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Alexander Nemerov: Stanford’s art history preacher
Photo: UDIT GOYAL/The Stanford Daily.

Alexander Nemerov: Stanford’s art history preacher

How does a bulldog, Yale chap, son of a poet, and an arts man, nephew of the late Diane Arbus from Vermont and St. Louis — Rachmaninoff and heavy metal lover — grow up to be our hero and a scholar?

Most of Stanford knows the name now — Alexander Nemerov. He is said not to teach art, but to preach it; he does not deliver lectures, but sermons. Taking on a semi-mythic register for his idiosyncratic lectures, Alexander Nemerov is one of Stanford’s most beloved, confounding and discussed professors.

But this is not his goal. Fame or not fame, the name of his game is art history.

“Teaching is totally humbling,” Professor Nemerov tells me after a long Friday of work. “At least teaching the way I teach, because you’re just putting yourself out there. I like the challenge of that, and I believe in the passion of it.”

Before landing his current position as Chair of Stanford’s Art and Art History department, Nemerov forged a long and winding path through academia. From 1992 to 2000, he served as an assistant professor (later professor) at Stanford. From 2001 to 2012, he taught and led the art history department at Yale, where, in 2007, he began teaching his now-famous survey class of Western art from the Renaissance to the present. It soon became Yale’s most popular class; his final semester there, more than 500 students shopped it, despite a cap of 300 set to accommodate people inside the Yale University Art Gallery where it was held. In 2012, much to the consternation of the Bulldogs, he left Yale to teach again at Stanford.

The first year teaching at Stanford was a tough one.

“It was a really down experience,” Nemerov says. “It was demoralizing, a small class in Annenberg [Auditorium — now torn down]. I remember it being the first day and I couldn’t believe that there were that few people who wanted to take it.

“But overall, my lectures are better here. I work much harder at Stanford. At Yale, I gave lectures twice per week; here, because of the quarter system, I do them three times a week.

“It’s just practice; the more I do them, the better my thought process gets for how to give a lecture.”

Now, his Introduction to Western Visual Art class, Art History 1B — which covers, in a ten-week span, artists as broad and diverse as Giotto, Rembrandt, Goya, Matisse, Salomon, Pollock and Basquiat — had over 200 students enrolled last fall quarter, not including Palo Alto residents, Continuing Studies members, and random undergraduates curious to hear Nemerov’s freeform, poetic, Agee-like thoughts on art.

It’s been a long time coming to arrive at the Nemerov we see and hear on a weekly basis. Before, he hadn’t the gumption to teach an entire survey course. “The reason I didn’t start teaching the survey course until 2007,” he says, “was cowardice.”

Three crucial experiences changed that line of thinking; the first was his family. “I had kids, and that made life seem much more intense and precious to me.”

The second was reconnecting with his famous relatives: the poet Howard Nemerov (his father) and the photographer Diane Arbus (his aunt).

“As a scholar,” he says, “I began to make contact with the work of my father and my aunt. For the first time in my life, I looked them in the face in such a way that I was not totally intimidated. I saw clearly and positively that they believed in art religiously, that they were truthtellers, that they weren’t dogmatic. Arbus was trying to see what a human being is, just that, nothing else. And I think my dad was, too.

“That essentially religious conception of being an artist, I suddenly saw, and I thought, ‘Why can’t that be me? Life is short, why not?'”

The third was an affinity for the 40s.

“Writing the Val Lewton book [“Icons of Grief,” a masterful analysis of Lewton’s B-movie horror films of the 1940s through the films’ supporting actors], I realized that the 40s were incredibly important to me as a time of pathos and loss and permanent destitution in the world. A way of tapping into the deep importance of sadness and melancholy and their connection to history.”

With all of this, Nemerov moved away from traditional art historical work to the kind of offbeat, intuition-based writing for which he is renowned today.

But he is not unaware of the hostility towards his work, which is too frequently impassioned for some.

“A lot of people don’t like what I do,” he says, “because they don’t go to scholarship to have some guy be a good writer. That’s not why they read it. They’re reading it to find out the facts about what happened, which just seems absurd to me. It seems like a category mistake. It’s almost like I’m an artist and my medium is scholarship.”

* * * 

Professor Nemerov’s style is quirky, to say the least. His fifty-minute classes straddle the line between lecture and actorly performance. As he struggles for the right words to distinguish Margaret Bourke-White’s eroticism (“the sex appeal of steel”) from Edward Weston’s (“Who knew radishes had so much sex in them?”), he takes lots of generous, natural pauses, looks at the floor with an alternatively meandering and obsessive focus, contorting his body, physically wrestling with a description of a Raphael Jesus stretching His limbs to the heavens. Action helps him find words.

At his employ is a smorgasbord of dazzling rhetorical moves that make his connections all the more convincing. Part of his worldview is considering the world “diachronically” — that is, tracking artistic sensibilities over massive chunks of time, an Old Master tendency popping up in modern form in unexpected ways. Rothko was Rembrandt, he argues.

