A Curator’s Quest: Building the Museum of Modern Art’s Painting and Sculpture Collection, 1967−1988

William Rubin
A Curator’s Quest: Building the Museum of Modern Art’s
Painting and Sculpture Collection, 1967−1988

(Overlook Press, 2012)

William Rubin, who served the Museum of Modern Art from the 1960s through the 1980s as a curator and later as the director of the painting and sculpture department, spent a considerable amount of effort during the first years of his tenure closing a gap in the collection by acquiring some of Matisse’s Fauve works. In A Curator’s Quest, he recounts how in 1970 he was able to entice David Rockefeller to purchase, at auction, the large painting “Interior with a Young Girl (Girl Reading)”(1905 − 06) and promise it to the museum as a gift. It was the girl in that painting, Matisse’s daughter, Marguerite, who eventually helped Rubin obtain the artist’s epic mural “The Swimming Pool” (1952)—now a cornerstone of the collection.

The acquisition of this emblematic cutout in blue and white, which once decorated Matisse’s dining room in his Hotel Regina suite, took some lengthy negotiating and a heated exchange with a perturbed French minister of culture who was adamant the piece shouldn’t leave France. It took five years of wrangling before “The Swimming Pool”officially entered the collection, and 20 years before “Girl Reading” did.

I’ll admit to thinking that curating is a bit like riding the L train: I don’t much notice when it is working, but you can bet I’ll have something to say when it isn’t. I’m happy when the curating goes subtly on by, when it doesn’t distract or confuse.  I fear this leads me to forget why the role of curator is an important one. It’s they who assemble the narrative, mediating how an artwork reaches its audience.

In an institution like MoMA, curators have worked hard to amass a collection where there are no gaps. Where everything is situated in correct historical context to one another and the viewer is instructed, educated, and enlightened almost without realizing, all while taking in some of the world’s masterpieces. I don’t think I’d fully appreciated before how much dedication this work takes, or the fact that it’s essentially done for me, so that I can just take a trip to 53rd Street and find everything there, at my fingertips, so to speak. A Curator’s Quest offers a glimpse into the politics behind the acquisitions process, and is a somewhat unusual book: Composed around Rubin’s personal accounts, it honors not the artwork therein, but rather the person who plays that essential role between the work and viewer.

Rubin passed away in 2006, and this volume was assembled into its current state by his wife, Phyllis Hattis. The artworks that he obtained for the collection are all accompanied by their own brilliant color plate, which in all account for most of the 600-plus pages. They work in tandem with the text, complimenting Rubin’s back stories, and breaking up what could become a repetitious chronicle of acquisitions. The images cement why it was important that some of these purchases were so hard fought for; why certain pieces had to be relinquished in favor of others, like a Cezanne “L’Estaque” sold in order to purchase one of Picasso’s powerful grisailles, “The Charnel House” (1944 – 45); and why Rubin had to be prepared to take up arguments, hold people to their promises, and even in one instance help pay off art thieves.

If the text at times gets a little bogged down in names (funders, collectors, trustees) it is because of the sense that Rubin did not intend this to be a book dedicated to his accomplishments, though through its posthumous publication that is perhaps what it has become. Rather, this should pay due credit to all those that helped him build the assortment of masterpieces assembled throughout his term. The benefactors, the many MoMA employees, the artists themselves, and even the venerated Barrs, Rubins, Varnedoes, and d’Harnoncourts did not make the MoMA what it is on their own.

It takes an enormous amount of devoted people to build an institution, with all the weight and associated cultural inscriptions that that word suggests, and it takes time—takes lifetimes. What’s clear is that Rubin dedicated his to MoMA, and to its patrons. Without him we may not have Picasso’s formative Cubist construction “Guitar” (1914), or Pollock’s broody gold and gray “One, Number 31, 1950,” hanging in galleries adjacent to Newman’s red-on-red stripe of “Onement III” (1949), Miro’s “The Birth of the World” (1925), or Stella’s “Empress of India”(1965). As Stella remarks, “We owe a lot to his amazing curatorial acumen and, perhaps even more, to his deep love of art that shines every day through the Museum of Modern Art’s collection of masterpieces.” It’s in his writing, too.

Contributor

Juliet Helmke

is an Australian-raised, Brooklyn-based writer. With a background in art theory and sculpture, she is a recent graduate of the Art Criticism and Writing Program at the School of Visual Arts.

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