Meet Cindy Nemser - art critic, theatre critic, novelist, humorist, journalist, and ardent feminist.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

8:30 PM Posted by Cindy Nemser 1 comment
An Excerpt From Firebrand: the tales of a Feminist Art Critic
a memoir by Cindy Nemser, art historian, critic and author.

In honor of the fact that the legendary Louise Nevelson is having an one woman exhibition at the Jewish Museum this month, I thought that her public would like to know what the Louise was like as both a woman and an artist. Therefore I am sharing my experience of interviewing her with you and relating all the facts that came before and after our meeting. I know you will enjoy our encounter.

In May, 1971, I met Sue Graham, a woman who would help change the course my writing career would take. Sue was the editor of a weekly alternative newspaper called Changes, which was financed by rock music record producers. She was forced to include some articles about the rock stars, but most of the paper was devoted to the more serious arts. When I told her about my background, she immediately asked me to write for her. She was a pretty woman with shoulder length red hair, and a regular featured face sprinkled with freckles, which went along with her delicate pale complexion.
Her walk-up Greenwich Village apartment from which she worked was rather dark and cramped, and when I visited there, we held meeting in her small kitchen. One day I was surprised to see a very hefty black man emerging from one of the back rooms. Sue introduced me to Charlie Mingus, the immortal jazz musician, who later became her husband. He politely said hello and left. I was surprised and impressed. He was the last person I had expected to meet at the very WASPY Sue Graham’s apartment.
The first assignment she gave me was to interview the famous sculptor Louise Nevelson. Sue also provided me with a photographer to take pictures of the artist and the work. I was to use a large tape recorder with big wheels on which you had to thread the tapes. I was thrilled but anxious about meeting Louise Nevelson. However, I wasn’t as nervous about interviewing her as I was about having to deal with the tape recorder. As I have said before, I’m mechanically challenged so I knew threading that tape was going to be a problem for me, as I could never do the microfiche at the library.
I met the photographer outside Louise’s five storied house on 29 Spring off Mott Street in what is now called Nolita, but then was just a part of the Lower East Side which was considered lower working class and not at all fashionable. We entered through a double glass door decorated with wrought iron, climbed narrow stairs, and when we reached the landing were confronted by one of the artist’s sculptures composed of different objects melded into one impressive form. Louise’s assistant and photographer Diana MacKowan, a plump compact, young woman with a cheery face, welcomed us politely. She led us into a room, which had another large black sculpture next to the wall and an oblong, redwood picnic table with matching benches all painted black. There was no other furniture. I learned later on that Louise had gotten rid of all but the absolute necessities in furnishings, and the house was filled with little else but her sculptures. She wanted to live in an environment that consisted of little but what she had created.
Louise Nevelson, was decked out splendidly in a long strikingly colorfully embroidered silk jacket, black silk trousers, a necklace made of small wooden objects, and earrings made of wooden circles painted black. Her hair was a close-cropped cap of gray and white; her eyes dark, deep-set and arresting were even more emphasized by a double set of false black eyelashes that were her trademark. High cheekbones gave her face a grandeur, and her chin was strong and determined. She was in her seventies, but she seemed ageless. As she told me in the interview about her appearance on a panel at the Academy of Arts to celebrate Picasso’s 90th birthday, “I put on a show. You can’t miss me. I had a Scassi on.” (He was a famous couturier known for outrĂ© clothes during the 70’s.)
Louise greeted me graciously, but I was immediately intimidated, and I felt impelled to start the interview immediately and not waste any of her valuable time. I began to set up the tape recorder and, as usual, I fumbled around not sure of what I was supposed to do. Fortunately, the photographer, a good-hearted man, offered his assistance and put everything right.
In the beginning of the interview, Louise expounded, in a deep, senatorial voice, on her philosophical views and how they were reflected in her art. While she provided some valuable insights about the meaning of her work, mainly, she spoke in generalities and set herself apart from all mundane concerns and intellectual constrains. Her aim was “to have my art reveal to myself the greatest possibility of my life”.
