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Making Lesbian History Possible: A Proposal

BY ON June 6, 2016


Mildred Tolbert, Agnes Martin, ca. 1954

Today’s guest blogger is Sarah Schulman, a writer, activist, and Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at College of Staten Island. Her most recent novel is The Cosmopolitans (New York: The Feminist Press, 2016.) Read about it in Slate.

“To forbid something is to make it unforgettable.” – Adam Phillips

At the OutHistory.org conference in New York in May, I heard two of my favorite historians, Marcia Gallo and Nan Alamilla Boyd, confirm that the problem of “identity categories” has become a significant obstacle to researching, documenting and analyzing the history of lesbian lives, politics, culture, experiences, and feelings. Both of these fascinating scholars use oral history as a foundational practice for their work, which to date has focused on the 1950’s and 60’s. They found that in talking to those who produced and lived these histories, the word “lesbian” was complex, problematic, had divergent meanings, and was a source of both attraction and refusal. This problem of the elusiveness of “identity categories” is one reason that documentation of lesbian history from the 1970’s onward has been seen as a kind of swamp into which few trained and seasoned historians wish to sink.

Certainly these confusions pervade most of our social institutions and conversations. While many of us rely on our definitions to ground our perspectives, and some of us rely on negating definitions to do the same, it is clear from the not-functional divisions of books for Lambda Literary Awards to the endless list of letters at the end of queer organizational mission statements, that we need definition. And yet the current cataloguing system has become obstructive. The focus on what categories mean, and why we do or do not want to be in them, has brought some essential documentation and grappling with historic events, emotions, and actions to a screeching halt. For lesbian history in particular, there are so many reasons to abandon ship: no other movement in American radicalism has been so mocked; the subjects, themselves, promise grief to the enterprising scholar. And, I think, most importantly, the psychological, emotional and relational complexities, conflicts, and deprivations are a necessary but very difficult centerpiece of events and how they unfold.

What is to be done?

A few weeks after the conference I read a gorgeously written biography of the iconic and reclusive painter Agnes Martin by art historian Nancy Princenthal, winner of The National Book Critics Circle Award this year. The author was respectful of all Martin’s dimensions, eccentricities, impulses and shifts in feeling and ideas. She recorded conflictual statements and claims by Martin about her own life and experiences without judgment, embracing these complexities as an organic part of her creative imagination and emotional lens. Nuance, complexity, contradiction, vagueness, ambivalence, confusion and dislocation were all seen as elements worthy of record and relevant to understanding her life and, more importantly her artwork, and their inter-connections.

There was one arena, though, in which variation, levels and counter-indication were deemed too difficult to articulate: Martin’s emotional and sexual feelings and actions towards women. Even though there was a clear resonance between how Martin lived and described, or withheld and obscured, her emotional and sexual interiority and exteriorization with the ways she lived and made art, the author enthusiastically delved into art practice, while sidelining desire and the emotions of erotic feeling. Yet Princenthal’s reasoning was not the usual blindness or ick-factor when it comes to a historic figure’s sexuality. Instead, she evoked the problem of identity categories as the reason to sideline these themes in the artist’s life. Princenthal documents instances in Martin’s life where the artist said that she was “not a lesbian,”“not a woman,” and that she was “a man”. Certainly that is all important, and can bring a lot to understanding Martin’s lived erotics and repressions. Instead the author uses this information to downplay the role and importance of Martin’s relationships, and non-relationships, with women.

Right away, on page 11 of Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art (Thames and Hudson, 2015), Princenthal writes:

Martin’s romantic attachments, if that is the right term – she was not given to sentiment and preferred living alone – were largely with other women. But she refused the label lesbian (as she did the term feminist when it was applied to her). In her life, as in her work, renunciation was as important as embrace.

