William Rubin's made the catalogue for the 1984
in 20th Century Art at the Museum of Art and demonstrated
affinities between African Art and modern artists.
By ROBERTA SMITH
January 24, 2006
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Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
William Rubin at a 1996 Picasso exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.
William Rubin, an art historian and curator who, as director of the Museum of
Modern Art's prestigious department of painting and sculpture, played a crucial
role in defining the museum's character, collections and exhibitions in the
1970's and 80's, died on Sunday at his weekend home in Pound Ridge, N.Y., the
museum said. He was 78 and lived in Manhattan.
He had been in declining health for several years, said his wife, Phyllis Hattis.
An imposing man with a barrel chest, roughly chiseled features and a booming voice, Mr. Rubin was tenacious as both a scholar and a personality, and at the height of his power more or less spoke for the Modern. Above all, he played a central role in championing the historical narrative of modernism that MoMA came to be identified with and is now seeking to move beyond.
He brought to his mission an art historian's training and experience as a private collector of Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist art, which he installed and reinstalled in a loft he lived in decades ago on lower Broadway.
John Elderfield, the current chief curator of the department of painting and sculpture, said that Mr. Rubin built on the legacy of Alfred H. Barr Jr., the museum's first director, who famously diagrammed the evolution of modern art starting with Neo-Impressionism.
But Mr. Rubin "was the one who really brought to it the historical positivistic sense of order, and the notion of the great unrolling of the modern movement," Mr. Elderfield said.
His legacy is a complex one. Mr. Rubin might have contributed almost as much as Barr to building the Modern's unparalleled collection of early modernist works. He was known for his indefatigable energy in wooing collectors and negotiating with dealers once he had zeroed in on art that he felt the Modern should own. His acquisitions for the museum include emblematic works like Picasso's "Charnel House" (1944-45), Miró's Surrealist "Birth of the World" (1925) and two 1950's cutouts by Matisse, "Memory of Oceania" and "The Swimming Pool."
He gave the museum "Australia," a seminal 1951 sculpture by David Smith from his own collection. But he was probably proudest of landing Picasso's "Guitar," a groundbreaking metal-construction sculpture from 1912-13 that the artist handed over to him on a sunny winter day in the south of France. (Mr. Rubin had offered to trade a small Cézanne painting in MoMA's collection for it, but Picasso donated the sculpture instead.)
He also greatly expanded the museum's holdings in Abstract Expressionism, an area that Barr was sometimes thought to have neglected, with major works like Pollock's "One: Number 31, 1950" and Barnett Newman's 1950-51 "Vir Heroicus Sublimis," and opened it up to Color Field painting and the work of contemporary artists like Anthony Caro and Frank Stella.
Mr. Rubin continued the museum's practice of pruning weak or redundant works from its collection - by dead artists only - to help finance new acquisitions. In a move that raised some eyebrows in the art world, he instituted the practice of taking sealed bids from dealers when selling a work, which worked to the museum's advantage.
And he organized many influential exhibitions, starting with "Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage," in 1968, and including shows of late Cézanne, two surveys of Mr. Stella's work and a parade of Picasso shows.
Among these were an enormous 1980 Picasso retrospective that filled the entire museum; "Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism" of 1989, with its vivid sense of two competitive innovators working side by side; and, eight years after Mr. Rubin's retirement in 1988, an exhibition of Picasso's portraits that was criticized by some art historians for being organized by the artist's successive relationships with women.
Some critics faulted Mr. Rubin's exhibitions and research for only rarely venturing beyond the parameters established by Barr, suggesting that this had a chilling effect on his department's involvement with new art and often made the museum seem obsessed with its own history. His painting and sculpture installations were generally formalist and chronological, with an emphasis on masterpieces, great artists and the French.
Yet Mr. Rubin's painstakingly worked-out presentations, especially those prepared after the Modern's 1984 expansion, told its version of modernism with a clarity and level of detail that many curators still consider unmatched.
He emerged in an age when the heads of the museum's departments ruled their individual fiefs like titans, but his fief was the biggest, and so, perhaps, was his ego. According to a 1985 New Yorker profile by Calvin Tomkins, he once complained to John Hightower, then the museum's director: "I'm sick of the prima donnas in this place. I'm a prima donna, but I deserve to be one." He sounded much like the orchestra conductor he had once hoped to be.
William Stanley Rubin was born in Brooklyn on Aug. 11, 1927, the eldest of three sons of Mack and Beatrice Rubin. His father, the son of immigrants, was a textile merchant who began with a pushcart and ended up owning several factories, and eventually moved his family to Riverdale in the Bronx. Mr. Rubin and his brothers attended the Fieldston School, each of them serving as captain of the football team in his senior year.
While at Fieldston, Mr. Rubin became close with one of his teachers, Victor D'Amico, who was the director of education at the Museum of Modern Art. He began spending much of his free time at the museum working on special projects with Mr. D'Amico.
He entered Columbia University and, after interrupting his studies to serve in the American occupation forces in Europe, earned a bachelor's degree in Italian language and literature. He studied musicology at the University of Paris for a year with the thought of becoming a conductor. At its end, he set aside that ambition and returned to Columbia for graduate work in history. A course in medieval art taught by Meyer Schapiro, a popular teacher whose other big area of expertise was the New York School, inspired him to shift to art history.
During the 1950's and 60's, Mr. Rubin taught art history at Sarah Lawrence and City University of New York, worked as an editor for Art International and became a busy collector of postwar art. He bought works by many of the Abstract Expressionist painters and by younger artists like Jasper Johns and Mr. Stella, but he later said that once he began working on MoMA's collection he lost interest in collecting for himself. At the time of his death, he was completing a book on the works he acquired for the museum.
Mr. Rubin, whose first three marriages ended in divorce, is survived by his wife and their daughter Beata; and his brothers, Richard of Purchase, N.Y., and Lawrence of Milan.
Mr. Rubin became friendly with Alfred Barr in the late 1950's and 60's, frequently inviting the curator to lecture his classes at Sarah Lawrence, and taking his students on field trips to the Modern. In 1957, Barr invited Mr. Rubin to organize a small exhibition of the work of André Masson at the Modern; in the mid-1960's, he asked him to oversee the Modern's big Dada and Surrealism survey in 1968.
Mr. Rubin joined the museum's painting and sculpture staff as curator in 1967 and immediately made an impact by persuading the art dealer Sidney Janis and his wife, Harriet, to donate their collection, with its five Mondrians, to the Modern. He was named chief curator of painting and sculpture in 1969, and director of the department in 1973.
In the 1980's, the aura of infallibility that had surrounded Mr. Rubin began to dissipate. He came to feel that the museum's inattention to new art was a "failing," as he told The New York Times in 1985, and began a search for a younger curator more in touch with the times.
Still, some of the most vociferous criticism was drawn by a 1984 exhibition - "Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern," organized with J. Kirk Varnedoe, the art historian whom he selected as his successor. (Mr. Varnedoe died in 2003.) Some art critics complained that this show, pairing works by modern masters with examples of the African and Oceanic art that had influenced them, took a purely formalist approach that stripped the non-Western works of their original contexts, meanings and purposes. A sharply critical review in Artforum set off an exchange between Mr. Rubin and its author, Thomas McEvilley, that stretched into two issues.
As Mr. Rubin explained later to Mr. Tomkins: "The notion that you can look at a work of art as pure form strikes me as idiocy. If the work comes at you, it comes with everything it's got, all at once."