Category Archives: Teachers

Mentor

George and Linda Bauer

Thanksgiving season always reminds me of teachers; this time, it reminds me of one in particular.

As a child, I was such a pedagogy nerd that I kept a list of all my teachers, from kindergarten onward, to better track my developing thoughts about them and about the task of teaching. I did this, from an early age, with the idea that if I ever became a teacher, I'd emulate the better ones and avoid the benighted blunders of the worse.  While rummaging through boxes not long ago, I came across a version of that list, and as I revisited those memories one name stood out. I was blessed to enjoy many excellent teachers along the way, but only one was a life-altering, lastingly consequential mentor: Linda Freeman Bauer.

When I started as an undergrad, I was precocious, intellectually promiscuous, and intensely curious, but I was also rough around the edges, too often inconsiderate, and entirely without direction– a contradictory product of my chaotic upbringing. Having received exactly zero guidance in high school, I nearly skipped college, as my forebears had done. Nudged in the right direction at the last minute, I finally applied to exactly one. When the day came, I traveled there on a bus and arrived, suitcase in hand, with no room in the dorms, no money, and nowhere to sleep that night. But once there and settled, I was delighted by the opportunities and gorged myself at the intellectual buffet. I sampled this, returned for some of that, and left those to be taken away as I sought a fresh plate. However, I had no particular goal in mind, and so it was seemingly by good fortune that I landed in one of Linda's classes. One term, I discovered that there was such a thing as art history, and the next term I was drawn into her orbit by the allure of a spectacular word: "Rembrandt".

Linda taught semi-socratically with the genuine, unironic expectation that students had read and digested the assigned text. This was usually one of those Pelican Art History tomes about the size and weight of a wide paver, and her expectations arose from her own detailed and conscientious mastery of all the material. In a typical class session, she would explain some of the relevant historical context and then push us to engage, complete, or question what she had said. Then she would show us an artwork, draw us into the act of intentional looking by means of a deft ekphrasis or a connoisseurial quote, and then goad us into owning our ideas and language as we tried to rise to her interpretive example and prompts. We would go through that cycle several times, which required a nimble flipping from historical to pictorial details as we sought or evaluated connections between the two. I enjoyed the intensity of the challenge, and I was startled by Linda's respect for responsible autonomy of thought.

My problem then was that I was pretty good at the "autonomous thought" part but not so hot at the "responsible" part. Sometimes I excelled; sometimes, I slacked off. Self-indulgent to a fault in those days, I cared about the subject matter but felt cynical about systems and institutions. So one week, I'd write a solid paper; the next, I'd blow off an assignment. In response, Linda did her job; she rewarded the good and brutally marked down the inadequate (or invisible). But she also took me aside and bluntly characterized my strengths and weaknesses with a precision and rigor that were new to me. She imposed professional expectations on me– standards to which I had not really been exposed until then, and which I had to learn to value. Somehow, she managed to do this without a smidgen of negativity or insult. Linda was often overtly encouraging, but her inimitable blend of composure, good cheer, and matter-of-fact analysis was inherently encouraging even when her words conveyed more censure than sentiment. She seemed to care in greater-than-expected measure. For some reason that worked to my lasting benefit, Linda Bauer found me unformed and did more than her part to form me.

I took five courses with Linda, planning my schedule around her offerings. (One of these was a guided independent study in which she was absurdly generous with her time and resources and endlessly patient with my digressions.) Her lectures were richly entertaining (and substantial, and accurate– virtues not always in play with other lecturers), and we often pursued issues in greater depth during the afterchat or her office hours. As a matter of education and personal development, all of this added up to more than the sum of its parts– and the sum of its parts was already pretty hefty. How can I summarize what Linda did for me?

Until my first course with Linda, I had only been to one art museum, the destination of a primary school field trip. She took us to the Getty (when it was all in Malibu) and showed us how not to rush through a museum, how to extract the perimeter of plausible meanings from the trace of an artist's touch, and how to translate such thoughts into theses. For her, I wrote my first art historical essay there, standing before a Dutch still-life.

