Magazine article Artforum International

A Modern Life

Magazine article Artforum International

A Modern Life

Article excerpt

Arguably the most important postwar curator of twentieth-century art, William S. Rubin (1927-2006) succeeded Alfred H. Barr Jr. as the guiding force behind the Museum of Modern Art's exhibitions and collection of painting and sculpture for two decades, from 1968 to 1988. An eminent art historian and prescient collector--as this 1967 view of his loft attests--Rubin maintained a lively connection to Artforum for much of his career, contributing to these pages major essays, interviews, and perhaps the most spirited and trenchant letters in the magazine's history. It therefore gives us great pleasure to publish here for the first time an exclusive series of excerpts from the scholarly memoir Rubin was completing when he passed away in January, at the age of seventy-eight. The selection chronicles his close relationship with Picasso in the early '70s, revealing in its fullest detail the story behind his acquisition of the artist's famed Guitar of 1912-14, as well as the depth of intellectual camaraderie between the two men. Preceding the text, a distinguished lineup of colleagues and friends--Yve-Alain Bois, Richard E. Oldenburg, Frank Stella, Rosalind Krauss, Robert Rosenblum, and Richard Serra--reflect on an indelible, if at times contested, legacy that continues to shape our view of the art of the twentieth century as we journey into the twenty-first.




Storied Past


FOR YEARS BEFORE I MET HIM, WILLIAM RUBIN loomed larger than life. And after I gradually got to know him, he loomed even larger still--but differently.

When I came to America in 1983 from France--where twentieth-century art was still almost entirely absent from the curricula of art-history programs, where criticism was sheer belletristic babble, and where the Musee National d'Art Moderne had only five years earlier received from the powers that be the means to support a veritable acquisitions policy--Rubin seemed a giant. I had not seen any of his landmark exhibitions, except when they had appeared in Paris (typically a year after their debut at the Museum of Modern Art) in poorly installed, somewhat watered-down versions, such as "Andre Masson," in 1977; "Cezanne: The Late Work," in 1978; and "Giorgio de Chirico," in 1983. Yet I had dutifully read their scholarly catalogues, as well as those of "Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage" (1968) and "Frank Stella" (1970), and the benchmark-setting "Picasso in the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art" (1972). I was also familiar with many of Rubin's essays: his Art International reviews of the late '50s and early '60s (still among the best on Jean Dubuffet, Arshile Gorky, and Ellsworth Kelly); his more ponderous quartet on "Jackson Pollock and the Modern Tradition," the first properly art-historical treatment of the origins and development of the drip paintings (appearing in Artforum from February through May 1967); and his eight-hundred-pound-gorilla attack on the endless Jungian gibberish attending Pollock's work, published a decade later in the November and December 1979 issues of Art in America. Add to these Rubin's numerous articles on Picasso and Cubism, including "Cezannisme and the Beginnings of Cubism" in the catalogue of his late Cezanne show, and the fascinating polemical debate that followed between him and Leo Steinberg.

This is only a sample: Rubin wrote a lot. (How did he find the time? I always wonder.) Yet I never failed to read him, because I knew that no matter how much I might disagree with him, his work represented the best of a certain tradition that I was utterly deprived of in France. The scope of his knowledge was daunting, as were the relentlessness of his research, his refusal to abandon any thread, and his indefatigable energy in making sure that no stone was left unturned. By the time I met him, I had grown familiar with his assertive prose, his inclination toward overkill, his matter-of-fact, positivist tone, which often concealed--to my mind, regrettably--his brilliant intuitions.

I had heard Rubin derided as immune to criticism, frightfully intimidating, and even authoritarian--in short, unapproachable. However, my first personal encounter with him wasn't at all what I had been led to expect. It came at the end of a symposium accompanying his formidable exhibition "'Primitivism' in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern," cocurated with Kirk Varnedoe at MOMA in 1984. My brief lecture, which would form the basis of a review published shortly thereafter, had contained in embryo a severe critique of what I saw as the flaw of the exhibition (its pseudomorphic comparisons). To my utmost surprise, Rubin publicly replied to my presentation by saying that had he heard it sooner, he would have conceived of the show slightly differently. Yet unlike those of other critics, my argument was conducted on formal grounds--Rubin's territory--which is why, I understood later, it piqued his curiosity rather than exasperated him.

