Distinguished Professor Gail Levin: CUNY Profiles

By Erika Dreifus

Professor Gail Levin’s interests and areas of expertise are so prodigious that it’s difficult to know just where to begin a one-to-one conversation with her. Should we focus on her latest book, Becoming Judy Chicago (Harmony Books, 2007)? Or perhaps on her acclaimed biography of Edward Hopper (named one of the five best artist biographies in the Wall Street Journal), and her eight-year experience as curator of the Hopper Collection at the Whitney Museum of American Art? Or maybe we’ll begin by discussing the two projects she’s been working on during her current sabbatical: a biography of Lee Krasner and research on Yasuo Kuniyoshi. Should we talk about Professor Levin’s teaching at Baruch College—in art history, American studies, and women’s studies—or her teaching at the Graduate Center? Should we delve into her own artistic accomplishments and goals, as an artist, photographer, and writer? It’s a bit daunting, this discussion we’re embarking on in her Baruch office one warm spring day, shortly after 2008 Commencement, a few months after the Board of Trustees of The City University of New York conferred upon her the distinction of CUNY Distinguished Professor.

In the end, we ramble a bit, but since there are so many interconnections at work here (the Judy Chicago biography, for instance, threads together Professor Levin’s interests in and work on art history, women’s studies, and Jewish studies), it all seems to make sense. Not surprisingly, given this professor’s international reputation as a skilled biographer, we return frequently to the subject of biography.

During our discussion I dare to pose what I worry may be a hopelessly naïve question: I ask Professor Levin what “unauthorized” really means, when the adjective precedes the word “biography.” I’m puzzled because as I prepared for our meeting, I’d read that Becoming Judy Chicago was an “unauthorized biography” of the famed artist, but I couldn’t reconcile that description with all I’d also read about the ways Chicago herself facilitated the project.

“Unauthorized,” explains Professor Levin, really means “written without any intrusion or censorship,” noting that she’d never want to work on a biography that could only be written if “authorized”—vetted—by the subject. Chicago, she says, “has been a longtime fan of biography,” and understands its value. Professor Levin only dedicated herself to the Chicago biography after ensuring that the artist was interested in the project and that Chicago would grant written permission to quote from all her published works and unpublished papers archived at the Schlesinger Library, and to reproduce photographs of the artist, her family and her art. Without being asked, Chicago offered her would-be biographer access to personal papers and journals still in her own possession. All the artist requested in return, says Professor Levin, was the chance to read and comment on the first draft. As Professor Levin reports in the book’s Acknowledgments, “I was then free to write what I wanted….[Chicago’s] response upon reading was to ignore her critics and to offer only a few factual corrections and the comment: ‘It was very painful for me to relive so much—nevertheless, it was my life.’ I have pried deeply and found in Chicago a person of integrity and strength.”

The biographer’s craft itself is a subject that engages Professor Levin quite intensely. “Biography needs to be studied,”she says. Having participated in the New York University Biography Seminar and CUNY’s Women Writing Women’s Lives seminar series, she is “heartened” by the establishment of the Leon Levy Center for Biography at CUNY, seeing it as a step toward fuller acknowledgment of the value of biography in the academy and the need for practitioners to emphasize the importance of standards in the field. Professor Levin considers herself a scholar with a mission to not only make clear the validity and importance of biography within the community of art historians, but also to “expose” biographies of artists which don’t hold up to rigorous standards of scholarship. This concern for authenticity and integrity also informs Professor Levin’s broader work on ethics in the visual arts; she co-edited a collection of essays on that subject with Elaine A. King, published in 2006 by Allworth Press.

Of course, teaching is also central to this Distinguished Professor’s working life. She has called Baruch College her academic home since 1986 (she’d also served as a visiting instructor there in 1974). A graduate of Simmons College, where she took an honors B.A.; Tufts University, where she earned an M.A. in fine arts; and Rutgers University, where she completed her doctoral studies in art history, Professor Levin says that she has “really missed teaching” during the time she’s been on grant-funded and sabbatical leave. She is especially fond of her Baruch students (“they are so terrific”). Although not many of the College’s students may have realized it, she recently joined their ranks: In preparation for research in Japan connected with her Kuniyoshi project, Professor Levin audited a Japanese language class at Baruch. An avid global traveler, Professor Levin particularly appreciates the international backgrounds of her Baruch students. “Teaching at Baruch is like world travel,” she asserts.

Professor Levin expresses special enthusiasm about the classes she teaches that introduce students to the arts within New York City. Not surprisingly, she has taken her students to see and write about Judy Chicago’s famous feminist art installation, The Dinner Party, at the Brooklyn Museum (“And even the men—some decided to take their mothers along,” she told an interviewer for the Windy City Times, with evident satisfaction.)

To the extent that some of her artistically-inclined students report that their families expect and want them to follow career paths that seem more “practical” and lucrative, Professor Levin can empathize. All her life, she says, she has painted, drawn, and taken pictures. When she was in college, her parents threatened to disown her if she pursued a career as an artist; her own painting teacher told her that painting was “dead.” Her mother and father were only mildly placated when she turned her love of art into preparation for a career as an art historian. I suspect that these days, they’d be very proud of their daughter’s choice.