I met the Newark-based artist Nell Painter a decade ago at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD): I was “too young” to be teaching a graduate theory and criticism seminar and Nell was in the class, “too old” to be an art student. It didn’t take long to realize that she was Nell Irvin Painter, esteemed scholar of history and race, whose bestselling book The History of White People (2010) was just about to be published. Old in Art School (2018), Nell’s eighth book of nonfiction, is a wonderfully frank reflection on her brave years as an art student after her decades spent a prizewinning, tenured academic. In 2019, her solo exhibitions “Freedom from Truth: Self-Portraits of Nell Painter” and “Odalisque Atlas: White History as Told Through Art” were mounted at Harvard. Earlier this summer, she published a new commissioned artist book, From Slavery to Freedom. Curious to hear more about this book and her recent art, I reached out to Nell after so many years. This interview was conducted in September 2020.
You begin From Slavery to Freedom with a text that seems to have been written and rewritten over and over: It speaks of your “hope for a lasting redress of America’s original sin of racial oppression.” All of the script throughout the book has this liminal quality and I wondered if perhaps the two yous, historian/writer and artist, are collaborating?
You are absolutely right about writing and rewriting and absolutely right about my “two yous” in collaboration while always contending over coherence. Historian/writer strives for discursive legibility, so that consumer takes away what producer put in. As a scholarly historian and even as an op-ed writer, I wanted to take my readers by the hand rhetorically, and lead them down my path, the path that I had laid out for them in words.
This is not how I make art, in part because such a legible visual surface looks boring. Historian/writer wants intelligibility, but artist wants emotion, feeling, intensity of meaning that will not necessarily be viewed in the ways I was creating. Historian/writer always wants more words; artist keeps taking words out, or if not taking words away, then overwriting and obscuring them in the interest of intensity, of touching viewers first in the eye rather than in the mind.
Historian/writer named my artist’s book after an iconic textbook of African American history, John Hope Franklin’s enduring From Slavery to Freedom, first published in 1947 and now in its 9th edition. I knew Professor Franklin personally, not only as a path-breaking historian, but also as the creator of horticultural beauty. John Hope Franklin raised orchids. There’s even one named after him: the Phalaenopsis John Hope Franklin. For me as both historian and artist, Professor Franklin wrote across the color line and cherished flowers that were not objects of racial classification.
The spirit infusing my art differs from that of Franklin’s classic text, which tells you what you need to know once and for all. For me as historian as well as artist, meanings change as the times change and as the author/artist changes. My history writing now, as well as my art, insists first and last that things change. One aspect of change is varying readers/viewers, each of whom brings something different to my work and so also takes away different meanings.
There’s more to my use of the terms slavery and freedom in this momentous year of 2020, when George-Floyd-Black-Lives-Matter-anti-racism demonstrations pitch their struggles against police-brutality-racism-Confederate-monuments/flags-Trumpy-militias-Nazis. That’s what I mean when I quote slavery (police-brutality-racism-Confederate-monuments/flags-Trumpy-militias-Nazis) and freedom (George-Floyd-Black-Lives-Matter-anti-racism demonstrations). So my artist’s book begins with slavery as in victims of racist murders, as in the Confederate flag, the song “Dixie,” and Confederate statuary.
Freedom is glimpsed in the words of “God Bless America” and further envisioned as Juneteenth, as its proclamation and its celebration, literally, of freedom. My book ends with “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” what’s now called the “Black National Anthem” but that I grew up with in the twentieth century as the proud “Negro National Anthem.” An anthem of optimism in frightful times, which haven’t yet ended. That may, in the USA, never end.
A word about the perforations running along the side of each panel: the perforated pages that come from my sketch book turn the work away from the panels associated with precious fine art and make them into pages of a book, with its connotations of multiples and publication and wide circulation.
How did the book come about and can you talk about the process of making it?
Since becoming a visual artist in 2011 I’m unable to think or to write without visualization. Whenever I think of a narrative, images crowd into my mind. From Slavery to Freedom sprang from my engagement with the exciting, chaotic, inspiring, frightening, hopeful spring of 2020. But its form belongs to other work I’ve been making since last winter. In February I had an artist’s residency in the Bogliasco Foundation in Liguria, Italy, where my artist’s book project was American Whiteness Since Trump. This project picks up from my last scholarly book in 2010, The History of White People, a New York Times bestseller that has only increased in interest since 2016. In February-March in Italy, I was making American Whiteness Since Trump but had to stop working on it when the pandemic shut everything down. So American Whiteness Since Trump ends in mid-March 2020, before coronavirus upended our lives and before the political events that have been making 2020 momentous. From Slavery to Freedom skips the pandemic but confronts the protests of the spring of 2020.
