Becoming an Art Critic

In 1979, I fell in love with an 11th century Persian poem with 50,000 rhyming couplets, all gorgeously calligraphed and illuminated in the 16th century — the Shahnama. Pages from this fabulous  manuscript were exhibited at the Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum — tiny paintings in exquisite colors made from crushed jewels and insects’ wings — love stories unfolding inside amazing architecture with parapets and canopies and hidden gardens – epic battles taking place in landscapes with astonishing animals, magnificent mountains, and luxuriant flowers and trees.

I had just graduated from Harvard with a degree in Fine Arts, the Art History department housed in the attic of the Fogg. I had excellent teachers – Ernst Kitzinger for Byzantine Art, Sydney Freedberg for Renaissance painting, James Ackerman for Palladio, and Neil Levine for nineteenth century architecture and Frank Lloyd Wright

– but I spent most of my time next door at the Visual and Environmental Center, in the Carpenter Center, Le Corbusier’s only building in America.

There, I set up my easel and took classes in Drawing and Painting with Flora Natapoff, printmaking with Dmitri Hadzi, and Monotype with Michael Mazur. I was thrilled when Flora invited me to stay on as her Teaching Assistant. I ordered paper, built still lives, made coffee, picked out slides from the Fogg’s underground library, painted, and listened to her talk. She was a great teacher. Tall and beautiful,  she waved her long, expressive hands in the air like a dancer, and  talked about art – in the classroom, in the studio, at the museum – in a way that I had never heard before — passionate and alive.

At one of Flora’s famous dinner parties in her crowded kitchen on Trowbridge Street – famous for terrible food, lots of cheap wine, and great conversation – she stood up holding a copy of Art New England in her hands.  The first issue had just been published, on heavy newsprint in a huge format, like Andy Warhol‘s Interview Magazine.

She waved the magazine in my face, calling out, “Becky! Becky! You must write for this! Just write down everything you’ve been saying about the Persian miniatures! You’ve written it already in your mind!”

And so I did. I spent weeks agonizing over my story, typing it over and over on my electric Hermes, and finally put it in the mailbox and sent it in. I knew nothing of lead times, lag times, deadlines, word counts – concepts which were to dominate my life for the next 25 years – so it was way too long and too late to publish. But on the strength of that story, Carla Munsat, Art New Englands Publisher and Editor, called me up and invited me to write a monthly column.

And so  I wrote my first Stories about Art.

by Rebecca Nemser for

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