Rubin (he was not yet Bill to me then) summoned me to his office at MOMA the next day. There, for a good two hours, the pair of us blissfully smoking our pipes, we debated my main point: that the show's splendid opening juxtaposition of Picasso's 1912-14 Guitar and the Grebo mask that had famously led to its momentous invention had promised an investigation of formal relationships that were structural rather than essentially morphological (for there is little resemblance between these two objects), but that, in the end, this promise had not been fulfilled. Needless to say, Rubin had many counter-arguments in store. Yet our conversation ended with him agreeing that, in order to elaborate on the pairing of the Grebo mask and Guitar and to highlight the principle of montage that is at work within them, it would have been easy to present a second confrontation, this time with objects that would be morphologically even more different yet structurally similar (I had given him several possible examples). I puzzled over this final acquiescence, for it did not rhyme with the common prejudice that Rubin was (like so many of his art-historian peers at the time), if not hostile to, at least unconcerned with theoretical issues. Once again, it was only much later that I understood why my proposal had passed the litmus test: Not only was my theoretical point translatable into the space of an exhibition, but it articulated palpable visual differences and similarities between objects; that is, it was a response to existing objects, not a set of a priori constructs that objects would then serve to illustrate. Though a born pedagogue, Rubin was never crazy about long and elaborate wall labels: An exhibition had to convey an argument, but do so without words.



The second time I met Rubin was at the 1988 opening of "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," an exhibition curated by Helene Seckel at the Musee National Picasso in Paris. He was in a radiant mood, not only because the show was "absolutely perfect" (his own effusive words, making my friend Helene blush), but also because the Demoiselles was securely fastened to a wall in the Hotel Salle (he had insisted on traveling on the same plane, not wanting to be in the position of surviving the painting should it be destroyed in a crash). Rubin had recently read my essay on the dealer-critic Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (elaborating on the mask/Guitar pairing in a more thoroughly structuralist and Saussurian vein) and had been convinced by it. He therefore warned that he would ask me to contribute to yet another symposium at MOMA, this one destined to celebrate his forthcoming exhibition "Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism" (1989), the best I have ever seen in the museum--the best, I daresay, that I have ever seen in any museum. Not only was my earlier preconception of Rubin's hostility or indifference to theory definitively put to rest by what he told me my task would be, but so too were rumors concerning his arrogance: I was to explore Picasso's and Braque's Cubism as a sign-system, a topic to which he himself would have liked to attend but for which he had realized, after several fruitless attempts, he lacked the necessary background.

There would be myriad anecdotes to recount about the "Picasso and Braque" symposium, and although MOMA published selections from the proceedings (edited by Lynn Zelevansky), the text does not quite convey the vivid and sometimes cantankerous nature of the debates. I shall recall just one incident, for it says a lot about the respect Rubin commanded. At the outset of the symposium, we (speakers and auditors alike) had been pained to learn that Leo Steinberg had decided not to give his presentation, he and Rubin having recently squabbled, as they sometimes did (when in the know, I tended to side with Steinberg). Not prepared to absent himself totally from a debate concerning a matter so dear to him, Steinberg had nevertheless been a remarkable presence throughout the four-day gathering, generously providing illuminating comments at every possible turn. At the very end of the last day, or rather, about half an hour before the time was up, Rubin coyly asked to be excused to go conduct his graduate seminar at NYU's Institute of Fine Arts. Springing to his feet before anyone else had time to react, Steinberg proposed a toast to the departing professor for having offered us, thanks to his impressive curatorial muscle, such an unforgettable exhibition. The long, roaring applause did not stop until Rubin had left the room.

