julia foulkes

Painter History

Nell Painter, “Locke Harvard with Gradient 72,” Art History Volume XXVII, Ancestral Arts (2013)

Writing History: the seminar’s name describes its purpose. Luckily, it’s landed at the New School, so that it is easy for me to participate in a conversation that usually occurs only in my head. How can we be more creative in our writing about the past? How can thinking about being a writer make me a better historian? First up this semester: Nell Painter, historian and writer extraordinaire. Now she’s a visual artist. That is a trajectory I love, even if I cannot emulate.

Painter took us through her recent explorations in the works Art History Volume XXVII and Art History Volume XXVIII. These were her first deliberate attempts to combine her two fields of expertise, as she had firmly left behind history for painting. Combining them made clear the difference between them. Historians, she reminded us, respect the archives, can’t ignore the evidence even if we can shape its interpretation; they grapple with getting to the truth and provide a roadmap for others to follow their way to that truth. Artists, on the other hand, can do whatever they please. The evidence of the past can be used, changed, manipulated – or not used at all. They do not seek a verifiable truth. History is writing prose; art is making fiction.

Historians in the room tried to tie together the practices of artist and historian, seeing similarity in selecting evidence if not ignoring it. Painter was clear: no, the acts and the truths are different. She insisted on the distinction between verbal and visual meaning. Even more problematic, verbal sense most often interferes with visual meaning. Words dominate in their specificity. Images expand meaning because visuality is so subjective. “What you see is what you see,” she argued.

I appreciated Painter’s clarity and insistence on the different acts of writing history and being a visual artist, but I also loved that she has found ways to combine her expertise in both despite her initial resolve not to. Her books, Art History Volume XXVII and Art History Volume XXVIII, feature research into the Harlem Renaissance and collages of people, books, and images. They uncover new figures (from Germany!) in the movement and literally put words in the mouth of Alain Locke. In this, they may hold on to two different kinds of truth – verbal and visual – but they show to good effect how they can be used together.


Nell Painter, “Locke Sensitive Merged,” Art History Volume XXVII, Ancestral Arts (2013)