When I started as an undergraduate at Oberlin College, I knew I needed a part-time job. I was prepared to wash dishes. But through a combination of pure accident and prescient timing I was hired at Oberlin’s prestigious Allen Memorial Art Museum as a Print Room assistant, a position that before my job interview, knowing little about the inner sanctums of art museums, I had mixed up in my head with Copy Room assistant. I had the vague notion that I would be Xeroxing flyers for minimum wage when, reporting to the museum for my interview, I was greeted in the lobby by a young curator with a freshly-issued PhD. She took me up to a tiny office in a large, airy room that was not in fact for photocopying but for storing and displaying the museum’s exquisite collection of prints, drawings and photographs the Print Room assistant-to-be would help manage and oversee.
Gobsmacked, armed with a couple of art history survey classes and the attitude that this was ridiculously, almost surreally, better than washing dishes – better, even, than Xeroxing – I stated my case and the curator, almost as new to Oberlin as I was and without knowing any better, gave me the position without waiting to interview the mob of upperclassman art history majors who were more richly deserving, and infinitely more qualified, than I. But I was dutiful and a quick study, and perhaps more importantly, utterly in awe. Three times a week I signed in for my ring of keys that unlocked the old wooden cupboards beneath the print gallery display cases where resided the long, shallow black solander boxes filled with matted prints. I would unlatch a box and delicately pick up each print in turn, peel off the strip of glassine beneath the mat to uncover the naked image it sheathed. My job was to pull prints from storage for research visits or classes; in this way, I held etchings by Rembrandt and by Whistler, the ragged modern woodcuts of Kirchner and Nolde which seemed to me, on each viewing, both furious and sad, and a pastel of a nude woman by Matisse that electrified me with its sudden intimacy, as though, unseen by either artist or model, I had drawn back a curtain on the spongy brightness of her defiant sensuality.