My Women Mentors: Mentorship as Activism
As #MeToo began, I wrote in ARTnews about my experiences with sexual harassment. But in writing about these men, I realized I was only telling one piece of my story. I also wanted to address my women mentors.
These women have radically changed my life (and their fields) and built careers around their talents and instincts. They approach mentorship as a form of activism. And they are present as I draw villainesses, wily animals, erotica. In part because of them, I am compelled to draw stories told by and for women.
My first boss was Dr. Nan Rosenthal, then curator of contemporary and modern art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I remember my interview at the end of college. It was in the chicest apartment I had seen, hung with Robert Rauschenbergs and Jasper Johnses. Nanette of the North, as her ribald husband Henry called her, opened the door in a hair-cap, a silk robe, a glass of scotch, and a cigarette dangling from her lips. It was 10:30 a.m.
Each year, she took on a new young woman to teach: writing wall text, catalogue research, organizing exhibitions. From her, I learned to write, to organize my thoughts. I learned which questions to ask and how to listen.
It was the year of Manet/Velazquez, and everyone wanted a private tour. I spent afternoons with artists I knew from books (Eric Fischl, Brice Marden, Cecily Brown). Mike Nichols once called to ask for a private tour. Nan included me in legendary New Years’ parties with writers I loved, like Calvin Tomkins and Shirley Hazzard. I think she found my naïveté amusing, if curable.
At 3 p.m., she would lock her office door and we would drink Dewars from the gallon. She told stories about what it took for a woman of her generation to succeed. She was the first grand dame I’d ever met.
I learned from Nan the necessity of preparedness, humor, and intelligence as weapons to seduce—but rarely to show up the men around her (unless they needed reminding that she could). Always 12 steps ahead, she acquired Jasper Johns’s seminal 1955 seminal Flag for the Met in 1998. It was both the first work by Johns to enter the collection and the museum’s most expensive acquisition to date.
Nan generously introduced me to a certain world, the world she worked to build. She drew life from being around young people, deliciously uncertain about what they might say.
Around this time, I also became close to art historian Linda Nochlin and artist Paula Rego. From Linda, I learned the power of the unexpected. Her sentences were breathless; her connections, unanticipated. Her groundbreaking work in Modernism, feminism, and the female body came from a pure, humanist lens. She made the known feel new.
When I shifted from painting into drawing, I went over to Linda’s, distraught and unsure about the transition. I showed her my Story of O drawings, which she found “wickedly delightful.” She laughed—stopped—then grasped my hand and said, “You must draw Natalie. This is you. This is yours.” She kissed my cheek.
She died soon thereafter. I think about her most days. She loved life as she loved art, and showed me the power of telling stories that had not and would not otherwise be told.
I was a student when I met Paula Rego. Now, our friendship spans 15 years. At a time when girls became mothers, not artists, Paula had a family and became the first associate artist of the National Gallery in London.
Our visits revolve around how to live and make art: take lovers, have fun when you work, do it until you feel emptied out. Guard your time. Surround yourself with people who provoke you. With one’s mind, one need not be alone.
Paula seems happiest in the studio. I’ve always thought about her drawing Leila, her longtime model—a woman resembling the artist herself. Paula’s scrutiny does not falter, nor does her engagement with the joy of the body.
Her pictures of abortion have provoked outrage; she has drawn female saints and demeaned priests alike. Always, her women are heroines of epic tales. Indeed, it was Paula who inspired me to look at fairy tales.
When I encounter attempts to stifle my voice, I think of her—overshadowed once by her artist husband, rejected by the Slade School as a mediocre draughtswoman. In her 40s, Paula came into her own, turning to figurative pastels of Dog Women, asserting women’s bodies without apology.
These images were unattached to convention. They were brash, political, earnest—and massive drawings. No-no’s even today.
I remember posing for Paula (my stern face ended up as a British postage stamp). It didn’t surprise me to be asked to disrobe, to menace. Paula sees everything to the edge of discomfort; she passed on this way of looking to me. There’s beauty in demanding obedience from images. When I showed her my drawings, she also took my hand: “Draw! You must tell these stories!”