Between American Whiteness Since Trump and From Slavery to Freedom, I published a photo book on the MacDowell website of my life from escaping Italy in mid-March, refugeeing up here to the Adirondacks (where I remain now with my husband), and being laid low with coronavirus lethargy. What overcame lethargy was the protests and demonstrations that began in June, even in the Adirondacks. We joined two up here, and I wrote and drew and wrote and drew in the excitement of that time. My favorite piece from the early summer appeared in the Paris Review, entitled “On Horseback,” pulling together my delight on seeing protesters riding horses with my own autobiography and my own art.
From Slavery to Freedom, responding to the protests of springy 2020, was actually a commission from Aferro Gallery in Newark. In terms of process, it proceeded in two steps: First, I drew and collaged the basic pages of the book. Then I manipulated those pages digitally, so that the handmade cover, largely in yellow, became overwhelmingly blue after digital manipulation, with digitization emphasizing the texture of the graphite ground. The final piece exists only digitally, though the next-to-the-last step exists physically.
You once said, “In art, I can delve into what I can’t know as an historian, imagining images that historiography can’t document. That’s a freedom that artist Nell Painter can exploit, but historian Nell Irvin Painter must back away from.” Do you feel that the case with this artist book?
Yes, freedom from the facts of history is very much a part of From Slavery to Freedom, because my artist’s book doesn’t make the rhetorically necessary connections between, say, the song lyrics I quote, people on horseback, the names of victims of racial violence, Confederates tumbling down, and my own thoughts. My art is infinitely more personal than my scholarly history, so you can look at my art without necessarily following my train of thought. Just look. I want you to look for a while and let some images and some thoughts cross your mind’s eye.
Digital manipulation inserts a crucial step between the manually produced image and the final image, a step away from what might have been historical accuracy and into something akin to abstraction. This step I deeply appreciate. For me, digitization is akin to post-studio manipulation of popular music, which produces entirely new sounds with no pretense or necessary relation to what comes out of acoustic instruments. Many of the instruments don’t even exist acoustically. Computers have their own logic, in music and in image.
Have you been making art since finishing From Slavery to Freedom? Or mostly writing?
Oh, lord! I have been writing and drawing up a storm, despite coronavirus-lethargy. My website now has (or soon will have) a special section on what I made and wrote in 2020, when the George Floyd-Black Lives Matter upheaval sent editors scurrying after Black writers. So in addition to two existing commitments (an essay on the painter Alma Thomas and preparation of the 2nd edition of my essay collection Southern History Across the Color Line for the University of North Carolina Press), I contributed written essays to the New Yorker; NBC Think; the Washington Post and; and the Paris Review and MacDowell website that I already mentioned.
We’ve already spoken about From Slavery to Freedom, which I completed at the end of June. Right now I’m working on a piece whose shape I don’t yet know but that originated in a Holocaust diary that ends with the phrase, “It is impossible to know the date of the murder of the author of this diary.” I posted a couple of my new pieces on Instagram, as works in progress as I feel my way in a narrative whose poignancy touched me deeply.
Could you talk a little bit about the shows you had at Harvard last year and specifically about your interests in self-portraiture? The exhibition “Freedom from Truth,” which featured some of these works, also seemed like a reference to your biography of Sojourner Truth, is that correct?
My curator, Jonathan Square, had first approached me a few years ago about showing the Black Sea Composite Maps of my “Odalisque Atlas” series at NYU. That show didn’t come to fruition, but Jonathan kept my work in mind, for which I’m grateful. In the fall of 2019, he mounted two shows of my work at Harvard, one of Black Sea Composite Maps, the other of self-portraits, loosely construed.
In conjunction with the opening of the shows, one of my former graduate students, Walter Johnson, now a professor of history at Harvard, and I had a public conversation on some of the issues you and I are talking about now. In January 2020 the Boston Review published our pieces on my shows.
You are quite right that “Freedom from Truth,” the title of the self-portrait show, resonates with my biography of Sojourner Truth (Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol), so, yes Jonathan’s title and choice of pieces to show utterly delighted me. My self-portraits hew less and more closely to my personal appearance, not trying for verisimilitude. They began at Mason Gross as exercises in figurative painting, for in art school I didn’t have any dark-skinned models, so I used myself as a handy model for practicing up on painting dark skin, because I knew figuration would be part of my art.
Even beyond convenience, it was freeing for me to use myself, because I didn’t care if I made myself look too dark or too light, too cute or too ugly—which could have caused problems with other models on account of the politics of Black imagery being so fraught. Theorists like Deborah Willis have written whole books on “the Black body” (e.g., The Black Female Body: A Photographic History, 2002, and Posing Beauty: African American Images, 1890 to the Present, 2009) and how it’s portrayed. I could avoid all that by just painting myself. So I painted and drew and digitally manipulated my own image ad infinitum. I haven’t made self-portraits recently, for current events and historical politics have consumed my art. Self-portraits are bound to return, later than sooner, however, the way the times are going.