She taught me that skilled use of tools of the trade matters. Knowing that I had a knack for connoisseurship, she pressed me to blend intuition and rational assessment more deliberately, with greater discipline, and with appropriate caution. When I couldn't afford photocopies of articles, she made them for me. When I couldn't order needed books through interlibrary loan, she summoned them through the magic of her faculty privileges. Knowing that I was a language nerd, she informed me of the expectations Wolfgang Stechow had imposed on her and her colleagues at Oberlin: you're responsible for the relevant source material, no matter what language it's in. Knowing that I was fiddling with Italian material but hadn't formally studied Italian, she'd sometimes throw an Italian word my way to see if I could understand it via cognates. (Once, the word was carciofo; I didn't figure it out but appreciated its relevance to our Caravaggio studies.)

She taught me that in a humanistic discipline with a material, evidential aspect, methodological sophistication requires balance and judgment. Knowing I was deeply attracted to the complexities and cleverness of critical theory, she encouraged that study but taught me to remain answerable to the object, the artifact, in all its physical and contextual detail. She demonstrated how to distinguish and assess different kinds of evidence, and helped me to find the places where the poetry of interpretation and the prose of empirical description fruitfully converge.

Linda unfolded before me this world she knew– the scholars, their personalities, their labors– and when she saw that the spark was lighting a fire in me, she tended it with care. She taught me that a negative critique of the work of others is the easy part, and that creating something of value that satisfies that same standard of criticism is the hard part. She taught me, by example, to be generous and collegial, rigorous but not pedantic, open and exploratory but not unduly susceptible to academic fads. She taught me that it's sometimes right to withhold an opinion, to change one's mind, to pick battles, to go slowly, and to let an argument gestate. She taught me to focus, to narrow the scope, and to weigh the alternatives… and then to take a stand.

All these lessons and more she taught me, and they're not just about art-historical methodology and scholarship. They're about life. And, again by example, Linda taught me that a teacher's students are not just about topical pedagogy; they, and pedagogy, are about life.

Thank you, Linda– you were not just Mentor to me, but Athena.

Creighton Gilbert – A non-selective chronological bibliography

"A non-selective bibliography is the only useful kind!" — Creighton Gilbert

Prof. Gilbert (B.A., New York University, Institute of Fine Arts, 1942; Ph.D., New York University, Institute of Fine Arts, 1955) taught at Emory University, the University of Louisville, and Indiana University, Brandeis University, CUNY, Cornell, and Yale. He was a visiting professor at UC Berkeley (1959), the University of Leiden (1974-75), Williams College (1976), and Hebrew University (1985). He was a Fulbright Lecturer at the University of Rome (1951-52), a Kress Fellow at the Harvard Center for Italian Renaissance Studies in Florence (1967-68), and a Fellow of the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study (1972-73). He received the College Art Association's Mather Award in 1964, and he was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Note: I worked on this bibliography with Prof. Gilbert; the annotations, groupings, and clarifications it contains are his. For my personal recollection of him, see this post.

Note: updated 2017/01/14.
Continue reading Creighton Gilbert – A non-selective chronological bibliography

Creighton Gilbert (1924-2011)

Creighton E. Gilbert"The

Creighton Gilbert, the author of many fascinating works of art history, has died.

I entered Yale's graduate program in art history with the idea of studying under Creighton. Although my evolving interests eventually drew me toward a specialization in Northern Renaissance and Baroque, I enjoyed several seminars and many illuminating conversations with him. I'll leave it to the obituaries to provide a proper overview of his life and works.  This is a personal remembrance.

On the heels of his rich and controversial work Caravaggio and His Two Cardinals, Creighton offered a seminar on the origins of Caravaggio's art.  Northern Italian painting before Caravaggio had long held Creighton's attention; his 1955 dissertation under Friedlaender (who was then working on Caravaggio Studies) was a monograph on Girolamo Savoldo.  Being somewhat taken with Caravaggio and his followers, and being so accustomed to thinking of him as revolutionary, I was quite eager to do the reverse engineering that Prof. Gilbert proposed.  So Creighton guided me into a study of il Moretto da Brescia and helped me to see what was, and what was not, a good argument in relation to questions of influence.