When I asked her how it was to be a woman artist struggling for recognition in the art world, and what she thought of the women’s liberation movement, she drew herself up, threw out her chest, like an orchestra conductor, and said with a touch of haughtiness, “I am a woman’s liberation.” She felt that she could handle herself in the universe and being a woman could not stop her from becoming a renowned artist. It had been hard, but she was willing to pay the price. Men were no challenge to her personally. If others were left by the way side then they were flawed. “They didn’t have the confidence.” She also insisted her work was feminine but it was powerful, a mirror of herself, although she did admit that “for maybe forty years I wanted to cut my throat,” and that she never thought of herself as strong, as a fighter. “If I fought it was out of despair—drinking and despair.” Nevertheless, she informed me that, “I have no guilt about everything else I did with men, liquor, or anything.” (Later on, Alice Neel, naughty as ever, had informed me that she remembered Louise turning tricks at the Astor Hotel during the 1930’s in order to keep maintaining herself as an artist.)
I was starting to get frustrated by Louise’s sanctimonious attitude which insisted that she was, at this point, far above the struggle to gain top recognition in the art world. However, when I asked her how she felt about not being included when Henry Geldzahler curated the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum which was supposed to be presenting the most influential artists of the second half of the twentieth Century, Louise immediately stepped out of her wise-woman-above-the-fray role and came out swinging, displaying the down and dirty stamina of a gutter fighter that had kept her going into her old age.
She was outraged about not being in the show. She blamed it on the fact that Geldzahler was a disciple of Clement Greenberg who believed that Color Field painting was the only significant art being done at this time. He also admitted a few sculptors who made pared-down shapes painted various colors to be of worthy of notice. Greenberg, according to Louise, also had his own little clique of critic disciples, Michael Fried and Rosalind Krauss, who taught at Harvard. Geldzahler, in a New Yorker article, had with tongue in cheek, called them “the Jewish Mafia.”
Louise felt they had used her badly. When some of her collectors’ children went to Harvard wanted to write their thesis’s on her, they were told that she wasn’t a suitable subject. This assessment put Louise in a rage. Eyes glowering she hissed that she wanted to “sue Harvard for having Michael Fried as a puppet for Greenberg.” She roared, “I’d like to take a gun and shoot that other little snot-nose (Rosalind Krauss)) up there for calling Greenberg every minute.” I was both shocked and tickled to hear Louise saying these things on tape. She saw Greenberg’s influence everywhere; in Artforum, the most influential art magazine in America, in London; all over the world. The painters he promoted, Jules Olitski, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Helen Frankenthaler who painted according to his dictums were also targets of her wrath. She resented Louis “whose hand Greenberg held to paint his pictures,” and she insisted that when it came to Noland and Olitisky, Greenberg had “been pounding the balls off those boys every since he got hold of them.” She hated the fact that everyone was afraid to confront or cross Greenberg.
Harold Rosenberg, the other art critic who held pride of place next to Greenberg also came in for a drubbing from Louise for being in cahoots with his artist friends when it came to creating exhibitions and handing out prizes.
Once the floodgates had opened and released her fury it came pouring out and nothing could hold it back. She related how Helen Frankenthaler had snubbed her at a woman’s group meeting and how the pedantic Motherwell, her then-husband, who was on the Picasso panel with her at the Academy of Arts, had also ignored her. “He wouldn’t know how to talk to you.” She added, that she “wouldn’t give you two cents for either one.” William Rubin, the curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, also on the panel, was labeled a monster, as were those in the Greenberg gang. David Levine, the famous caricaturist, another panelist, who she called both a monster and a “Goddamn cartoonist,” infuriated Louise with his highfalutin academic approach to art. She also felt uncomfortable with fellow panelist Tom Hess, the editor of Art News, who she felt had blackballed all the critics who wanted to write about her. He also failed to acknowledge her that day.
Hans Hofmann was not high on Louise’s list either, but it did please her when he contradicted Greenberg who touted him by saying, “I gave too much to teaching. I have not found myself.”
However, she did adore Diego Rivera, whose assistant, she became, for a time, when she was young. Her face relaxed as she smilingly, reminisced how he and his wife Frida Kahlo held open house and it was a free and easy environment. But though Diego tried to seduce her, Louise wasn’t receptive because Frida was her friend. Interestingly, as Louise was describing the pair, she never mentioned that Frida Kahlo was an important artist too. She had more to say about other critics as well, but most of it was not as electrifying.