It was during the "Picasso and Braque" show that Rubin became Bill for me, and from then on, I visited him in his smoking-allowed office every time I came to New York. We saw the exhibition several times together, discussing various minute points of chronology (was this or that painting predicated on this or that one, or the reverse?), which led to further discussions about the evolution of museology and the function of MOMA as an institution (should it set a cutoff date for its permanent collection, after which it would just act as a Kunsthalle, in effect erecting a barrier between the modern and the contemporary?). Chronology as a heuristic tool was something he cared deeply about; the thematic approach that is becoming dominant in the presentation of modern-art collections in museums worldwide did not have his sympathy. On this count, he was the true successor of Alfred H. Barr Jr., even if he liked to poke fun at the famous chronological diagram of modern-art movements adorning Barr's 1936 Cubism and Abstract Art. It certainly governed Rubin's whole attitude toward acquisitions: "Fill the gaps" was his motto, and his pride was immense when he was able to secure for MOMA a painting or a sculpture that made "the story" clearer, even if it was a promised gift that would only benefit the visitors of the future. His attitude was the same with regard to exhibitions: They were useless, even harmful, if they did not clarify "the story." They had to have a point. This actually had practical consequences, as I learned when accompanying him on his searches for the supremely fragile paintings of Ad Reinhardt for the retrospective he curated in 1991: I learned that to persuade a museum or a private collector to lend a prize possession and risk endangering it, one has to have a pretty convincing story to tell, which means, first of all, that the curator himself has to be convinced.

"The story": This is where the reproach of dogmatism often hurled at Bill seems most grounded. He had fairly ecumenical taste--the private collection he had acquired before joining MOMA as well as his publications and exhibitions attest to that--but he was the first to recognize that it was limited. According to him, the story it was MOMA's mission to tell was that of what he dubbed "High Modernism." His version of it was of a much wider scope than Clement Greenberg's, for it included, for example, Pop art, but he doubted it had a much longer lifespan. In any case, Bill's "High Modernism" was pretty much object-based and bound to a fairly traditional notion of medium specificity. It fit his conception of the art museum as an unsatisfactory but necessary compromise between the private spaces of the wealthy class and the public spaces of democracy (he liked fairly small rooms, similar in scale to those of a bourgeois apartment, in which viewers could isolate themselves in the contemplation of a handful of works installed together with a purpose). In view of this, his response when criticized for failing to go after Earthworks or Conceptual art for MOMA's collection, in hindsight, makes a lot of sense. "The museum concept is not infinitely expandable," he countered. "If someone offered us the Spiral Jetty [1970] and enough money so that we could maintain it and protect it in perpetuity--because the minute we took it into the collection, we would be responsible for its care--we might do just that. But it still wouldn't be in the Museum of Modern Art (and couldn't be seen in relation to its other modern art)." This was said in 1974, in a remarkable two-part interview published in Artforum: Amazing, isn't it, that what he imagined as the ideal fate of Smithson's work describes, grosso modo, the arrangement conceived for it by the Dia Art Foundation a quarter of a century later? As for Conceptual art, was he so off the mark when he wrote: "Why can one not accept that forms of art may emerge--or have emerged--which transcend museums, that belong elsewhere?... I feel, for example, that a great many Conceptual works are far more comfortable in an art magazine than in a museum"? To some at the time, this comment doubtless sounded conservative, but, in fact (and here's one more prejudice about Bill that will have to go), it revealed that his grasp of works such as Dan Graham's Homes for America, 1966-67, or Mel Bochner and Robert Smithson's Domain of the Great Bear, 1966, was much better than he was credited for--and perhaps even better than that of many of this new art's most ardent advocates.


Acquiring Mind


I HAD THE PRIVILEGE of knowing Bill Rubin as a colleague and close friend for thirty-five years. In 1967, two years before my own arrival at the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred H. Barr Jr. persuaded Bill to leave his professorial posts at Sarah Lawrence College and Hunter College and join the museum's staff. About to retire as director of the museum collections, Alfred wanted to ensure that the painting and sculpture collection he had built and nurtured with such care would continue to be well tended. In Bill Rubin, who was then guest-curating the upcoming exhibition "Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage" (1968), he presciently saw a promising heir: an art historian with a discerning eye, clarity and grace as a writer, and familiarity with the art market as a venturesome collector. With Alfred's support, Bill was named curator of painting and sculpture and, a year later, chief curator. In 1973 he was appointed director of the department, a position he held until his retirement, in 1988. During more than two decades of service to the museum and its mission, Bill's lasting contributions to its development and vitality were extraordinary.