But, what about the renunciation of embrace? Isn’t that also filled with meaning and therefore with history? The “romantic,” which I would define as the spark of opening, are experiences that can come to dominate an imagination: artistic, political, intellectual, emotional and certainly sexual. Both the recognition of open-heartedness, of connection, of the pleasure of knowing each other, as well as the refusal to allow the real to develop, the shutting down, the rejection of pleasure- all of these experiences are significant in the lives of human beings, and particularly of artists. They produce aesthetics. Artistic voice, after all, expresses the contested and resists repression. Repression, similarly, is a resonant key to the question of lesbian, queer, bisexual, and trans existence, even in our contemporary moment: repression of information, of feeling, of knowledge, of existence, of potential and risk. And when examining a self-described “hermit” like Agnes Martin, aloneness also has a specificity in lesbian, queer, bisexual, and trans life, whatever those words mean to you.

Whether Martin was a lesbian, a woman, and/or a man does not mean that feelings, desires, longings, refusals, experiences, conversations, silences, actions and repressions with women are not deeply and fundamentally relevant to her history. And the content of those experiences, and refusals of experience, are more important than the question of Martin’s sexual or gender category.

Later, on page 51, Princenthal drops, in an aside, that when Martin went to live and work in New Mexico in the 1940’s, she found a culture in Taos where noted collector and saloniste Mabel Dodge Luhan, (though married to a Native American man,) was “among the many women at the time in Taos (and Santa Fe) to have had romantic relationships with other women, as did O’Keefe.” My eye falls on the word many. And of course the name O’Keefe. Where can I read that book? Or does this not matter because the word “lesbian” is not operational?

At this point I would like to make a radical proposal: that we temporarily forget about who calls themselves a lesbian; why, or why not. Instead, I propose that we look into the emotional, psychological, economic, political, intellectual, artistic, sexual, daily and life long experiences of women who allowed or refused the embrace. The conversations that did happen and did not. The words permitted, and those uttered without permission. The invitations refused and accepted. The fears. The imaginations, erotic and projected. The walks in the woods, the fucking, the pleasure of the company acknowledged and refused. The meals, the conversation, how and what conversations provoked, the actions, the artworks, the articles, books, tears, orgasms realized/failed/imagined/remembered, caresses, tendernesses, the refusals of tenderness, kisses that were and should have been, and how this moved the earth, the culture, the society or even just one or two people’s small lives. I propose that we call this whatever we want to call it, but that we not let it fall by the wayside, because when those of us creating queer history and culture display a reluctance to go deeper and transcend the artifice of restrictive thinking, the mainstream representations are handed a convenient model of hesitant obscuration. Lesbians give each other meaning in private, and it is too easy to keep the secret. It doesn’t have to be clean, neat, safe, compartmentalized, or expected. Show it all and let the chips fall where they may.

Princenthal mentions that among the women who had romantic attachments to other women in Taos was Betty Parsons, who later opened a gallery in New York. Princenthal writes that when Parsons’ gallery represented Agnes Martin (along with other clients like Jackson Pollack), Agnes and Betty lived together in Betty’s studio in NYC for a year. Nothing further. She quotes from different sources, some saying that a sexual relationship between the two would have been impossible. Others, like Betty’s assistant Jack Tilton, felt sure that they did allow the embrace. Certainly that the one lesbian gallerist was the person who first showed the work of Agnes Martin, implies some kind of openness, some kind of love. And it is fair to imagine that had there been no Betty Parsons, it is possible that no man ever would have shown Martin’s work. But despite the living together, despite the testimony of Tilton, despite the investment in each other’s dreams and visions, Princenthal just isn’t sure. “In the long interview conducted with Parsons for The Archives of American Art in 1969,” Princenthal writes, “Agnes Martin’s name does not come up.” But, that is so lesbian, to pretend we never loved, to erase the attraction, to deny the opening because of complexities of historical, emotional and psychological reasons that I wish our historians would help us articulate and unravel.

She goes on to discuss some other “friendships”, one with artist Lenore Tawny of whom Agnes wrote: “There is an urgency that sweeps us up, a originality and success that holds us in wonder.”