As Louise unloaded all her resentments, she became merrier and merrier and all her hauteur melted away. The atmosphere was very bonhomie with all of us laughing and congratulating ourselves for speaking our minds whether it was politic or not. We breathed a mutual sigh of contentment, and then Louise asked Diana, who had been present all during the interview, to bring us a bottle of wine and, we all had a drink clinking our glasses spiritedly. I could hardly believe that I had heard Louise sounded off the way she did. I never expected anything so juicy, so revealing of art world politics, to come out of an interview with an artist I had never met before. It was a prize for me, but was she really ready to have it published? As we were ready to leave, nobly, I asked her if she wanted all the names of the people printed. She thought for a moment, and said,
“Use ex.’s. Oh, don’t. Do what you want.”
“Should I call you?” I asked
“I’ll be out of town. Do what you want.”
In a bit of a quandary, I called Sue Graham and asked what I should do. If we use ex.’s it won’t have any punch.”
Sue said, “Oh if she feels this way about the art scene, she should be able to have her say. We’ll print it the way she said it.”
I was exhilarated, but also nervous. I knew the interview was a stick of dynamite. No art magazine would ever touch it, but Sue didn’t care a fig about the self-interests of the potentates of the art world.
So the piece came out in Changes, in May 1972, about two weeks after my meeting with Louise. All seemed quiet for the first week it was on the news stands, and then I got a phone call from a friend who told me the whole art world was buzzing about the interview and everyone was scurrying around town trying to get a copy of the newspaper. I didn’t hear from Louise, but one evening, at an opening, I ran into Diana MacKowan and she was delighted to talk to me. She said Louise had gotten scared when all the chatter started and anxious about what she had said. Diana said that Dorothy Miller, who had been the curator at the Museum of Modern Art, who had given Louise her first show there and was her friend, had called and said, “I’ve heard you’ve said some very provocative things in a magazine called ‘Charges.’ I’d like to see it.” Louise started to stutter, but Dorothy reassured her that if she believed in what she said, then it was fine.” I decided to call Louise myself. She was very pleasant on the phone and did not recriminate me for using the names. In a confidential voice she told me,
“You know darling, (I loved the way she said ‘darling’ in delicious conspiratorial tones) I was at a restaurant and Tom Hess came over to me and said, ‘you know, Mrs. Nevelson, that was a wonderful thing you did in that interview. I really admire you.’ I could have fallen off my seat.”
From then on Louise was very friendly to me. She invited me to a party at socialite Barbara-Lee Diamondstein’s swanky apartment where she introduced me to Scassi, a pudgy little man who was polite and low key. She was wearing one of his special creations for her, a black, gauzy robe that went down to the floor along with a dark turban that covered her hair, and a bulky sculptural necklace and long earrings. She was magnificent. I had brought Chuck, and she took to him immediately.
Once I invited Louise to my house for dinner, and she asked if Diana could come too. Of course I said yes. However, on the night of the dinner party, Diana called and told me Louise couldn’t make it. Then she asked me if I still wanted her to come. I felt embarrassed and sad for her. Naturally, I said I’d be pleased to have her.
A few days after my dinner party, Newsweek had a tidbit about the Nevelson Interview in Changes. I think Louise was having second thought jitters about her candid assessment of the Greenberg crowd as she told the Newsweek people that I had gotten her drunk. When that fib got back to me, I didn’t get angry. I just had to laugh, especially, since it had been rumored that Louise periodically checked into rehabs to dry out. I never became part of her milieu, but anytime I met her at an art event, she was always cordial to me, always bestowing a kiss on my cheek and on Chuck’s as well. She was always the queen in public. I recall that at one of her openings at the Pace Gallery, she sat in the back room, and received selected visitors who came to pay her court. At that opening Tammy Grimes came to pay her respects. Louise looked at her blankly. The actress, completely cowed, blushed, and said in a small voice, “I’m Tammy Grimes, I am an actress.” Louise still looked puzzled, but she was polite. “How nice to see you.” She intoned regally.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, i enjoyed your encounter because i like this women, she is a great womam whom is well known to many people on I hope that more and more people like her!