Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
William Rubin at a 1996 Picasso exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.
William Rubin, 78, Curator Who Transformed MoMA, Dies
By ROBERTA SMITH
Published: January 24, 2006
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.
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."
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