Were you making self-portraits when you were at RISD? I seem to remember you were.
I made at least twenty-five small (12” x 12” on paper) self-portraits at RISD in a winter session class I deeply resented, having been forced to take it to compensate for being such a bad painter. One of my RISD painting teachers would start our every studio visit with “You can’t draw, and you can’t paint.” Ninny that I was, I not only believed her, I thought being able to draw and paint really mattered deeply, which any perusal of art magazines or gallery tours will quickly disprove. Another of my RISD teachers assured me that I’d “never be an artist.” That, thankfully, I immediately recognized and denounced as criminally bad teaching and total bullshit.
So I was being punished for being a bad painter by having to take what was basically an undergraduate painting class, in which I did, in fact, live up to expectations by painting very badly. But somehow the self-portrait assignment intrigued me, and relishing the task, I made twenty-five self-portraits. One of them served as the advertisement of a visual arts course I taught back at Princeton in 2015.
My favorite passages in Old in Art School are those in which you talk about recognizing the total bullshit being proffered by such bad teachers, and in crits. It’s enlivening to read you on those topics—the way you rightly call out both the art world and art schools as sexist, ageist, and racist. I have noticed that over the past decade much has changed and is still changing: decolonized syllabi and a great importance placed on hiring BIPOC teachers and speakers, for instance. Do you think this bodes well for art schools? I know you recognize how deeply the problems are entrenched in most of them, despite the claims of inclusion.
Turns towards inclusion certainly bode well but turns alone won’t suffice for real improvement unless there’s lasting change. The many kinds of consciousness raising taking place now really are encouraging, but consciousness raising is hard and, while hard, takes only a first few steps. Existing institutions may throw up their hands when they discover that they can’t just turn to some neat, monolithic “Black community” for solutions. Black people aren’t a monolith. Even Black arts people aren’t a monolith. It’ll mean engaging with relevant Black people, not just throwing up hands and quitting.
As for lazy teaching, I think inclusion will help there because so much education (of teachers, of artists, of curators, of critics) will be taking place. I happen to enjoy learning things, so I hope teachers, artists, curators, and critics would also feel rewarded as they learn about art and artists that had been ignored or obscured. I imagine the pleasure a teacher of painting might feel in exploring, say, Robert Colescott’s paint handling and strategies of composition.
You said a few years ago that there’s room in our culture to be interesting and female, and interesting and Black, but hardly any room in our culture to be interesting and old. Do you still feel that way? I’ve noticed things seem to be changing in the art world—art writers winning grants to cover women artists aged seventy and over, for instance.
A few old women artists have entered the limelight recently, it’s true. My favorites are two painters who have been doing exciting work for almost half a century each, Howardena Pindell and Jaune Quick-to-See-Smith. But things improving for old women artists is like things improving for Black Americans. Things improve. But things stay awful.
For myself, an old woman artist, I make the art I want to make, knowing it will most likely not attract a massive following. Artist’s books are not an earth-shaking genre, and the subject matter that intrigues me does not necessarily address what American culture wants from Black artists: commentary on race in America now. Within the context of The Art World, with its obsession with youth, whether or not things improve for old women artists is not a theme that preoccupies me.
Shifting to recent events: What are your thoughts on the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests worldwide? Do you believe they will cause changes in US or global culture, and if so, how?
Nationwide, worldwide protests against police brutality and in support of Black Lives Matter thrilled me deeply. As I said above, my husband and I participated in two actions up here in the Adirondacks, both attracting unheard of support—about 150 people in Keene/Keene Valley and some 500 people in Saranac Lake. The sheer magnitude of people in the streets moved me, and the heterogeneity struck me as new and crucial if ever the USA is to move past White supremacy or even make an enduring dent in it. I don’t know if either positive outcome is possible. That may be asking too much of the mass of American White people. Already there’s backlash, much of it meanspirited, some of it heavily armed. And even among those who are well intentioned, it’s hard to face up to ugly realities of American history and society. It’s hard for many even to pronounce the words “racism” and “Black.”
I remember the civil rights movement of the 1960s, which cost so many lives, literally. Backlash snuffed out promise then, as it may do again now. Nonetheless, 2020 feels different from 1968 to me, given masses of non-Black people insisting that Black Lives Matter, given two generations’ worth of African American studies’ accumulation of knowledge and cultural power, and given the widespread nature of attestations of intentions to diversify virtually all sectors of American life. I have all my fingers crossed and am doing what I can in the places where I have influence to ensure this future does not replay 1968.
