housing in Germany and Holland, was interested in Mies van der Rohe's political vision and in the political meaning, for example, of the flat roof versus the peaked roof, in the beginnings of Nazi Germany. He was changing his whole direction in terms of contemporary meanings and contemporary interests too. So we were both in a way retooling.
MN: Now, in retrospect, I can also see how there was a virtual shifting in all sorts of unsuspecting corners of that curriculum. Christine Havelock for example.
LN: She felt a very strong gender and feminist impact in terms of ancient art. Or even the study of ancient art. The emphasis on the male body on the part of scholars in England, and so on and so on. I mean she too was very strong.
MN: What about Pamela [Askew]? Pamela was such a scholar, that's why I ask…I worked for Pamela one summer and she had me in the Patrologia Latina checking her references. But there her pursuit of spirituality took unconventional turns didn't it?
LN: Yes, yes. It did. And I was quite close to her for a time. And we talked about a lot of things. And once… I mean I think her world was very woman-centered in a certain sense. And I think… I remember she told me that once Agnes said, and for some reason I associate it with a mantelpiece, like standing on either side of some mantelpiece, she said the greatest thing of all is intelligence. Faith in intellect, that was their god really in a way. And in a way it was mine too. But that intellect, meaning in a sense women's intellect as a specific form of intelligence. Not that they might put it that way, but I saw it that way. I saw that women could be brilliant thinkers and hard working thinkers and devoted serious thinkers. And I liked that. I mean I felt at ease, and comfortable.