Kynaston McShine (1935–2018)

Kynaston McShine. Photo: Marc Ohrem-Leclef / @marcleclef.

KYNASTON COULD BE A TENDER MAN of infinite jest or a fierce and intimidating personality, depending on the circumstances and the parties involved. He was ninety percent angel, ten percent devil.

Well born in the West Indies, in Trinidad, Kynaston spoke with a distinct, posh British accent, and had the curious and occasional habit of using the royal “we.” He relished in the play of pomp and ceremony, addressing me, for example, with drawling emphasis on the first syllable of my surname: “Mister Awwwhl-den.” Sphinxlike and practiced in the arts of discretion, Kynaston cultivated airs of mystery that served his long run of diplomatic skirmishes over the direction of modern art, beginning in 1959 when he first landed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

It is probably not surprising that the curator behind 1970’s “Information” show, one of the signal exhibitions of the last fifty years, was a passionate bibliophile who physically surrounded himself with battalions of printed materials. Towering stacks of art monographs, artist’s books, poetry volumes, magazines, and a variety of newspapers created a protective sanctuary and magic circle around him at his office and also in his home. A fastidious custodian of exhibition announcements, press releases, posters, and other types of art documentation, Kynaston taught me to maintain his extensive files on contemporary artists, where neglected secrets of their art were also to be found. Here I discovered the power of telling stories through an archive.

When I arrived at MoMA in the late 1980s as his assistant (to work in my first job ever), just about the first thing Kynaston had me do was read Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems (1964). I mention this because it is both a cipher for the importance that poetry played in Kynaston’s vision of art at the Modern, but also an index of his personal and institutional memory of O’Hara, the poet-curator who travelled effortlessly between poetry and art and who had also worked at the museum until his early and tragic death.

Kynaston’s poetic outlook, however, did not leave him with eyes wide shut toward institutional politics. A reminder of this, perhaps, was an astonishing poster hanging just outside of Kynaston’s office, where I sat. It was the two-by-three-foot anti–Vietnam War poster produced by the Art Workers' Coalition in 1969, depicting the My Lai Massacre (a photo of slain bodies accompanies the then-revelatory text: “Q. And babies? / A. And babies”). It was, and still is, hard to look at. It was not Kynaston’s way to directly explain why it hung there, but I later read that MoMA, which had originally promised to fund and to circulate the poster, had subsequently withdrawn its support after the museum’s trustees, including Nelson Rockefeller and William S. Paley, caught wind of it. Kynaston included it nevertheless in his “Information” show shortly afterward. Hanging outside of his office years later, it remained as memorial evidence of Kynaston’s independence from the museum’s trustees and of his fealty to artists and to the inviolability of uncomfortable truths. With Truth and the Enlightenment under siege again today, remembering Kynaston’s fierce example feels urgent.

Todd Alden is the founder and director of Alden Projects.