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Nell Painter: A Hot Young Artist Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

25 July 2018

A couple of days ago the PBS NewsHour's Jeffrey Brown interviewed Nell Irvin Painter who, late in life, escaped "the confines of historical research to embrace the freedoms of visual art." We can't get it out of our mind.

Painter describes her journey from academia to art at the age of 64 in Old In Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over. She's now 75.

"What I really liked was stepping away from the tyranny of the archive and being able to move into fiction, visual fiction," she tells Brown. "So, now, when I think about art, I could do -- I could make things up."

But there was still one impediment to enjoying her new-found freedom. She explains:

Even though people didn't say in so many words, we are training you to be a hot, young artist, they were training us to be hot, young artists. So, with my 20th century eyes, I wasn't going to be a hot artist. And then there was no way I could be young.

The limitation wasn't, however, hers but her audience's. Again in her own words:

I think there's room in our culture for interesting people who are black and for interesting people who are female and interesting people who are black and female. There's hardly any room to be interesting if you're old.

That didn't stop her, of course. Finally, she says, you just say, "Oh, hell." And get on with it. Their loss.

But that line -- "There's hardly any room to be interesting if you're old" -- stuck in our mind.

As she pointed out, we've understood how much we are missing when we exclude half the human race (women) or various cultures from the playing field. But we still don't understand what we lose when we exclude older generations.

The art historian Meyer Schapiro once remarked how unusual it was to find an older artist who appreciated the work of a younger one. But the truth is that no one who is truly an artist is ever dismissive.

Painter herself is not dismissive. She is, when you think about it, a hot young artist herself -- bringing fresh eyes and enthusiasm to the game and, coupled with the wisdom of her years, deserving of more than merely Jeffrey Brown's interest.

If nothing else, she's a lesson to the young who would dismiss her as if, in their turn, they will not also be dismissed. As Masaccio put it in paint centuries ago above the bones of a skeleton:

Io fu già quel che voi siete,
e quel chi son voi ancor sarete.

I was what you are and you will be what I am.

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