Bill's primary concern was always the quality and scope of the permanent collection, which he termed "the enduring heart of the curatorial function." Under his stewardship, the great painting and sculpture collection he inherited from his predecessors was continually extended and refined. His quest was not simply for works of quality but, above all, for works he felt the museum needed in order to document and represent properly the evolution of modern art. With tenacity, ingenuity, and well-justified confidence in his eye and judgment, Bill sought out and acquired, by gift or purchase, masterworks that filled lacunae in the collection and enhanced its special strengths. Many of the works that particularly distinguish the museum's painting and sculpture collection owe their presence there to Bill's dedication, connoisseurship, and persistence.

While Bill's most enduring legacy may be found in the permanent collection, he also organized memorable exhibitions, with accompanying publications, which made major contributions to art history and scholarship. Always a teacher at heart, Bill insisted that an exhibition should expand our experience, reveal something we didn't already know. While achieving this purpose, many of his exhibitions also elicited a remarkable popular response. Exhibitions such as "Cezanne: The Late Work" (1977), "Picasso: A Retrospective" (1980), and "'Primitivism' in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern" (1984), to name only a few, importantly helped to build and enlarge an interested, informed public for modern art.

In addition to his curatorial skills, Bill brought admirable personal qualities to his work at the museum--among them, generosity, integrity, refreshing candor, and a self-deprecating humor that tempered a not-inconsiderable ego. He could be very demanding when immersed in a project, but his impatience was forgiven as a reflection of the high standards he set for himself, and any hurts were healed by the warm appreciation he showed everyone involved when the project was completed.

As a colleague and friend, Bill was very good company, with wide-ranging interests and knowledge. He was a polymath, coming late to art history after studying musicology, Italian literature, and French history. He had played the clarinet in a chamber group, led an orchestra during his army service, and once even considered conducting as a career. Perhaps his virtuosity as a lecturer was an echo of this training. Speaking without notes, Bill shaped and paced his lectures as though they were movements in chamber music. Sharing a love of opera, he and I sometimes relaxed by discussing the merits of various singers. I still treasure a tape Bill made especially for me, pitting the tenors Jussi Bjorling and Beniamino Gigli "mano a mano," as he put it, by juxtaposing their recordings of the same arias.

I also remember the trips we made together to seek exhibition loans or to cultivate potential donors. Bill prized his creature comforts, so we lived and dined quite well on these excursions. Russia, however, in the Soviet days of the '70s, almost defeated him. On our first night in Moscow, in a hotel dining room staffed by a single sullen waiter, Bill tried to get toast with the caviar he'd ordered, even attempting to clarify his request by passing a piece of bread over the flame of his cigarette lighter. Having no success, he looked glumly at his plate and pronounced, "This is not a country for a spoiled, cosmopolite Jew."

On a follow-up trip to Russia, I traveled alone. Also challenging was our visit to Vienna, with French museum colleagues, to seek loans for our planned "Vienna 1900" exhibition (1986). The initial intransigence of the Austrian officials produced an exceptional Franco-American amity. At dinner we all traded simulated slaps, saying, "Here is ein Klimt for you!"

Other trips had few such strains. In Paris, we were always well received by museum officials, with whom Bill had fostered close ties over the years. In 1975 he was instrumental in concluding a formal agreement between the museum and the French Ministry of Culture to collaborate on major projects. On several occasions, we also enjoyed the company of Picasso's widow, Jacqueline, whose fondness for Bill led to important gifts to the collection.

In 1988, Bill chose to retire as the director of the department of painting and sculpture. Like Barr before him, he first helped to ensure that the collection would remain in good hands. Named director emeritus of the department, Bill continued to serve the museum as a consultant, concentrating on special exhibition projects, research, and writing. In this new role, he extended his long list of notable exhibitions with the presentation of "Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism" (1989) and "Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation" (1996).

