Lots of famous people have turned to painting in their later years: Ringo Starr, Jim Carrey, George W. Bush. So it’s not unusual that Nell Painter, an accomplished historian and Princeton professor with six books and a string of honors to her name, took up art in her 60s. What’s surprising is that she went all the way back to art school.
The disadvantages of age are legion. The advantages are also considerable: respect, self-knowledge, mastery of a skill. Painter discards all of them, along with her “20th century eyes,” as she writes in her new memoir, Old in Art School. In fact, her training in historical rigor and clarity prove to be handicaps in art, a discipline that requires, she finds, “letting go of coherence.”
Painter, most famous for her book The History of White People, now addresses the equally ambitious question of what it takes to be an artist–and whether or not she has it. Many of the people she encounters (while dealing with ailing parents and finishing White People) don’t believe she does. Having faced down the dismissal of women and African Americans in academia, Painter has little trouble persisting despite those naysayers, or feeling O.K. among her 20-something fellow MFA students. What comes as more of a shock to her is her own self-doubt.
As a historian might, Painter tries to pin down the essential qualities of an artist. Is it New York City gallery representation? Committed buyers? A certain look? A way of working? She doesn’t arrive at a clear answer, but she chronicles, again as a historian might, the way studying art slowly changes her, how she learns “to look at what she sees” by studying technique.
If this book were a novel, the artist would have been exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art by now, but Art School arrives at a messier, braver conclusion. Painter is a painter because she studied it, works hard at it and keeps doing it. Being able to paint is one kind of gift, this book suggests, but learning to paint is another, and just as precious.
This appears in the July 02, 2018 issue of TIME.