Carol Ockman Is Proudly Different

This article is part of Hyperallergic2024 Pride Month series, featuring interviews with art-world queer and trans elders throughout June.

Carol Ockman just can’t stop mentoring. As her partner, Peggy, rearranged a bouquet behind her, she peered over a set of round blue frames with pink accents — one in an extensive collection of rad glasses — and lectured me via Zoom on the pitfalls of working too hard. That instinct reflects her decades spent as a professor of Art History at Williams College — but she’s been multidisciplinary since before it was a buzzword. She’s spent six years curating at a botanical garden in Florida, written a book about actress Sarah Bernhardt’s handkerchief, and performed in paramodernities (2018–19), which I can only call an experimental lecture-dance-performance, among an awe-inspiring body of work that can’t be constrained in a wordcount. 

In our conversation, we talked about her identities as scholar, artist, lesbian, and friend. We also planned the next reunion with those in the art world lucky enough to call her mentor, including people who find themselves at the Whitney Museum, at Aperture, and here, at Hyperallergic.  

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Hyperallergic: Having now been in the art world for a few years, I’m realizing that you’ve always had a different vibe from others who are as established. You were my thesis advisor, but even then you felt more like a friend.

Carol Ockman: You know, I have some friends who are my age, but mostly I have friends who are 30, 40, 50 years younger than I am. And that’s a blessing — if you want to be in the contemporary world, you better be hanging out with young people. And that’s why teaching was in some ways such a good fit for me. There’s a different kind of energy there, to think back to when you were that age. That’s part of being a mentor. 

H: Did you have queer mentors? 

CO: Honey, I was lucky to even have a woman mentor. I mean, seriously.

When I think back to queer influences throughout my life, I think of the work of artists during the AIDs crisis: Felix Gonzalez-Torres or Zoe Leonard. I think of Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich. Norma Brody and Mary Girard were such pioneers, and James Saslow. These are not people who I knew, but people whose work I knew — there was so little out there. 

But I am the woman that I am because I met Linda Nochlin when I was 20 years old. It was at the beginning of second-wave feminism. I was in her Women in Art seminar when she was a visiting professor at Stanford, where I was an undergrad. She taught me that thinking is about opening up a kind of difference. I remember where I was when I read Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?, six months after it had been published in 1971. It was a revelation to me. And it introduced something else that had never crossed my mind: that I could be a professor. The horizon of expectation was so different then. That form of difference came to be integral to who I am.

H: That “difference” — did it inflect your career, in what you chose to study?

CO: I think the fact that I’m an art historian who’s somewhat out of the box in terms of my interests has to do with the arc of my life experience: I started out as a voice major — I wanted to be an opera singer. So I went and studied Italian. There, I started looking at art. Then I met Linda. 

That feeling of difference extended easily into my research: into historiography. You know — queer studies and critical race studies came into being at around the same time. Of course, I was always interested in questions of identity, and part of that is because I was trained by social historians of art, who actually talked about things like class and gender, which the discipline did not engage at all until it seeped in in the late ‘80s or ‘90s.  

In a lot of ways, my book, Ingres’s Eroticized Bodies: Retracing the Serpentine Line (1995) is a queer book. I wasn’t attracted to Ingres’s female bodies, but I thought they were weird, and interesting, and it’s fascinating to me that a number of scholars that work on Ingres are queer. My book has a chapter on queer men, a chapter on a Jewish portrait sitter. Really, it was a book that dealt with marginal identities, that tried to overturn the way they were repurposed or eliminated by Modernism. And it ends with Cindy Sherman and Kiki Smith and their work in the ‘90s. I was basically like: “You think you can objectify the female body? Forget it. You can’t.”

H: You mention that a lot of those Ingres scholars are also queer. Who do you view as your peers in the community? 

CO: Sharon Marcus, who teaches at Columbia University, is a colleague and friend. Adrian Rifkin. Miranda Mason. Sarah Betzer, who’s at the University of Virginia. Wendy Leeks, who wrote an important dissertation at the University of Leeds. James Small and Todd Porterfield come to mind. Vanessa Schwartz. My friend Ken Silver, who spent his career teaching art history at New York University — we’ve known each other since our first week of grad school, so that’s like 50 years, Lisa. 