Were you still living in Los Angeles in ’68? Could you tell us a little more about your life then—what it was like to come back to the US, during this period of snuffed out promise, specifically after studying at the Institute of African Studies in Ghana from 1965–66?
Geez, where the hell was I in 1968? Yes, UCLA and my secret year teaching in San Jose. So much was going on in the world, in the USA, and in my life then! I had left Ghana after the coup d’état that deposed Kwame Nkruma, so Ghana was no longer looking like a hopeful beginning for African politics, and we Black American pan-Africanists (Maya Angelou included) scattered. In the US there was the Vietnam War, during which I was among those in the streets protesting. In California I felt confused and alienated, spent a lot of time with one of my French professors of African history with whom I could speak French and set some distance between me and USA-chaos. In San Jose I was teaching at the City College, where my colleagues and older Black students felt to me like rewards, but a few younger Black students who fancied themselves Black Panthers briefly threatened me if I didn’t give them good grades they hadn’t earned. The older students put that down, but the experience sent me back to graduate school, to Harvard.
Just to back us up even further, you studied at UC Berkeley in the early 1960s, which must have been incredible—I noticed you were recently quoted in a New York Times article about Kamala Harris’s parents (who also met at Berkeley around the same time, in a Black study group). I was curious to hear more than the one line the writer quoted from you; were you involved in that group? Or any political groups at the time?
Yes, I was political, but not a leader. I’ve always been more of a reader. I certainly picketed the Bank of America on Telegraph Avenue and attended the meetings mentioned in the Times piece, which I now see were laying the groundwork for African American studies. I hung out at Stiles Hall and International House and had international friends, some through my father, who worked in the College of Chemistry and mentored many graduate students. But I never really fit anywhere—I still don’t fit anywhere. My left-leaning family was well educated, hardly wealthy, but not poor. Who could be more distinctly uncool than me, a middle-class Black woman! These were the years of Eldridge Cleaver, which his violent masculinist bravado and meanspirited misogyny. In those days there was “the Black man,” period.
Do you think the BLM protests will cause changes in the art world, and if so, how?
Though limited in scope, changes in cultural leadership that began before the George Floyd protests seem to be continuing in a positive direction. While the loss of experienced leaders who may have been perpetuating exclusionary habits looks like a good thing, I hope new leaders, BIPOC leaders, will receive the support and mentoring they absolutely will need to pull institutions out of this time of pandemic-related chaos and financial need.
I hope also that arts institutions will be able to accomplish two hard tasks: first, acknowledging the racism that shaped their creation and longtime habits of doing business, when the prevailing pattern has been to cover up and pretend white supremacy did not affect how things got done on one’s own institution. Princeton University seems to be doing a decent job of owning up; I have my fingers crossed for improvement. Second, the close relationship between rich people and arts institutions needs reform. Looking at the millions that museums were spending on buildings prompted my dismay years ago. Looking further at the tight relationship between private trophy collections of blue-chip artists and the entry of those collections into museums, I can’t see how museums can become more publicly responsive, more racially diverse, if dependence upon very rich donors and boards continues.
The arts institutions of my city of Newark—Newark, a city of Black power, which matters deeply—have been forging ties between Newark artists and performers and the public for more than a generation by now. Newark can show the way towards more democratic art worlds in which a variety of artists and publics and institutions coexist.
Of your many books, do you have a favorite? Or, is there one that you consider your most important work? And why?
For years I felt The Narrative of Hosea Hudson was my favorite, because I enjoyed collaborating with this southern Black communist with his firmly held opinions. He felt kind of like a grandfather to me, as my mother’s father had died before my birth, and I only met my father’s father once briefly when I was a girl. After Hudson and I finished our book, I took him to meet my Knopf editor, whom Hudson lectured on politics. For Hudson, a true-to-life Communist, both Republicans and Democrats were the same, as opposed to Communists, who were right. My editor rejected our book on account of Hudson’s not “tugging at our heartstrings,” which Hudson certainly did not do—part of what I liked about him. My introduction to that book is in my essay collection, Southern History Across the Color Line, whose 2nd edition comes out in April.
Now, though, I think Old in Art School is my favorite, for talking personally and showing my art as works in progress. I also appreciate readers’ responses to my memoir, which are also personal. I feel like my memoir is doing good work in the world on a personal basis, especially for women.
Same questions as above regarding your art! Is there an essential piece or series?
This also is hard, because in art as in writing, the most recent piece is the most beloved. But two pieces I made at Mason Gross as an undergraduate feel true as self-portraits and as instances of why I make art. I know Alternator Self-Portrait, 2008, inspired in part by Marcel Duchamp, was in the Harvard self-portrait show that Jonathan Square curated. The other, Chapter Revised, 2007, is not in Old in Art School, and I don’t think was in the Harvard show. Both these pieces visualize my “two yours” as historian/writer and as visual artist.