I WRITE ALL of this because I, too, have entered into marriage, and feel all too aware of what exactly I’m participating in. How easy it is to glamorize some of the women I’ve mentioned, even if many of them would later cite a kind of supreme instability or untenable happiness. I want to believe that the institution has changed, that there are ways this elaborate ceremony is not as conventionally damning as some make it out to be. If anything, today we are less enamored by the idea that any partnership is for life — even if I have entered it believing this with my heart and soul. Divorce is no longer so scandalous. Love is possible at any decade. Financial security and education point to women marrying later, and to lower birthrates. Yet it still feels like we are struggling, as a culture, to put the female artist on the same pedestal as her male equal, as so many women writers and artists, Paul among them, have pointed out in their lives and in their work. In her interview with The Paris Review in 1993, the writer Toni Morrison said of her ex-husband, and of men more generally:
I only know that I will never again trust my life, my future, to the whims of men, in companies or out. Never again will their judgment have anything to do with what I think I can do. That was the wonderful liberation of being divorced and having children. I did not mind failure, ever, but I minded thinking that someone male knew better. Before that, all the men I knew did know better, they really did. My father and teachers were smart people who knew better. Then I came across a smart person who was very important to me who didn’t know better.
Perhaps the judgment of a powerful man in a woman’s life is hard to avoid. Perhaps marriage, as Morrison implies, required a type of submission for women of her generation. By nature, I know myself to be a companionable human, someone who requires friendship and laughter and touch, all things that are possible to achieve on one’s own, yes, but also more permanently granted in a loving partnership. It’s encouraging to know of marriages that truly managed to bridge a divide that an individual could not face alone. In the 1920s, Josef Albers was a humble professor at the Bauhaus school in Weimar, Germany. He stood out, with his country accent from the Ruhr Valley, an industrial area of western Germany, from the more refined and flashier teachers like Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. In 1925, Albers married Anni Fleischmann, a young student from an affluent Jewish family who had been assigned to the more feminine tasks at the Bauhaus such as weaving. The two found love, and just as crucially, a commonality as outsiders (the school was forced to shut down in 1933 because of the encroaching demands of the Nazi party). When Josef was offered to lead a newly commissioned art school in North Carolina called Black Mountain College, the Alberses immigrated to the United States. It was there that Josef’s initial inability to speak English forced him to find other ways to express himself and educate. Even if — as detailed in Charles Darwent’s 2018 biography, “Josef Albers: Life and Work” — several of Josef’s female students recalled inappropriate behavior, including fondling or unwanted kissing from their teacher (who, unlike most of his colleagues, thought women should attend art school), his partnership with Anni has endured as one that not only interrogated our understanding of color and material but also nurtured a great many artists who might have otherwise been overlooked. The Alberses were artistic parents to Ruth Asawa, Ray Johnson, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg and his first wife, Susan Weil (who was also her husband’s collaborator until she discovered the affair he was having with Twombly — however valuable their mentorship, the Alberses couldn’t teach their students how to have a good marriage). When Asawa told Josef she wanted to marry her Black Mountain classmate Albert Lanier and have six children, Josef — according to a 1989 interview with Asawa — said “Gooooood, gooooood.” Then he added, looking straight at Lanier: “Don’t ever let her stop her work.”