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In Praise of Generosity: My Collaboration with Mark Roskill

How do you make the transition from being a well-trained graduate student to becoming a successful productive scholar? Sometimes that is not easy, for the distance between graduate school training and original writing can be enormous. Nowadays normally academics go to graduate school, pass the classes, take exams, and then struggle while teaching to come into their own. But I did some different, which was more like an apprenticeship. In the 1970s, when I was a newly minted PhD, I had a good job as an assistant professor of philosophy in Pittsburgh. But I started to take an interest in art history. I wanted to learn about this field, which was completely new to me, but where was I to find help? Intellectually completely alone, I wrote to a famous senior Harvard art historian, James Ackerman, whose writing I admired. And he urged me to get in touch with his junior colleague at Harvard, Mark Roskill. I did, and that was the start of a beautiful friendship.

English born in 1933, Roskill had migrated to America to finish his PhD and then taught art history. It happened that at Harvard he taught modernism after Michael Fried and before T. J. Clark, two famous scholars whose writings I have closely studied. They both are important, totally single-minded figures, and so I cannot imagine collaborating with either of them. Mark was, however, a generous erudite man who was open to different points of view. And he was an indefatigable correspondent, who offered pages of comments on my first drafts, making editing suggestions and providing art historical references. Collaboration as I identify it is an activity of two people who function as equals, sharing their ideas in dialogue. It’s thus essentially different from a teacher-student relationship.

In America, Mark’s intellectual history became interestingly complicated, in a way that made him my ideal collaborator. Generally art historians stick to the period in which they specialize. But Mark started as a Renaissance specialist, doing an annotated translation of a sixteenth-century commentary on Venetian art theory. Then after publishing an account of Vincent van Gogh, he turned to modernism and the discussion of methods of art history. He also wrote about cubism and landscape painting. And at the end of his life, he wrote a novel. His career thus showed a remarkably supple development.

When we got to know one another, I discovered that Mark had a sly sense of humor. Once when we went to Paris today, lunching at a Jewish restaurant in the Marais, after we ordered he remembered that this site had recently been shot up by terrorists. That certainly put an edge on my appetite. But the food and conversation were great, and so we went on to see the Poussins at Chantilly and then that evening dined with his French relatives. On another trip we did a lecture together in a New York museum. And eventually we published a book together, Truth and Falsehood in Visual Images (1983). That, my first book, to be honest owed most of its style and content to Mark, who was very much the senior author in our relationship. He was generous, then, to share credit with me. What I learned from working with him on this publication was how to write a book. Much later, after Mark’s sadly premature death, our claims were picked up in Inventing Falsehood, Making Truth: Vico and Neapolitan Painting (2013) by the great English cultural historian Malcolm Bull.

How does a young scholar learn to write books? I’m not sure how to answer that question. In graduate school, you write short seminar papers. A book, however, is much longer, and so is a larger task. No wonder, then, that it took me more than a decade to produce my first book, this jointly authored volume. Thanks to the relationship with Mark, I gained confidence as an art writer. And so we planned to write another book together. Then when it was clear that we had rather different ideas, he did something really remarkable and amazingly generous. Seeing that our differences were real, he urged me to publish my own book, Artwriting (1987), and then went on to publish his own different account, The Interpretation of Pictures (1989). And we remained close friends. In an academic world all too often driven by petty rivalries, Mark was a true friend. Our working relationship prepared me for later collaborations, first with the painter David Reed and more recently with the philosopher and art historian Joachim Pissarro. And in the 1980s and more recently, I have had important collaboration with the painter Sean Scully.

Here I briefly retell the story of that collaboration with Joachim, which I’ve published elsewhere, for, looking back, it helps me to understand what happened in this earlier relationship. We met,Joachim and I, because I was asked by Cambridge University Press to advise about publication of a doctoral thesis. Reading such manuscripts, a regular academic ritual, usually is a thankless task. One tries to say something constructive about a document which is too long and academic in the worst sense of that word. (I say that as myself the author of an unpublishable PhD thesis.} And so you can imagine my astonishment when, before I know him, I read Joachim’s Texas PhD thesis, published as Cézanne/Pissarro, Johns/Rauschenberg: Comparative Studies on Intersubjectivity in Modern Art (2006). Here was a deeply original, boldly convincing philosophical study. (Before studying art history in London he had studied philosophy in Paris.) I was so excited, I wrote eleven pages single spaced of comments. When a MoMA curator, he turned part of that thesis into an exhibition, with a catalogue: Pioneering Modern Painting: Cézanne And Pissarro 1865 To 1885 (2005). It’s no surprise, then, that after our meeting, Joachim and I published two books together. Working with Mark had prepared me for that productive relationship.

Thanks to what I learn from reading Joachim, now I am able to theorize the concept of collaboration as it took place with Mark. Collaboration, so I learnt from Joachim’s book and our working together, is a partnership in which ideas are shared, and critiqued collectively. It you are too critical, nothing productive will happen; to collaborate, you need to be open-minded. You see an amusing parody of such collaboration in Gustave Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet (1881). Unlike them, however, Joachim and I had some really good ideas. What defines collaboration is coming up with results that neither collaborator might find on his own. Maybe your ideas seem strange, but if they’re shared by at least one other person, then you have the opportunity to develop it. Collaboration can be tricky, for neither Cézanne and Pissarro nor Johns and Rauschenberg were able to maintain their working relationships. I’ve been luckier.

The process of working together is tricky, because it involves a certain ability to trust one’s collaborator, treated as an equal, and trying ideas. That’s why I said earlier that it’s hard to imagine collaboration with Fried or Clark. Joachim’s book focused on two pairs of artists, Camille Pissarro and Cézanne, and Johns and Rauschenberg, but its implications are of quite general interest. It would be worth looking for other such pairs of collaborative artists. And it could be most instructive to take up philosophical discussion of this topic and consider the political implications. I hope that other people (or perhaps Joachim and I, in some future publication) will do that. But here my goal is more modest, for I wanted just to reconstruct a portion of my Bildungsroman.

The goal of the sequence of essays I have published in Counterpunch, including this account of Mark, is to identify art, books and persons deserving praise. At this grim historical moment, it’s important to see that there is much deserving to be valued greatly in our culture. Mark’s personal generosity, which had lasting benefits for me, was fruitful in ways which neither of us could have imagined at the time.

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