Nell Painter: Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over (Counterpoint 2018)

Art school would mean more than following my own inclinations. It would entail evaluation – judgment – according to already existing criteria. Whose criteria? Other people’s criteria. Other people’s judgment. An awful discord between freedom and other defined seriousness that I could not yet see. I had little understanding of the potency of good and better as applied obsessively to art schools and to art and to my own art in particular.
I had no inkling of how thoroughly art school would instruct me – teach me, challenge my abilities, and question my sanity. I didn’t know how much I would learn from the young art students beside me. I just knew I wanted to make art and make art seriously.
….
Why do something different? Why start something new? Why did I do it? What made me think I could begin anew in an entirely different field from history, where, truth be told, I had made a pretty good reputation? Was it hard leaving a chaired professorship at Princeton? I didn’t think so. For a long time, my answers, even to myself, were simple — too simple by far.
I said, because I wanted to.
Because I could.
I knew from my mother I could do it.

On Nell Painter’s website home page, there are three options: “Historian Nell Irvin Painter”, “Old in Art School”, and “Artist Nell Painter”. Three identities, different but related. That sort of sums up one of the tracks of this book: the struggle to incorporate multiple facets, the alchemy that was a journey, a transformation, and a consolidation. It’s a fascinating read.

She also looks at big questions like: Is an Artist born or made? At what point is someone recognized as an Artist? What are the strengths and limitations of an older student, and is there room in the twenty-first century art world for what Painter refers to as her “twentieth-century eyes”?

All of me wanted to be An Artist – and yet at the same time to keep my past as thinker and writer. But how could I be An Artist, when “academic” was so poisonous a concept in art and while I had always been academic? The very worst thing in the world you could call someone’s art was “academic,” meaning sterile, humorless, obscure, unattractive, and old-fashioned. Old.
An Artist’s art is ambiguous and ironic, possessing what teacher Roger called “right nowness.” I was doing my darnedest for ambiguity and irony, with mixed results, but right nowness? I was too old for right nowness.

Painter was not a complete neophyte to the process of art; she’d drawn all her life, and had taken several studio courses, mostly in painting. She started her full-time journey at the Mason Gross school of the Arts at Rutgers, and after three years worked on her MFA at RISD. On the first day, one young student asked point blank, “How old are you?” Painter writes about the similarities, and differences, between not fitting in because of her race and sex, and not fitting in because of her age, and of the difficulty of knowing which was which.

She struggled with conflicting priorities younger students couldn’t understand: caring for elderly parents (her mother died during her third year at Rutgers, and her father suffered from crippling depression, heaped on top of the usual challenges of eight and nine decades of living, after that), and residual professional responsibilities from her career as a historian. I get the sense there was a good deal of resentment on the part of instructors towards her when her last book as a historian was released and required multiple appearances, meaning time away from school; that it was titled A History of White People probably didn’t help matters. Beginning with the application of the label “Caucasian” to white people and travelling through other delimiters of whiteness, it made the NYT Best Seller list, and she’s one of the few people who’s joyfully entered into the spirit of schtick in her appearance on The Colbert Report and come out intact. But her instructors asked, “Why did you come to art school when your book was being released?” Those involved in publishing know how those things can go beyond the writer’s control. Brief trips to acknowledge honors – a Centennial Award from Harvard, the activation of her archive at Duke – were similarly met with disapproval, in one case resulting in a thesis reader withdrawing from her project.

She describes much of her artwork, both origin and process, in the book as well, including several full-color insets of her work. For example, one of her early projects at Rutgers was a combination of inspirations. She’d attended a Met series on Chinese scrolls of the Song dynasty via public transportation. The commute – “colorful congestion and junkiness and its characteristic sounds” including La Traviata on a recorder – so delighted her, she made it part of her project:

My final painting project reworked that assignment, adopting the style of an ancient Chinese scroll, reading right to left and painted in the scrolls’ warm, desaturated colors. I depicted myself as a mounted Chinese warrior in a gorgeous red coat, repeated in the style of simultaneous narration that I had just discovered in Islamic art in art history class. Chinese-warrior-me repeated seven times, starting with leaving my house, crossing Branch Brook Park to the light rail station, to Newark Penn Station, my New Jersey Transit Northeast Corridor line (complete with lumpy Chinese mountains)….
My Faux Chinese Scroll commemorated my emblematic experience in art school: my commute and my affection for New Jersey camaraderie. A commute anchovy in what I might call Du Boisian oneness with my fellow anchovy-commuters.

Later, while she struggled with the process of silkscreen, she came up with an idea combining ideas of male beauty from the Classical and contemporary periods,and fashioned images of Apollo Belvedere talking to Michael Jackson (whose ever-evolving appearance fascinated her), strips of conversation about their respective hairstyles.

So much of her art seems, to me, rooted in and/or inspired by history, yet she constantly struggled with both the different ways of approaching the disciplines, and with a kind of self-competition:

As a painter, I feared I could never measure up to myself as a historian because I’d never have enough time to learn to manipulate images as well as I had learned to answer the questions on my mind through research and writing. Is this a reason to stay in a place where you do what you do better than what you can do anew? Does this mean I could never change fields? Well, know. There was no reason on earth why Nell Painter, painter, had to equal Nell Irvin Painter, historian and author. I didn’t always know that.

This tension between past and present/future, between the historian and the artist, between the scholarship and dusty research of History and the improvisation and approximation of Art, is a major theme of the book. She resolves this quite beautifully at the end of the book when the Metropolitan Museum of Art asks her to do a presentation on “African Art, New York, and the Avant Garde.” She researched numerous artists from the Harlem Renaissance for her presentation. History, combined with her new artist’s sensibilities, became something new for her:

Now what history means to me in images is freedom from coherence, clarity, and collective representation. My images carry their own visual meaning, which may or may not explicate history usefully or unequivocally. For me now, image works as particularlity, not as generalization. This how art school changed my thinking about history and how visual art set me free.

I’ve admitted my stupidity in the visual arts several times in these pages. Often, when I read about art, either through the eyes of an artist or as an academic study, I’m lost; much as when I read about poetry, the language gets abstract and takes for granted that the yellow brings joy or there’s an ominous sense to the horizon. But I found this book to be enjoyable and informative, not leaving me behind at all even in discussions of technical processes or artistic approaches. That’s partly because the writing is clear and explains what’s necessary, but I admit I looked up all kinds of things (this reading-in-front-of-the-computer thing is getting to be a habit). What is grisaille? Who is Robert Colescott, whom she refers to as her “patron saint”? I was also pleased to recognize a few names, having incorporated some of their art as header images for stories in this blog: Kara Walker, Toyin Odutola, Amy Sherald, Hale Woodruff.

Some time last year, I saw a PBS story I’d seen about Painter, and put her on my “to read” list. When I started organizing my summer read list, it seemed like a natural inclusion in the “writing about jobs” category. I’m so glad I did. At times it’s very sad reading, at times infuriating, but overall it’s joyous and celebratory. Nell Painter seems like quite a woman, and her story is worth reading.

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