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. …


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