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By the time William Rubin (1927-2006) became the magisterial director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1973, the imprint left by Alfred H. Barr Jr.'s schema of modernist art's historical progression was hardwired into his brain. As he puts it in this anxiously awaited book on his career (A Curator's Quest: Building the Collection of Painting and Sculpture of The Museum of Modern Art, 1967-1988 [Overlook]), "I tried to travel ... in Alfred Barr's direction but at my own gait." Rubin's adherence to Barr's vision of the evolution of twentieth-century art as a teleology of form pervades the book much as it did his installation of the collection after the museum's expansion in 1984.

In her generous foreword to the volume, his widow, Phyllis Hattis Rubin, tells us, "Bill had envisioned a two-volume book, the first with an introductory essay describing his determined quest for acquisitions to perfect the Museum's collection and the second containing a selection of nearly 250 images of major acquisitions organized in groups to reflect the interlacing development of modernism in Europe and America." The hefty single-volume book that emerged instead is huge and unwieldy: For all of its beautiful color plates, looking through it is unfortunately a little too much like reading the Oxford English Dictionary on one's lap.


The book does, however, contain a memoir in which Rubin sketches his own career as art historian and relentless crusader on behalf of the museum's already synoptic collection. Among the many anecdotes in this "chronicle of collection building" is the story of how many of MOMA'S most famous works entered the collection. For example, it turns out that Barr and Rubin had together discussed Picasso's Guitar, 1914, as "ideal" for filling a gap in the museum's collection. In keeping with the spirit of the museum's policy of selling some of the works in its collection to pay for others, Rubin wished to persuade Picasso to part with Guitar in exchange for "a decent though undistinguished Cezanne L'Estaque from the early 1880s." He flew to Picasso's villa in France with the painting in hand--although once there, Rubin was surprised to learn that Picasso already owned a "wide and quite glorious" L'Estaque. (In a characteristic anecdote, Rubin comments: "I shall never forget Picasso rapping his knuckles on the center of the canvas. The dust flew and Picasso said in his heavily accented French something I probably remember because it rhymed, "Regardez la mer, c'est solide comme la Pierre" [Look at the sea, it is solid as a stone].) No exchange ocurred, but Picasso was evidently impressed and promptly gifted Guitar to the museum.

Before becoming a curator, Rubin had taught at Sarah Lawrence College and amassed an impressive art collection that he showed in his New York loft (which was written up in Vogue in 1967). Photographs testify to his description of this space as "no less than a small museum," where he was able to show many major works of the New York School by such luminaries as Jackson Pollock, Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still, along with David Smith's Australia, 1951, which he later gave to MOMA. His taste reflected that of his friend Clement Greenberg in its inclusion of 1950s and '60s stain painting by the likes of Jules Olitski, Morris Louis, and Kenneth Noland; but it was also enlarged beyond the Greenbergian orthodoxy to sanction certain Minimalist paintings by Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly, as well as, in another direction, Pop works by Roy Lichtenstein and George Segal; and beyond them, Surrealist artists such as Andre Masson.

A year after the piece in Vogue, Rubin organized MOMA'S comprehensive 1968 exhibition "Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage." This show was an attempt to bring Dada and Surrealism into the fold: As he puts it here, the exhibition set out to demonstrate that "both movements--so alien to their immediate predecessors and successors--could nonetheless be profitably discussed within the received art-historical framework and vocabulary of modernism." The show ended with Christo and Jeanne-Claude's wrapping of MOMA, a few months before Rubin became a curator at the museum.

Rubin's interest in the interconnections between the great modernist masters led to his most controversial show, "'Primitivism' in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern," organized with Kirk Varnedoe in 1984. The exhibition showed works by Picasso, Constantin Brancusi, Alberto Giacometti, and Max Ernst alongside African and Oceanic indigenous art. Accused of an empty colonialist vision that voided tribal culture of its content to fold it triumphantly into alien aesthetic structures, Rubin was forced to defend the exhibition against a chorus of criticism. In A Curator's Quest he alludes to the controversy by calling the show his "most original," claiming that it laid the groundwork for future research by making "the affinities of tribal and modern works eminently clear."

Rubin's exhibitions nearly always resulted, directly or indirectly, in major acquisitions for the museum. "Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage" led, years later, to the purchase of Joan Miro's masterpiece the 1925 Birth of the World. The 1977 exhibition "Cezanne: The Late Work" would eventually garner the master's Still Life with Fruit Dish, 1877-78. Before borrowing this work from the collection of M. and Mme. de Chaisemartin (herself the granddaughter of the major Cezanne collector Auguste Pellerin), Rubin approached the Rockefellers and spoke with them of its star-studded history. Gauguin had owned the work, treasuring it so much that he reproduced it in his 1890 Woman in Front of a Still Life by Cezanne. The painting was also the centerpiece of Maurice Denis's Homage to Cezanne of 1890. The Rockefellers were so intrigued by these interconnections that they bought the painting, and afterward promised it as a gift to the museum.

The tome also includes eight lectures--"The Pioneers of Modernism"--that Rubin gave at Sotheby's in 1997-98, which easily convey how his knowledge of art history made the meetings of the acquisitions committee, in the words of MOMA'S former chairman Ronald S. Lauder, "great seminars in art." It also allowed him to turn his visits to the collectors he courted--among them the Rockefellers, Jock Whitney, William S. Paley, Gordon Bunshaft, Florene May Schoenborn, Sidney Janis, and Louise Smith--into impromptu disquisitions on certain works in their collections, never failing to add, of course, how they would fill the lacunae in the museum's holdings. When, as on occasion happened, collectors would offer him a choice of the works in their possession, he would pounce instantaneously on the particular treasures needed to complete the museum's range. An example concerns the Gertrude Stein collection, whose sale to a group of trustees was facilitated by MOMA in return for one work from each lot being promised as an eventual gift. Rubin picked several of the thirty-eight available Picassos, among them The Reservoir, Horta de Ebro, 1909, from David Rockefeller's lot. It was, he writes, "the most fully realized and, hence, my favorite" of all the Analytic Cubist pictures in the collection.

As Rubin tells these stories in A Curator's Quest, there is never a second thought about his choices, never any doubt about what was "needed" for the collection. Rubin's quest was an unforgettable journey, of buoyancy, of power.


Poems for the Millennium was (and is) a slap in the face of the official verse mediocracy of the New Yorker, New York Review of Books, and major US prize awarders.--Charles Bernstein

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Author:Krauss, Rosalind E.
Publication:Artforum International
Date:Dec 1, 2012
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