During this time, I went often to Creighton's office hours and pelted him with questions, these often pertaining to the history of art history.  I asked him about his favorite instructors and educational experiences, for example, and with a gleam in his eye he recalled, as if he had felt it that very morning, the excitement and hunger with which he and his fellow students used to travel across town (to a competing institution) to hear Meyer Schapiro. Continue reading Creighton Gilbert (1924-2011)

Partial Recall: Phil Leider

Phil Leider wasn’t the best teacher I ever had. He wasn’t the most intelligent, nor the most articulate, nor the most insightful, nor the most attentive. However, he was one of the most consequential to me. He was the first in my life to point out one of the trails I ended up following, and to show me it was well worth walking.

The search engine at my fingertips tells me that the poet Christopher Buckley studied under Phil and found him similarly influential. He writes

I took many classes from Phil Leider, who is probably the best teacher of any subject I ever had. Classes I had from Leider were not focused on contemporary work, but he taught us how to look at painting. Neither Art Historian nor Art Critic, (he had been editor of ArtForum for a number of years in New York and in San Francisco), Leider gave us both lines of thinking on a particular painting or artist and then supplied a view that often discarded both theories and considered, in a very immediate, specific, and practical fashion, the artist and the aspects of the work itself. He taught us to always “trust the artist first.” The main thing was that after studying with him, consciously or unconsciously, I had some idea about how to look at painting.

On a whim, to fill out my academic schedule for the first quarter of freshman year, I took a course selected nearly at random: Phil’s survey of Spanish painting (from Velázquez to Picasso, more or less). At the time, I was unaware of art history as an academic discipline. I had visited only a couple of museums prior to college (most memorably the Telfair Academy in Savannah). I had no expectations and no goals beyond discovery.

Leider, in contrast to nearly every other teacher I had ever had, was utterly informal. He would begin each lecture by scribbling a list of names or key terms on a chalkboard, but working from the board was not his forte and he seldom made reference to those notes. Rather, he would riff with seeming improvisation on one image after another in order to flesh out the conceptual and psychological space of each artist, patron, or subject. In doing so, as Chris Buckley points out, Phil would massage into high relief the conflicts and tensions that defined not only the art in its context but also the art historical discussions unfolding in the metacontext. We were learning not only to read the artifacts, and to identify the cues and clues that facilitate such reading, but also to see the subsequent criticism as similar in kind and as susceptible to the same analytic curiosity.

That’s all good, but what was special about Phil was his style. He was a blue collar art historian, an ordinary Joe of an art critic, with a blue jean vocabulary and a take-no-crap style. He was utterly unpretentious, and deeply concerned to step aside, out of the spotlight, and to draw the students closer to the artworks and to the words of their creators. I found him completely engaging.

A couple of years later, a friend well versed in Renaissance art history was visiting from Germany. I took her to hear one of Phil’s lectures. While I found his insights into competition and identity in Florence captivating, she found his persistent mispronunciation of ‘Ghiberti’ grating. (He’d say “juh-BERT-ee”, by no means his only verbal anomaly). What did I value in Phil that was either invisible to, or unwanted by, my dear Westphalian friend? Maybe it was the fact that Phil seemed emphatically American. He was informed but unpolished. He came across like some guy on a street corner, respectable but common, who was just bristling with that Unitedstatesian mix of pragmatism and idealism, and who wasn’t going to quit until he had gotten to the bottom of the vexing cultural conundrum that was making his brain itch. He was Brooklyn and California, intense and feisty but laid back and expansive.

Years later, working with Vincent Scully made me recall another key facet of Phil: he could be intensely dramatic, playing the timing of a pedagogic moment like the string of a plaintive viola. He was sometimes cocky, sometimes chatty, sometimes astonished. He worked the audience. In short, he was entertaining. The house was always packed, and we came in numbers because everyone knew, or had heard tell, that at the end of too quick an hour, we’d walk away having learned something worth knowing or having practiced a skill worth honing.

I ended up taking enough art history courses for a minor, and later turned to that discipline for graduate study. It seems to me that this probably wouldn’t have happened if Leider hadn’t hooked me from the outset and given me a reason to keep coming back for more. Others taught me about rigor, precision, methodological awareness, and balanced weighting of evidence. In course after course, Phil taught me about soul, passion, and humanity in the explained and the explaining. The more I teach, the more I come to see how much wisdom there was in his distinctive way of taking it to the streets.

Thanks, Phil.