In later years, Bill's health became more precarious, with occasional hospital stays and ongoing medical treatments. He endured these downturns and their lingering effects with exemplary fortitude and spirit. With the devoted support of his wife, Phyllis Hattis, he carried on his productive life, savoring its pleasures despite some setbacks. He applied himself to completing a book on the works acquired for the painting and sculpture collection during his tenure, modestly focusing less on his own role than on the quality of the works and their special significance for the collection, on the artists who created them, and on the donors and patrons who had made their acquisition possible.

He dedicated his book, which hopefully will soon find a publisher, to Alfred Barr, citing his "unparalleled accomplishments." Reviewing the history recorded in this manuscript and remembering Bill with deep admiration and affection, it seems very evident that one of Barr's greatest accomplishments was the selection of Bill Rubin as his successor.



One Life Twice Lived


WHEN WILLIAM RUBIN pointed out that at the end of the nineteenth century, Cezanne's "characteristic work was largely unknown," we are quite surprised. On the face of it, it seems odd. A sense of art-historical puzzlement draws us toward Cezanne and into the grasp of the scholar illuminating him. As the process unfolds, we experience William, the art historian, laying out the final arguments in a series of brilliant catalogue essays for what was at its onset a modest Museum of Modern Art exhibition titled "Cezanne: The Late Work" (1977). At nearly the same time, we come to realize that his alter ego, Bill Rubin, the art lover, is planning to reinforce the historical arguments with a visual assault. The result is a stunning exhibition of paintings that will become an almost unimaginable success--in effect, a magnified surprise, produced by Bill, that mirrors our initial surprise at William's remark.

The larger-than-life circumstances of the Cezanne exhibition gave it a standard-setting impact that served as well as a wonderful public portrait of William. However, at the time, I was more taken with the exhibition's private portrait of Bill, a portrait perhaps more singular and less stressful. Surely it was Bill Rubin who had all the fun handling and hanging the paintings, while it was William Rubin who had to do all the work assembling paintings from all over the world and producing a beautiful, on-time catalogue. Naturally, I was drawn, magnet-like, to Bill, but I was amazed, always amazed by William. I loved art and could easily share that love with Bill. On the other hand, for better or worse, I did live in the art world with William. What William managed and manipulated with ease--this overgrown and convoluted art world--I could barely manage to navigate. As you might expect, in the end I gave up trying to keep up with William and simply spent all of my time with Bill, having fun, loving art.


It's too bad it couldn't end up that way, Bill and Frank having fun, loving art. William would just never let it be. "Yes," he would say, "maybe that did happen, but that doesn't explain why or how it happened." While I'm not sure why or how it happened, or how I came to share part of all that art and fun and love bound up in a life truly lived, I am sure where it happened. It happened in the realm of the pictorial--the land where picture and painting rule. This is the realm that William was determined to build for others, for us, really, a world of engaging beauty that Bill believed in with his whole heart and soul.

So together William and Bill fused the facets of our world, the art world, the studios, the galleries, the collections, and the institutions, into a manageable, if not meaningful, whole, into a pictorial realm that is touched with grace--what might be called a visual paradise approachable by and available to all.


The Discursive Legacy


THERE SEEMS TO BE an absolute divide between academics and curators, the former engaging with language, the latter with objects. William Rubin would thus have seemed an unlikely candidate for the post of chief curator of painting and sculpture when the Museum of Modern Art was hiring for the position in 1966. But Rubin, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College at the time, had a masterly way with objects. His personal collection already boasted several masterpieces of Abstract Expressionism, including works by Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Ad Reinhardt, as well as the sculpture many consider David Smith's finest work: Australia, 1951. Constituting as his collection did an absolute qualification for the MOMA position, Rubin was happy when Vogue commissioned an article on it, with a text written by Annette Michelson.


A superb teacher, Rubin remained independent of aesthetic ideologies, even the convincing analyses developed by Clement Greenberg. Accordingly, his collection included an important Lichtenstein, and his first ambitious MOMA exhibition, in 1968, was "Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage," which focused on aesthetic phenomena despised by Greenberg. Rubin's pedagogical background led as well to his genuine respect for and interest in the ideas of a younger group of scholars, of the generation of his former students.