An elusive Greek woman artist, twenty years younger, with one name, Chryssa, is alluded to in Martin’s New York Times obituary, as the reason she left New York to live alone on a New Mexico mesa. But Princenthal thinks that was instead a relationship of professional assistance on Agnes’s part. Yet, I would say to Princenthal that if lesbian artists don’t help each other, it is hard to know who is going to help us. And if we love someone’s work, there is more possibility for …romance. Without the lesbian identity, there was still the romance. As Agnes Martin wrote:

When you’re in life-drawing, you’re really thinking of all the women you’ve ever seen, and all the gestures they’ve ever made. That’s what brings life into the drawing….It’s just your real self.

The Punchline: decades past, I had a lesbian literary agent named Diane Cleaver, who died over twenty years ago. Diane was very old school. “I’m out,” she once told me. “But I am not out and about.” At her memorial service, the only person who said the word “lesbian” was a straight writer. Diane once told me that Betty Parsons and Agnes Martin were lovers, but that Betty dumped Agnes for Greta Garbo, and this was the catalyst for Agnes’s great depression.

This could easily be untrue, of course. Not being an historian, I have no way of confirming or denying. But being an artist, I was able to embed this piece of wish/knowledge into a scene in my novel The Cosmopolitans, where Earl, the Black, gay working-class protagonist, stumbles home from a day at the meatpacking plant. He runs into a good looking Black actor, Frank, now employed as a chauffeur for a beige Bentley parked outside of Betty Parson’s gallery, carrying a mysterious passenger. Miss Parsons emerges, slips into the back seat and Frank drives the shining chassis away. “Who was that?” asks a young Irish girl on the way to run her mother’s errands. “That was Frank,” the smitten Earl replies. “That was not Frank,” a drag queen from the adjacent Hotel Albert corrects him. “Honey, that was Greta Garbo. Dot vas Ninotchka.”

Second Punchline: I was in residency at the Yaddo artist’s colony and shared the summer with an 83 year-old painter named Buffie Johnson. Buffie was blind at this point but still painting “spheres.” She told me that she had had three husbands, one of whom died of AIDS, and two girlfriends, Jane Bowles and Patricia Highsmith. “Wow, Buffy” I said. “They both were so difficult, they must have been tough girlfriends. Were they really that bad?” “Oh,” she assured me in her Katherine Hepburnesque upper-class trill. “They were horrible.”

Anyway, I once visited Buffie at her home on Greene Street, where her front door was a sculpture made by Louise Nevelson (who also said she was not a lesbian, lived with a woman for the final 26 years of her life, who- after Nevelson’s death- sued her family for “palimony.”) Buffie told me about the time, when she was young, that Georgia O’Keefe came to her studio. “She looked at my paintings and said, ‘Ah those are….’” And then Buffie faltered “What word did she use? What words did she use? It was a twenties word…ah yes, keen. She said my paintings were keen.”

But now that I learn from Princenthal that not-lesbian O’Keefe had women lovers like many women in Taos and Santa Fe, and I know that not-lesbian Buffie did too, I start to wonder about who told Georgia O’Keefe to go check out young Buffie Johnson, and why Georgia bothered to support this unknown woman painter. And I, based in my own artist’s life, know it had something to do with the lesbiannesss of these not lesbians, which is also a force of history and of culture. The romance, the special surprise of openness, and what it produces, whether we want it or not, is worth noting.


  1. Sarah does it again! Yes!!

  2. This is a great piece, Sarah. I made this same point at the conference in my paper and historians of gender and sexuality working in earlier periods — pre-1945 especially–have been making these arguments for decades. Jen Manion

  3. While digging a bit further I just saw the Buffie Johnson’s NY Times Obituary mentions Betty Parsons. It also includes a great photo of her with Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, Frank Merlo and Tanaquil LeCLerqc:


  4. I adore all this stuff! Having lived some years in New Mexico,both in Santa Fe and on women’s land, it has a special resonance for me. Sarah could you? would you? consider writing a book ” NOT A LESBIAN” HISTORY?

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