H: The deeper I wade into the art community in New York the more I see the extent of your influence, not just in myself but in others: curators, academics, artists, writers. Do you think your identity shaped your decision to take on that extracurricular role as a mentor? 

CO: I think it isn’t just that I happen to be lesbian, because I wasn’t always that. But I was a woman, and I was a secular Jew, so I was always marginal. I think my power comes from my experience of being marginal. When I was at Williams, when I was advising first years, I asked the Dean’s office: Would you please give me students who are going to have a difficult time being at Williams? I got international students, I got people of color, I got queers. That was something I felt like I could do because I was in such a minority — when I started, there were barely any women around, in New England in such a WASP, male environment. And at Williams, I could tell right away who knew what it was like to feel marginal, and who didn’t, in their affect, in the ways they engaged questions and problems. In a way, that expereince was an intro to being a queer elder. 

H: You’re an art historian, but you’re also so much more — I mean, you curated a garden for six years at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. You’ve organized a show at the Jewish Museum. You’ve done a one-woman show, you’ve done dance performances. How did you end up doing all of this, and was your identity a part of that?

CO: I know I must’ve mentioned this to you, but at Yale, where I was PhD student, I wanted to do a dissertation on New York galleries in the 1950s. I couldn’t. They wouldn’t let me do it. It was too contemporary, they said. So I ended up in the 19th century. Which was not a bad place to be. But I do think that had a lot to do with the course of my career. Where I could do contemporary art was in my curating, and in my performance. 

Stuff just comes to one — I think one falls into things a lot. I was asked by Linda Nochlin and Tamar Garb to contribute to an anthology about representations of Jewishness. So I just came up with Sarah Bernhardt. I was like, “Well, I don’t know anything about her, but I think she’s interesting.” So I became a Bernhardt scholar. And that was very weird of me. A lot of art historians didn’t understand that. But I’m proud of that work: She was a fashionista and a sculptor, and I could ultimately prove that she was a lesbian, to the extent that the longest, most important amorous liaison of her life was with a woman, the painter Louise Abbéma. 

I found ways to bring my peers in, and continuously find myself in new company. I was in the position of doing a show on Bernhardt, so I invited Ken. And then I got the opportunity to be in a performance devoted to Bernhardt at the Jewish Museum. I found myself in this — and you know, I never discussed this with them, but it’s how I saw it — this lesbian triumvirate with Anne Bogart, the director, and Cherry Jones, the actor, paying homage to this big mama lesbian. 

H: When did you yourself come out? 

CO: I didn’t see myself as a lesbian until my early forties. I came out to my mother when I was 41. So I didn’t have the experience of many of my queer friends — this “I knew from the time I was four,” or “I came out when I was a teenager.” I had my first lesbian experience when I was 22, and it was a shock to me. It was right after my undergraduate degree. It was the early seventies, we were living in Italy, and we were very closeted. She already had a fledgling position in academia, and it just was not possible to be out.

After that quite important relationship, I was with men for about a decade. I didn’t have much luck. From my early forties, I’ve been exclusively with women. After my first long-term relationship with a woman, I started to just say, “I’m a lesbian.” But it didn’t become natural to me until I got involved with my life partner, whom I met in my fifties. 

You know, my friends knew. Certain people I trusted, colleagues. But it was just not the first assertion of who I was or am. That said, I feel very happy to count myself as lesbian. I think it’s important. I think that’s influenced the many students I’ve mentored, queer students and other marginalized students. It’s been a great joy to me, one of the things that’s most enriched my life. I embrace the term “queer elder,” even though I don’t know that I had any myself, or at least none that would declare themselves as such. 

H: You might not have had any queer elders, but we have you. That feels like a testament to your work, your influence — and the world may be taking a turn for the better. 

CO: It’s really important to make common cause with people who are actively being discriminated against. In this time we live in, multiple identities are at risk. People are hugely myopic and binary in their thinking. It’s a tough time to see how that’s being weaponized, how it’s bled into the culture writ large. My work Trauma and Empathy on the Global Stage (2015–16) actually underscores specifically that: that people can talk cross trauma, people can talk across marginalities. There are people who are better in their own little niches — that’s fine too. I’m just not one of them. 

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