Rubin's pursuit of this led to his decision to commission texts from some of these former students for the catalogue for his massive and ambitious "'Primitivism' in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern" (1984), cocurated with Kirk Varnedoe. I had the honor of engaging with the work of Giacometti, a project that changed my intellectual life. Another example of Rubin's determination that curatorial concerns should have discursive implications, both permitting and encouraging younger critics to involve themselves directly with the materials of actual exhibitions, was the symposium he constructed at the beginning of his 1989 "Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism" show, for which some of the specially invited scholars were scheduled to present papers; the proceedings of the symposium were published as the second volume of the ambitious catalogue. This commitment to discourse, which Rubin understood as the critical and intellectual matrix within which to develop a real understanding of historical and aesthetic phenomena, distinguished him from all his peers at MOMA.

As the Vogue article anticipated, Rubin's additions to MOMA's collections were masterful. His friendship with Picasso allowed him to persuade the artist to part with one of his fetish objects, the 1912-14 Guitar, which had opened the way to his whole aesthetic project of collage and thus constituted a keystone in the history of modernism. The full roster of Rubin's acquisitions is too long to itemize here, but one of his major purchases was Joan Miro's Birth of the World, 1925, the "dream" painting that represents the breakthrough to the artist's most important work.

Those scholars who had the honor of working with Rubin recognized his intellectual energy and his quest for truth, no matter how challenging and unconventional. It is this commitment to discourse that is part of his extraordinary legacy.


Complementary Angles


IN UNEXPECTED WAYS, Bill Rubin and I seem to have been twinned for life. He was born in New York City in the summer of 1927 (a Leo only eighteen days my junior), and each of us at one point considered a career in music or musicology before ending up doing graduate work in art history. He went uptown to Columbia, and I went downtown to NYU. I got my Ph.D. in 1956; he got his in 1959. And during those years, when we first met and when most art historians, either out of ignorance or aversion, shied away from contemporary art, we both espoused not only Abstract Expressionism but also the work of a new artist of our generation, Jasper Johns. And then came Frank Stella, whom we both wrote about in the late '60s. But there was still another bond: The two of us were lifelong slaves to Picasso. I, however, never tried to meet our master, fearing that I might tremble and expire at the very sight of this Olympian genius, whereas Bill, notoriously fearless, was able to extract not only documentary information from him but also a masterpiece of Cubist sculpture, the 1912-14 Guitar, for the Museum of Modern Art. I remember feeling honored and privileged when, in the summer of 1971, Bill invited me to his house on the Cote d'Azur for a brief working vacation of rigorous discipline, during which I was to read and, if I had enough pluck, perhaps even correct or challenge the magisterial manuscript he was preparing as the catalogue of MOMA's Picasso collection. Twenty-five years later, I felt no less honored when he asked me to contribute an essay to the catalogue for his landmark show, "Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation" (1996). We were even part-time academic colleagues. Throughout his tenure at MOMA, Bill was an adjunct professor at NYU's Institute of Fine Arts, where we often taught the same students and ended up on the same oral-examination committees.

But in fact we almost always saw things differently. In a way, that was also the nature of art historians of our generation, which emerged

under the illuminating lights and disturbing shadows of Clement Greenberg's unswerving faith in his own system of law and order--opposing "major" and "minor," main roads and byways, high art and kitsch. This was a faith delivered with such papal assurance that, as in a confrontation with the one "true" religion, the only choice could be acceptance or rejection. With a self-confidence matching Greenberg's, Bill presented a famously lucid vision of modern art in his lectures, curatorial work, and copious writings, all of which were based on the most scrupulous scholarship, with no detail left unexamined. His publications, whether on Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907, or on Dada and Surrealism, have uncommon heft and authority, each one a weighty landmark that towers above the competition. With a lapidary precision that continued in the tradition of one of his great mentors, Alfred H. Barr Jr., he pruned prose and history to their essentials. I confess that I chose the complementary path, preferring mess to order, the tentative to the certain, promiscuous taste to timeless purity. But Bill, however much he might have disagreed with my wayward views, always tried to respect my insistence on blurring the boundaries that seemed so inviolable to him. Once, in the spirit of academic freedom, he invited me to present some of my eccentric ideas at his graduate seminar. When I showed Joaquin Sorolla together with Picasso, he greeted the comparisons with affectionate discomfort, a mixture of indulgent tolerance and high-minded shock, although later, at MOMA, his patience ran out when I crossed swords with him at a meeting by waxing enthusiastic over Eric Fischl, whose illustrational style and narrative intrigues were for him beyond the pale.



