After a distinguished career as a historian and Princeton professor, Nell Painter had earned the right to a restful retirement. Instead, at 64, she started over, chronicling that adventure in “Old in Art School,” an inspiring, irreverent and fascinating look at her journey to become a “real” artist while earning degrees from Rutgers University and the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design.
As it turns out, a Harvard PhD and a slew of celebrated books, such as “The History of White People,” don’t get you far with art school professors. The skills and values Painter cultivated over the course of her career — rational discourse, analytic rigor and historical meaning — are regarded with suspicion, and she finds herself pigeonholed as too “academic” and “twentieth century.” One RISD professor tells her, “You will never be an artist.” Of the eight painting students at RISD, all graduate with honors except Painter.
Astonishingly Painter does not quit. Instead, she uses the very skills her professors despise to analyze the art world, assessing her peers and teachers with the cold clear eye of the trained historian. She ponders the very meaning of art, observing that gallery representation is “the main criterion for who counts as An Artist.” But gallery representation is a circular affair, a closed circuit based on who you know and your connections, and if you are an older black woman, you probably don’t know the right people:
“How do you get a gallery? You make work that counts as interesting in the eyes of An Artist with a gallery. . . . How do you tell what art is ‘interesting’? It looks like art. What is art? Art is what’s in galleries.”
A veteran teacher herself, she is surprised to discover that art school teachers are not like the Princeton professors she knows. At Rutgers, the teachers float in wearing pajamas, smelling of smoke, dropping names of cool new galleries and trailing snooty ideas about culture and class. They are disorganized, arrogant and, with few exceptions, have zero interest in Painter and her work. At RISD, the student who garners the most praise is a man who paints a woman’s leg from the same pantyhose ad over and over. The other students protest the implicit sexism of the work to no avail. He is celebrated for the “emptiness” of his art, and teachers encourage other students to similarly “empty out.” Whatever that means.
Though Painter does receive some encouragement, she also endures criticisms that are meant “mean-spiritedly, as a way to take me down a peg.” One teacher, Irma, repeatedly tells her she cannot draw; she cannot paint. At first, Painter defends herself, and redoubles her efforts. But eventually she realizes that she’ll never please Irma, because “I didn’t draw and paint the way I was supposed to. I was too stuck on subject matter. I didn’t make piles of things or paint shower tiles or empty landscapes.”
The most rewarding parts of the book are Painter’s images and her descriptions of how and why she created them. In the chapter where she reminisces about Irma, she also provides a series of profoundly moving self-portraits. These paintings are so compelling that they make her teacher’s callous critiques all the more ludicrous. Painter also captivatingly dissects the intricacies she confronts as a black female artist. How should she paint her own skin color? What does it mean to be “black”? To paint “black skin”? She gives us a brief overview of how contemporary African American artists have “solved the color conundrum” and then, distinguished historian that she is, takes a deep dive into the evolution of black painters and figuration.
In the end, Painter succeeds. After graduation, her work wins praise for the very subject matter her art school professors derided. She wins fellowships to Yale and Yaddo. Her work is collected.
After years of writing history, Painter has become a visual artist, but she also discovers that she does not need to leave history behind. In this book, a memoir, she brings the two “truths” together – the personal and the collective, the artistic and the historical – and the result is a heartening coming-of-age story for the retired set.
Charlotte Gordon is the author of “Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley.”