One of his pet phrases, the “strong misreading” (taken from the literary critic Harold Bloom), involves seeing an artist as “working through” a previous artist; “strong misreadings” make a past artist’s sensibilities come alive in the strong misreader’s era. So Cy Twombly, in his childlike scrawls and intimate canvas sizes, “strongly misreads” Jackson Pollock’s painterly pirouettes and uncensored expressions of the tortured mind.

Nemerov often takes what he calls “leaps of faith” — placing two items in dialogue that may seem to have nothing to do with each other on the surface. His “leaps of faith” are exactingly researched hunches (never anything as crude as guesswork), that, say, Thomas Eakins’ 1895 painting “Swimming” (a group of boys skinny-dipping in a pool of water where once there was a mill, in before-during-after poses that give the painting a cinematic, stop-motion-animation feel) is a precursor to the eerie, halting time seen in the Abraham Zapruder film that captured President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Nemerov argues that a fruitful connection lies in knowing that Jackie Kennedy, an art history major, slept the night before the assassination underneath Eakins’ painting, capturing the dual senses of time moving forward (the photo time of the naked boys, the cinematic time of the Zapruder film) and one’s presence slowly fading out (the lost mill, the assassinated President).

In the spirit of jazz, he goes on “riffs.” A prime example is the above Kennedy-Eakins comparison, which was a branch of a larger discussion on how the Abstract Expressionist painter Morris Louis best captured the spirit of the Kennedy/Camelot era of the early 1960s. His riffs are rambling musings, on derelict bits of detail that have nothing and everything to do with the paintings he’s describing. Talking about the myth of late Jackson Pollock, he detours and describes three melodramas by the film director Douglas Sirk in hilarious detail. The riff is constructively indulgent, oddly touching — for it shows the necessity of melodrama, of the kind of writhing, passion-filled emotion (in Pollock’s “Lucifer” and in Sirk’s “Imitation of Life”) that speaks human truths.

These tools converge to produce lightning bolts of insight, compact like a haiku:

“Does life get into art, and if so what does it look like?”

“Learning to see is the longest apprenticeship of all the arts.”

“We need not behold a flower for it to grow.”

They are general enough so that an lecture attendee can connect it to their own life, offering a rich multitude of readings. These statements partially solve the problems that come with addressing more than two hundred listeners, each with their own distinct backgrounds, identities and experiences.

In all of this, Professor Nemerov explains that his goal is to “not worry about the propriety of the connections [he makes]. It’s just to worry if they make sense, if they’re intuitively plausible and exciting to people.”

In his searching delivery, the words seem to come to him in real time; by and large, they do. On the process of preparing for a lecture, he says, “I’m intuitive, so now I’m learning to trust that more. Before, I felt like I needed the safety net of notes. Now, no notes. Just trust myself. I’ve always liked that Who song, ‘Pinball Wizard,’ — you know, ‘that deaf, dumb, and blind kid/sure plays a mean pinball.’ That has always made sense to me.”

Though Professor Nemerov won’t explicitly state what he expects from his students (“I have zero learning goals in my syllabus, because how can you?”), he hopes to develop students’ skills to think critically about art beyond thinking “this is good” or “this is gorgeous.” When he says, “It’s never pretty picture time in my class,” you understand what he means. Undergraduates like Eva Hong ’20 see it: “Before, I just looked at paintings and admired the beauty of it. Now, I see there are stakes behind certain depictions of beauties.”

Nemerov also proposes something that is radical and sounds impossible: the merging of art with real life. He aims to instill a critical artistic perspective in his students, encouraging them to integrate this in everyday life, demystifying the derisively-dubbed “fuzzy” perspective. It’s a tall order, especially at an institute like Stanford, where, as Nemerov observes, “we [art and art history majors] are said not to deal with the real because we deal in art.” Nemerov’s advice is to stop and contemplate nature, people and the self with the same patience Munch and Van Gogh drew upon to create “Starry Nights.” Art makes real-world experiences more legitimate and powerful; walking in the city (Norman Lewis’s and Vincente Minnelli’s New York), swimming in the ocean (Matisse, Miro), or stargazing at night (Munch, Van Gogh) become much more alive and resonant when those raw experiences are channeled through an artist’s distinct vision. When Nemerov says that art creates our real world, (1) he believes it, (2) you do, too, since (3) to a large degree, it’s true.

To provoke this radical melding, Nemerov ties the art he covers with the world at large — in social, historical and political terms. The slick businessmen whom Mark Rothko wanted to upset with his Four Seasons murals are “Trumpian.” The wandering, sauntering, bohemian spirit of Gustave Courbet’s anti-hierarchy paintings gets picked up by the Ginsbergs and Kerouacs of the Beat Generation. What he wants to develop in his students is “historical consciousness” — a “liberating” idea, to think that who people were in the past were who they are in the present. The fascistic, Nazi circumstances under which Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon’s emotionally devastating “Life? Or Theater?” gauche paintings are crafted, are not simply forgotten in the modern world; the hate remains. And the commitment to artistic expression, too.