The truth is that we disagreed about many, many things, ranging from the relative importance of an emerging artist to the proper approach to the history of twentieth-century art. But the truth also is that, just as I suspect he was envious of my refusal to believe in fixed values, I know I was often envious of his ability to cut through the infinite confusions of aesthetics and history with a laser-beam clarity that dispelled any fog of doubt.


Vote of Confidence


WE HAVE ALL HEARD the often-told anecdote of how Bill Rubin was able to secure from Picasso the gift of the artist's 1912-14 sheet-metal Guitar for the Museum of Modern Art in 1971. In his memoir, Rubin describes the work as "the first of a new race of constructed--as opposed to carved or modeled--sculptures" and as "an object more radical and influential in the history of sculpture than was Les Demoiselles d'Avignon in the history of painting." As a sculptor, you gotta like this guy.

When I think of Picasso, I think of him as a relative of sorts, as someone who is part of my mental family. I don't want to imply that he was a mere Freudian figure when he was alive; rather, he was another artist with whom I had an on-and-off imaginary dialogue over the years. What does this self-conscious admission have to do with Bill Rubin? He was the associative link. I could not think of Bill Rubin independently of his relationship to Picasso, and when he invited me in 1984 to pull together a retrospective for the Modern, this association added more weight to the challenge.

And now I see him smiling out of his New York Times obituary in a photo taken in 1996, during the installation of his Picasso portraiture show. Behind him are two great Picasso paintings: Girl Before a Mirror and The Mirror, both 1932. He looks the same as he did about ten years earlier when I sat across from him discussing my forthcoming exhibition at MOMA--the same light in his eye, the same Cheshire grin, the same aloof self-confidence. Well, not exactly the same--as he leaned toward me, he conveyed an utter seriousness: "Richard, since I have been curator we have done twelve one-person shows of living artists, and I wanted each and every one of them to count, and they have, with few exceptions. I want you to give this exhibition your best effort." It was all said with good intentions in a matter-of-fact manner, but with a tinge of Vince Lombardi before the big game. I liked him for saying it. It reminded me of my jock days. I understood that he was going to hold me accountable.

He had a few other issues that he wanted to clear up in this meeting. We agreed that Rosalind Krauss would curate the exhibition and write the main text for the catalogue. He was, however, suspicious of the political ideology of Douglas Crimp, whom I had chosen to write the second essay. I told him that Douglas was reasonable and that I wanted his viewpoint to remain in the catalogue. We reached a compromise. He was insistent, however, upon not having a photograph of Tilted Arc, 1981, on the cover of the catalogue. That disagreement persisted until after he spoke at the hearing on Tilted Arc. When he came to testify, he introduced himself as "William Rubin, the director of the department of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art." He then said, "Richard Serra will shortly have a large retrospective exhibition of his work at the Museum of Modern Art." He requested a moratorium on the removal of my sculpture from Federal Plaza, stating that "even posing this question now seems to me inappropriate and unethical." As we know now, the Republican government couldn't have cared less about the cultural institution Bill Rubin represented or about what he and many others said on my behalf. For me, his appearance at the hearing was not only a much-appreciated gesture of support; it also helped me get back into my work. The MOMA exhibition coming right after the Tilted Arc fiasco brought me psychologically past a very difficult moment of my life, and it is in this context that I remember Bill Rubin. The Tilted Arc affair made it very difficult to raise money for my exhibition. Corporations did not want to be associated with my angry battle against the government. Bill Rubin found the means. He allowed the show to happen. I will always be grateful to him for having given me the benefit of the doubt.




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