“If you have a strong or active historical consciousness,” Nemerov says, “then you’re never quite always in the present.”

“It has to do with memory. I remember a lot, and so it’s very easy for me to call up a sense of where I was on a given day. The past doesn’t seem that remote or hazy to me.”

The students are transfixed and moved. Holly Dayton ’17 wanted to take a Nemerov class before graduating; with Art History 1B, she was not disappointed. “Understanding how the world sees art,” she says, “is understanding the world.”

Tracy Roberts ’18, majoring in International Relations, calls Nemerov’s survey course “the greatest class I’ve ever taken.”

Roberts goes on: “For him to open up his class to people not in art history, I think, is phenomenal. You can tell that this is bigger than him. It speaks to something — maybe the word is insightfulness? — beyond being proficient in your own career.”

Then there are the rhapsodes, the hosannas. Angela Black ’20 gushes on the “mindblowing” aspects of Nemerov’s style. “His lectures touch my soul; I’m almost reduced to tears by the things he says.”

Black says, to her, “it’s not just some made-up façade, he’s not presenting anything, it is all so genuine.”

Other students also enjoy the performative aspects of Nemerov’s lectures and their embrace of intellectual openness. Alison Jahansouz ’18 says, “His lectures are performances, which is very different from other classes I’ve taken. You’re getting a taste of Western art, but you’re also getting Nemerov’s interpretation of it. There are lots of parts where you’re allowed to disagree; he encourages that, and it’s definitely taught me how to look at art.”

Is the Nemerov off the stage same as the one on it? Yes, only quieter, more reserved. Nemerov often gets the question: “Well, what’s the difference between you when you’re lecturing and you when you’re not?” And, as he says, “besides the performative aspects of it, there’s no difference. Absolutely none.”

* * *

“One is ecstatic because one is deeply unhappy with the world.”

Nemerov says this in relation to Francisco Goya, whose feverish, Romantic style conveys the anguishes of the inner mind — the seedy noir-ish underbelly of all that Rembrandt privacy. But beyond connecting Goya from Rembrandt (or, later, Rothko), the saying has a specific political weight to it. For the date of the Goya lecture is Wednesday, November 9, 2016 — the morning after Donald J. Trump was elected President of the United States. Perhaps surprisingly, the auditorium is more packed than usual. The room reels with anguish, numbness, panic. Nemerov marches in, trying to ignore the friends embracing each other in hugs and tears of solace, solidarity. Knowing his mission, he delivers the lecture without missing a beat. His tone is more apocalyptic and brooding than usual. He has not pushed the political point, but it has been made, regardless.

The manic-depressiveness of that statement — “one is ecstatic because one is deeply unhappy with the world” — so perfectly captures the temperature of Cubberley that morning, of perhaps all American artists and citizens. In times of desperation and dejection, one marches on, lifted by the ecstasies of anger, of the belief that art (whether Goya or Ernst Lubitsch’s anti-Nazi satire “To Be Or Not To Be”) can offer a constructive path towards resistance of injustice.

With that Goya lecture, the point of Nemerov’s class is placed in its starkest relief. His lectures are about maintaining your presence in the world, balancing the sociopolitical, the historical and the artistic, with a special emphasis on developing the latter (so easily dismissed, it seems).

Nemerov thinks that, today, “being moved is in short supply.” He aims to change that, one lecture at a time.

* * *

Alexander Nemerov’s future classes include AMSTUD 124A, “The American West,” an interdisciplinary American Studies course, taught this spring; ARTHIST 1B, “Introduction to the Visual Arts: History of Western Art from the Renaissance to the Present,” taught in Fall 2017; and two in Winter 2018, an undergraduate lecture course on American photography since 1960, and a freshman Introductory Seminar called “The Sisters: Poetry and Painting.” He will also lead a Sophomore College seminar on the American painter Edward Hopper, putting his works in dialogue with films, paintings, and novels; applications are due by 8 a.m. on April 11, 2017.

This spring, he will travel to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. to deliver the Andrew W. Mellon lectures on “The Forest: America in the 1830s.” Topics of discussion include Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emerson, the Hudson River Painters, Edgar Allen Poe, and the forest as a metaphor for the unruliness of life and how this gets into art. 

Contact Carlos Valladares at cvall96 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Carlos Valladares

Carlos Valladares is a junior double-majoring in Film and American Studies. He lives and breathes the Beatles and Motown. His favorite movies include "A Hard Day's Night," "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," "Nashville," "Imitation of Life," and anything touched by Studio Ghibli's hands. You can follow his film writings at http://letterboxd.com/cvall96/. He was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles.