PRINT October 1974

Talking With William Rubin: “The Museum Concept Is Not Infinitely Expandable”

ON APRIL 9, 1974, AND subsequently, two editors—Lawrence Alloway and John Coplans—interviewed William Rubin, Director of Painting and Sculpture at The Museum of Modern Art. Questions posed by the editors are in italics, and the answers are in roman type. Mr. Rubin wishes it pointed out that his opinions do not necessarily constitute official policies of the Museum. As an agreed condition of the interview, this abbreviated version has been approved by Mr. Rubin. A second interview with Mr. Rubin on the Museum’s collection will be published in a subsequent issue.

The Modern’s was a pioneer program originally, and now, of course, museums all over the country have programs based on a somewhat similar style.

MoMA did, indeed, establish the museological standards in the modern field with its exhibitions—their installations and catalogues—its registration techniques, library and, of course, on the level of scholarly responsibility Alfred Barr1 set for the collection. One would hope, however, that whatever way other museums may have been influenced by all this, they would form a style proper to their own best possibilities. What this museum has always to be concerned about is not hooking itself on its own past as a style for the future, or presuming that it has to do certain things—you know, just because it’s MoMA.

An ongoing aspect of our self-definition has partly to do with the degree to which we think of ourselves primarily as a New York museum (even though our shows go elsewhere, and we may be looked to elsewhere and so forth), and the degree to which our program is influenced by the broadening activities of other New York museums. Insofar as we are a Kunsthalle (that is, an exhibition hall), as opposed to a collection museum, we have to think of ourselves as a Kunsthalle in New York City. The Museum of Modern Art was once, perhaps, the only museum in the world with a major loan exhibition program of modern art, but there are now a number of such museums in the city of New York alone. Also, remember that 15–20 years ago, there were maybe one-tenth, one-twentieth the number of serious galleries in New York that there are now, and most of these now functioning are showing contemporary work. The Whitney is showing largely contemporary work; the Guggenheim shows a great deal; even the Metropolitan has gotten into this, and the New York Cultural Center.

Why do you think that, despite the increasing participation of museums in exhibiting contemporary art, there is a slip in confidence in the museums in New York and, certainly, in the MoMA?

Slipping confidence from whose point of view, and in what sense—in the sense of what they show, or . . .?

Slipping confidence to the extent that they are in touch with the current art scene. Isn’t that what you’ve been dealing with?

Presumably you mean the confidence of a particular group of artists and/or critics. The various individuals and groups that make up the scene—artists, critics, collectors, dealers, etc.—cover a wide range of interests and views, often contradictory. What pleases some usually displeases others. Curators should look at art and read criticism, but then they should do what they think best, not what will please this or that individual or interest group.

Moreover, for confidence to have “slipped,” as you claim, it had to be there in the first place. You have to compare this museum’s relationship to the scene—or that of any other museum—to what it ever was. A lot of people, I think, are under a vast illusion about MoMA’s relationship to the avant-garde at any time in its history. It has been pointed out more than once that this museum began its history with a show that was 40 years removed from its own time period, and that even such epochal exhibitions as the Cubist (1936)2 and Surrealist (1937)3 shows were done at some remove from the origins of the respective movements (though Surrealism was still unfolding when the exhibition took place). They were basically art-historical shows. Now, they were done at a time when doing them was a much more pioneering thing in this country than it would be now. Nevertheless, there was, for the knowledgeable curator, a kind of perspective on the material. The curator who knew about Surrealism or Cubism and did a show 10 or 25 years after those movements began had an available critical framework even though the shows were done in New York City where the public was naive about those movements.

The question one has to ask is: What is the relationship of this museum, or any other museum, to the outer edge of the avant-garde at any given moment? Now, as a friend of many Abstract-Expressionist painters, I can tell you that—contrary to the great esteem in which you think the Museum was held—the permanent refrain amongst them was that the MoMA didn’t understand them, that they were treated as second-stringers, and so forth. They naturally made no allowance—and rightly so—for the critical roasting MoMA got in most quarters whenever it showed avant-garde work. (Things were somewhat different in that regard in those days.) The virulence of the artists’ criticism depended, of course, on the person to whom you were speaking. They might point to the fact that, though many of the artists appeared in one of Dorothy Miller’s “American” shows," there was no big Abstract-Expressionism show organized at MoMA during the vital period of the movement. The first group show of this movement was organized for Europe in the late ’50s;5 that it was shown in New York when the tour was over was almost an afterthought. Partly because of the haste with which the exhibition had to be organized, it was not a first-rate selection; Barney Newman almost didn’t make it, Hans Hofmann was left out, and there were a few surprising inclusions.

A lot of young people make assumptions about the Museum and the artists’ community out of lack of knowledge. There was never any extended period of time when MoMA—or, for all I know, any other museum—was in harmony with all aspects of the avant-garde. I don’t know that such a thing is possible on a continuing basis, and it may not necessarily be desirable. My own conception of what a museum should be is very much like that of Jim Soby6—and I think it was Alfred Barr’s as well—which was that the Museum should move at a reasonable distance behind the artists, not transcending the scene, not trying to make too rapid assumptions, not taste-making, not worrying about one-upmanship, but rather putting things together as their contours begin to clarify. Museums can just as easily be too early as too late. MoMA’s “Responsive Eye,” for example, tended to obscure rather than clarify the issues by bringing together a lot of work which a year or two later was clearly understood to be unrelated—Victor Vasarely, Bridget Riley, Wolfgang Fangor, Ken Noland, Gunter Uecker, and Ad Reinhardt all in the same bag.7 It is easy to say that this museum is less involved with contemporary art now, or that its choices are less good, than they were in the ’40s, ’50s or ’60s, but the record doesn’t support that. People may say it, but they are not people who were around in those years. Had they been around and talking with Rothko or Newman or Reinhardt or, for that matter, talking with most of the artists who came of age in the late ’50s or early ’60s, they would have found no more and possibly less approbation for MoMA’s relation to new art than you find today when the scene is much larger and more diverse.

However, there are some interesting aspects; for example, Dorothy Miller was strictly involved with art here in America. There was an effort to continuously expose new work.

Not necessarily all new. Some who were shown in Dorothy’s “X” American shows had been around for decades. Moreover, there were far fewer galleries then.

Stella was seen early in one of Dorothy’s shows.8

Yes, but those shows were mixed bags, and that made them more interesting, I think. Now we continue to do shows of new art, quite apart from the ongoing “Projects” series.9 For example, the show coming up this fall that has no title as yet. It has appeared on our program for three years as an “open slot” for new art. Its purpose is to give a curator—in this case, Jenny Licht—a chance to latch on to what is most interesting in work that hasn’t yet been shown in any depth on the museum level in the U.S. . . .

Back again to discussing the MoMA in relation to its internal history. I quite agree with you that its record on Abstract Expressionism was very bad until recently. One of the problems facing a museum of modern art is that you are dealing with a perpetual present. With Abstract Expressionism, you have a 25-year-old past. Now you have a whatever-it-is-year-old past, because you’re dealing with current art. When do you decide there’s a cut-off point? Do you go on with perpetual intake? When does “modern” art begin and end?

When I raised the question of MoMA’s relation to Abstract Expressionism—or, for that matter, to the abstract painting of the ’50s—it was not because I thought its record was “bad.” The collection that Alfred Barr built of Abstract Expressionism was the best in the world; MoMA was the first museum to buy works by Pollock and many others of his generation, and usually bought them within a year of when they were painted. And remember that to show avant-garde work a quarter of a century ago was, as regards public reaction, far riskier than now. To be sure, when I came to MoMA, I felt there were a number of key works of that period that I wanted to get, that were missing and needed. But my remarks were directed toward illustrating the inevitable difficulties of a museum in regard to satisfying the avant-garde community. . . . As I’ve said, my own conception of a museum is something which is one step removed, with a filtering process that goes on between. That one step—which involves a perspective other than that of an avant-garde gallery—is essential to its definition.

As for your question “when does modern art begin and end”: I’m committed to the notion that what I would call modern art begins in the 19th century. And I’m merely repeating here a widely held historical view. Whether you want to say it begins with Manet and the Impressionists, which is where I would locate it, or with Cézanne and Post-Impressionism, as Alfred Barr postulated for the purposes of the collection, certainly its roots are not in this century. This museum was never able to build up a very big collection of Impressionism or Post-Impressionism and, in a sense, it wasn’t necessary because the Metropolitan has a big and beautiful collection in that area. We have almost enough good examples—especially of Cézanne—to serve as an introduction. However, starting with the art of the early 20th century, I think MoMA has built a great collection. I see what has happened from the turn of the century until recently as, in part, an unfolding and an extrapolation of ideas that are implicit if not explicit in later 19th-century modernism.

Perhaps looking back 10, 15, 30 years from now, it will appear that this modernist tradition really did come to an end within the last few years, as some critics suggest. If so, historians a century from now—whatever name they will give the period we now call modern—will see it beginning shortly after the middle of the 19th century and ending in the 1960s. I’m not ruling this out; it may be the case, though I don’t think so. Perhaps the dividing line will be seen as between those works which essentially continue an easel painting concept that grew up associated with bourgeois, democratic life and was involved with the development of private collections as well as the museum concept—between this and, let us say, Earthworks, Conceptual works and related endeavors, which want another environment (or should want it) and, perhaps, another public.

One of the things I find surprising, if understandable, is how often artists who create things which really don’t want a museum environment—indeed, are alien to it—nevertheless want them exhibited at a museum. And we do exhibit them. But I never have the feeling that this is the most comfortable environment for them. And, of course, it’s not a feasible environment for some of them. We have, for example, just recently bought Robert Smithson’s film of the Spiral Jetty, because we want to have some record of it and feel that this is a way in which the Museum can participate, in which the people in the Museum can see this work. But it is a far cry, I’m sure, from experiencing the real thing.

Still, there is a general feeling that the MoMA has now distanced itself from what is being made in the art world.

That depends upon one’s particular perspective. You see, you’re judging it on the basis of the feelings of artists who represent, let us say, a particular aspect of today’s avant-garde with which you feel the deepest sympathies. And you feel that a distance exists between them and the Museum. But you’re not dealing with contemporary art-making as a whole, nor are you comparing the situation to what existed previously. For you to convince me that the Museum has distanced itself, you would have to convince me that the Museum was closer to previous generations—and I simply know this not to have been the case.

To be sure, it was not close to Abstract Expressionism.

And it was not close to color field painting or Pop art. But part of what you may take to be this “distance,” I think, is not related simply to this museum; I think there is an inevitable distance between much post-Minimal art, Earthworks, Conceptual art, and all museums.

Minimal art too?

To a much more limited extent. I would say that some Minimal art is less than comfortable in museums, though other pieces look very good. However, its implications and its nature—insofar as Minimal art makes the context, the very structure of the space, part of the work, as Bob Morris points out—seem to point in another direction. Most Earthworks are obviously beyond museums; Conceptual works don’t need them.

I agree with you about Earthworks and Conceptual art, but I don’t think that a symmetrical Robert Morris, or a Carl Andre on the floor, belong in this category.

No argument there. Could we agree that Minimal art is the turning point?

I think the change may not be stylistic, Bill. The change might be social.

I’m not thinking of it as a stylistic change; when I say that a work doesn’t want a museum, I’m not referring only, or even primarily, to style.

I think the issue may be that there’s something inherent in the nature of the kind of objects that Minimal artists make that is the problem. I think it is the fact that some of the Minimal artists have a different view of the artist in society. What is troublesome to a museum might be the fact that they no longer have quite the high regard for a museum that the generation before had. The difficulty might be in Carl Andre’s attitude, or Robert Morris’ attitude.

That’s not the difficulty for me. If it has any effect on me, it is because it is somehow mysteriously in the work itself—in the implications of the object, not because Bob Morris thinks this or writes that.

Suppose we say, for example, that the manner in which the MoMA’s been designed and structured is not at all sympathetic to sculpture in the first place. That’s very clear going through the collections, the exhibitions, the garden and so on—that one doesn’t gain as great a view of sculpture as one does of painting; the painting collection in many respects is infinitely superior, maybe because of the nature of painting itself. That’s not your fault; that’s the fault of a historical past, the design of the building. Supposing that really the issue in hand is the manner in which the sculptors who emerged in the sixties have a kind of determination for certain issues about the nature of sculpture that forces certain issues about museology—in the esthetic sense; let’s take it at that level, rather than at a social one. And we’ll concur with you that what you’re interested in as a historian is what the work of art represents itself, regardless of iconography. It does seem to me that a modern museum being inhospitable, owing to the nature of its structure, to radical work that’s emerging is a kind of sad thing.

Well, let me ask you this: what museum structure is hospitable to this? How far can you stretch your concept of a museum, and would a building right for a large Morris or Andre necessarily be right for something else? After all, Minimal sculpture is but a small fraction of modern sculpture as a whole. Let me pose the question in still another way. Why should one presume that a museum structure is the right or best environment for all such objects? I think that the questions posed by certain Minimal and many post-Minimal works transcend the museum question. If the dialogue were taking place between such works and museums, it would be a trivial dialogue; it is, I hope, really taking place between the works and the whole of our social and environmental fabric. The basic question, I think, might be stated: Is any museum—except perhaps one designed by the sculptor himself (and I don’t mean that facetiously)—the best environment for large Minimal works? And, given museums’ limitations, should the artist be primarily interested in a dialogue with museums in this regard?

Still, the only manner in which the artist can make art which goes to the people, and for a wide audience to see it, is through museums.

That’s not true at all. And it certainly wasn’t true for a good many centuries of the history of art. There are an increasing number of works of art in public areas other than museums. One hopes that this trend will continue. . . . Painting raises a very different question than do Earthworks, Minimal sculpture or Conceptual art. To the extent that it remains within the tradition of modern easel painting, it still finds the museum a hospitable environment, although the ideal place—even for a big Pollock—is in a private home. I think that’s what most modern painting, given its character, really wants. To me, museums are essentially compromises. They are neither like a really public place, nor are they private—like an apartment. Their weakness is that they are necessarily homogenized—emptied of all connotations other than art. And that is, finally, an artificial situation.

But Bill, this happens simply in the name of democracy. Without museums, very few people would have access to these works of art.

I’m not saying it isn’t a necessary compromise; I’m just saying it’s a compromise, and I think we should always see it as such. But it is more of a compromise for some Minimal art, and for Earthworks and Happenings. Museums never were, and I think never will be, the absolutely right environment for works of art. I don’t think works of art are at their most interesting when separated from the whole fabric of life. It makes it possible for more of the public to see them, it’s convenient, it’s good for art history,—especially as it preserves them—but it is a compromise.

Museology, as we understand it today, is comparatively modern. I’m talking about the general idea of allowing the people to cultivate themselves through access to great works of art. Surely our concept of museology itself can be expected to change over time, and be more responsive to changing needs. The question is, are trustees equipped to respond to these necessary changes, and will they generate funds for this purpose perhaps they’re still immerses in a 19th-century museum concept.

I don’t think for a minute that the problem of funding lies there. I agree that the museum should be an evolving concept, but this does not mean that it is infinitely elastic, or that it is written somewhere that every kind of work of art or antiart must fit into museums. You can’t fit the great cathedrals and the great Byzantine mosaic cycles and all sorts of other forms of past art into museums, and when you put the great Egyptian colossi into the Louvre, you’re really doing them a disservice. Why can one not accept that forms of art may emerge—or have emerged—which transcend museums, that belong elsewhere?And that it is a kind of sentimentality for the makers or admirers of such art to prefer to have them exhibited in museums. Certainly such objects as huge sculptures—Minimal or otherwise—and Conceptual diagrams or printed statements are often not very comfortable in them. To be sure, MoMA collects them and we exhibit them because it’s part of our reportorial purpose. But I think that if you were installing these materials you would realize that the works themselves are almost crying out for some different kind of ambiance. And this, because their implications really are different. It’s not a matter of style; the challenges they pose are challenges of a different order and involve a change in the modes of communication.

You’re talking about post-’60s art?

Some of it. More particularly Earthworks, Happenings, Conceptual art, video and the like. Now, whether these works, ideas or activities are passing phenomena, or modes that will coexist with older art forms, or whether they are in the process of displacing the kind of painting and sculpture of the modern tradition that unites the 1860s to the 1960s, the coming years will tell. In the meantime, we are continually showing a variety of such endeavors in our “Projects” series (in addition to the occasional larger shows such as Kynaston McShine’s “Information” of 1970 and the contemporary show being done by Jenny Licht this fall). “Projects” has been concerned almost entirely with Conceptual art and various forms of post-Minimalism. In this series, we have dealt with ideas and shown works that to me don’t always seem to want to be made visible in a museum context. As I said, the museum concept is not infinitely expandable. I don’t feel, myself, that it is possible for museums to “evolve” so that they can accommodate Earthworks, to take an extreme example. There’s simply a contradiction here. So what can you do? You get the film of the Earthwork. It’s not much, but it seems to me the most you can do. Perhaps you could define a museum that accommodates Earthworks.

I could very easily. It’s more than possible—it could be possible that Smithson’s Spiral Jetty might be offered to the trustees of the MoMA, despite the fact it exists in Salt Lake City. The land, etc., enters the Museum’s collection, and the Museum administers it like an estate.

If someone offered us the Spiral Jetty, and enough money so that we could maintain it and protect it in perpetuity—because the minute we took it into the collection, we would be responsible for its care—we might do just that. But it still wouldn’t be in The Museum of Modern Art (and couldn’t be seen in relation to its other modern art), and if the money is available to guard it and keep it from eroding, it doesn’t seem to me to matter what the managerial auspices are. Indeed, a local museum or art organization might be better in both social and practical terms. The conception of the museum as a building which houses works of art and organizes exhibitions is simply not adjustable to certain forms of art. And I think that’s part of the character of those forms. Why try to squeeze them into a museum or pull a museum around them? Isn’t it interesting that some things are being done which relate to the public and to their environment in a different way than art objects that fit into what is, at its origin, a 19th-century bourgeois conception? You feel that these works challenge the museums, and the museums are backing away from them. My feeling is they do challenge museums, but that the museums are, in fact, embracing them—to the extent that they are buying and exhibiting a good deal of Minimal, post-Minimal and Conceptual art (in most cases, far more than they bought and exhibited of Abstract Expressionism). If I were one of the artists involved, I would be more concerned about being embraced than rejected.

You’re describing those cases of art which test a museum’s physical limits. But there are things which test it in a different way. It seems to me that black and women artists are not to be seen adequately in MoMA, and I don’t know if there are any plans to treat these groups.

I don’t think there ever have been any plans to treat any ethnic groups of artists as such from the beginning of the history of this museum, and I doubt that there ever will be such plans. I don’t think that this institution wants to look at painters grouped purely ethnically, sexually, or politically. There have been black artists shown in the museum in one-man and group exhibitions, and there are black artists in the collection, but they’ve been shown as artists, not as blacks. Indeed, most black artists don’t want to be shown as “black artists,” and while there are many women artists who do like to be shown as “women artists,” there are certainly many women artists who don’t. We simply have decided, as a matter of policy, to continue MoMA’s tradition of showing these artists as artists and, secondarily, let us say, as Cubists, Expressionists, Minimalists or whatever. But not as black or female—or male. I think that everybody on the curatorial staff agrees with this policy. It’s one possible policy, and it’s the one this Museum has chosen.

Why do you think the Museum chose this policy?

Admitting that individual works of art may have all sorts of implications—among them, for example, political implications—this museum approaches them in the first instance as works of art. To organize a show on the basis of the artist being black or female is to say that you’re going to approach artworks, in the first instance, as sociological phenomena, and only secondarily as works of art, a perfectly valid approach—for a museum of ethnology or anthropology.

I would suggest that groups of abstract painters also represent political groups.

It’s not the same thing at all. I don’t think that what was loosely termed Abstract Expressionism, in which many of the artists involved hardly spoke to one another—and, indeed, differed politically—could be called a political group. They even differed in their “art politics” . . .

I think a lot of our discussion about Earthworks is mistaken; it’s really only a storage problem that Earthworks and Conceptual art present to museums. The artists produce their work within the usual limits of a human communication system. You have a problem of storage, and I think it’s better to view it like that rather than raise dramas about the possible end of the modernist tradition.

As for the “human communication system,” writers, composers and physicists work within that too—and they’re not in museums. And I don’t think it’s only a storage problem. I feel that there is something in the very fabric of the work that is problematic—for example, the question of how discrete the work is. An Earthwork, in a sense, has no real beginning or end. It emerges from its environment and dissolves back into it. Museums are contextless environments; everything in them is a discrete object. Another consideration is size, as much from the expressive as the practical viewpoint. I don’t think Earthworks are large out of some megalomania—it’s in the fabric of the meaning of the work and of the thinking behind it. It seems to me preposterous to imagine such an Earthwork here even if this museum had an inner courtyard like the temple of Amon-Ra at Karnak. You can’t transport the Spiral Jetty here. Nor do I feel that many kinds of Conceptual art are as comfortable in a museum situation as they might be elsewhere—though we are buying Conceptual art, within the possibilities of cur extremely limited funds.

I don’t think you really mean Conceptual art when you say Conceptual art. When I speak of Conceptual art, I mean pure Conceptual art . . . things that are written . . .

I’m using the term also for an embodiment of essentially nonplastic ideas in some form of material—it may be a tape with writing over it, a map, a set of photographs or whatever. I feel, for example, that a great many Conceptual works are far more comfortable in an art magazine than in a museum. A great deal of this material I have seen in art magazines has been presented in a way that seems to me truer to its essence, and much more in the vein of the discursiveness it wants, than the necessarily cut-and-dried way in which it gets stretched out on a museum wall—if for no other reason than that I prefer to read and to look at photographs and diagrams while seated in a chair. I like to be able to flip hack and forth. I’ll probably get my head handed to me by the photography department, but I don’t even like to look at photographs on walls. I like to sit with them in my hands. Indeed, I feel the same way about prints. To me, they are something to savor in an intimate situation, when they’re on your lap or on a table before you. Let us say that for photographs and prints, the museum wall is more of a compromise than for painting and sculpture—up to Minimalism, or at least for Conceptualism, anyway. That is why we have a print room and a study room for photographs.

Photos and the like do indeed look uncomfortable in museums if laid out on the walls like paintings.

Couldn’t we turn your original question around and ask this: Why stretch the museum conception to comprehend everything? Isn’t it perfectly possible there might be a mode of communication in the visual arts which is better served and more natural on your home video screen, in books or art magazines—at least in the art magazines that know how to treat this material, to lay it out, and that deal with it on a serious level of discourse?

Earlier you said that a museum should filter, and it should move at a respectable pace behind the actual current of events in the art world. Therefore, you are suggesting that the function of a museum is a retarding one; the function of a museum is to delay; it’s a tactic of delay while the art world sorts itself out; you don’t move too quickly.

I don’t accept your interpretation of what I said . . . I don’t have any feeling for museums retarding art’s development any more than accelerating it. Much of the best modern art was made before museums of modern art existed. Today, one has the impression that a certain amount of art is made for museums—an awful pursuit. Anyone who thinks serious art gets better or worse because of what museums do is just foolish.

I meant retarding the input of art into the museum from outside it.

I think that museums ought to buy—if they have the money—as soon as any curator has conviction about the work he wants to buy. $20,000 to $30,000 a year—which is what we have—doesn’t buy you very much (“Old Masters” are acquired by MoMA only by gift and sale/exchange). Nevertheless, we buy a great deal more in the way of new work than will be considered worth keeping 50 years from now. Alfred Barr said that if one out of ten new things that he bought were felt to be worthwhile for the collection years later, it would be a terrific average, and I think he’s right. So I’m not saying that you retard your acquisitions. We happen to have so little money that we’re somewhat retarded by that fact. I think that as soon as a curator, any curator, feels right about a work, he or she should propose it.

But that—you say—involves a period of testing, checking, watching . . .

Not with regard to acquisitions. Only as it affects the exhibition schedule (except for our intendedly experimental “Projects”). For example, let us say artist X has his first show and a curator feels “This is terrific, we ought to have this for the collection.” It should be presented to the acquisitions committee, and they should give the curator the benefit of the doubt. But I don’t think that just because an artist’s first show was terrific, one should immediately begin planning a retrospective—or necessarily even think of including him or her in the “Five Artists” or “Six Artists” type of format. It hardly hurts to wait a few years or more. In any case, we have no choice, because except for “Projects,” our program is necessarily planned a few years in advance. It seems to me that the commercial galleries are showing a great deal of new work. They are doing a good job. Museums shouldn’t duplicate what galleries do. They should show work in a scope, form, grouping and context that reveals the work, tells people about it, in some way that the galleries cannot (keeping in mind also that they have a somewhat different audience). This, of course, goes for museums in cities with galleries.

Yes, and in a museum the work is separated from a commercial ambiance.

That’s right. But keep in mind that while the museum audience is broader, it also includes the audience which goes to galleries. Moreover, we are a museum of modern art, not just of contemporary art; that is to say, we have an equal obligation—in some ways, a greater obligation—to show noncontemporary modern art, which, after all, makes p the great bulk of the modern movement. Given the limitations of space and time and money, why should we put our major emphasis on new art when the galleries are showing an immense amount of the same thing? Now, when I say that we have in some ways a greater obligation to the past, what I mean is simply this: few other institutions, and certainly not the commercial galleries, can put on, say, a major Fauve show such as the one we are planning. Of all the different things we can do for the public, we must ask: Which are the ones only we (and perhaps a few other institutions) can do—as opposed to what can be done by smaller museums and commercial galleries? Because of the depth of our collection, we have, in terms of possible quid pro quos, the means of getting more important loans than most other museums (to say nothing of galleries); this puts us in an ideal position to do certain kinds of historical shows. Because of the dependence of the French, for example, on our constant loans to their Grand Palais retrospectives, we will get from them—and through their pressure on private collectors—some pictures for our hoped-for show of Cézanne’s late work that other museums could not get.

As regards MoMA, you’re saying that you’re not a museum of contemporary art and appreciate this. You’re a museum of modern art. But from the way you’ve been using the word this evening, it’s almost as if you yourself really see it as a museum of “modernist” art, which would suggest a formalist concept of a certain kind of modern art.

Personally, I have no theory of art history, no a priori concept, formalist or otherwise; I have convictions about the quality, expressiveness and meaning of certain works more than about others, but my views are essentially eclectic, as my installation of the collection and my writing indicates. As an exhibition curator, I have focused most on Picasso, MirO, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism. I wrote in a different way about Surrealism than about Picasso, and still differently about Stella. The Stella book reads more like formalist criticism, because the work seemed to me to want to be discussed in that vein. There was less formal analysis and a great deal of iconographic interpretation in my Miró catalogue, and still less formal analysis in the recent one on Gerald Murphy. I would like to feel that I respond to the particular nature of the work at hand.

What I want to suggest is that you have a notion of modern art not as an ongoing, perpetually present thing but as a historic period whose limit, whose beginning and end we may be able to see now.

Not at all; you misinterpret me here. I think that I have a conception of modern art as an ongoing thing whose beginnings in Manet and the Impressionists have been clear for some time and whose end we don’t know about. I had always thought that it was going to“on-go” for centuries more. I have looked carefully at the views of those who suggest that Earthworks, Conceptual art, etc., mean that it is over. I am not convinced. I don’t think painting, for example, is dead. Never forget that the Dadaists proclaimed that painting was dead just about the time Matisse was painting The Moroccans.

But I don’t totally rule this out as a future possibility either, because, in fact, there was a time when easel painting did not exist. And there may come a time when it will not exist again. (By “easel painting,” I naturally mean to include large modern pictures at least through the period of Abstract Expressionism.) If that time has arrived, then indeed there will have been an end to this “modern” period insofar as it will be art-historically disengagable not only from the first half of the 19th century but also from the last decades of the 20th. Now, the fact that I feel there is an ongoing tradition is merely an historical aperçu; my sense of that tradition is of an extraordinarily rich and variegated one.

It sounds a little as though if painting is not dead it’s because a certain form of painting has vitality for you more than the general state of painting.

No, not at all. If it’s not dead, it’s because there are people around making good paintings. That’s all. It’s as simple as that.

So they’re not necessarily in a modernist tradition?

They define the tradition; it is not a predictable, projectable concept. There’s no way of knowing ahead of time what good painting is going to look like. If I knew what good painting was going to be like, I’d paint it myself.

But you do think one can recognize in one’s own time the forms that the tradition of modernism is taking?

Not necessarily. But one can try. You have to make subjective judgments about the work.

And on that judgment you would recommend an exhibition or an acquisition at the museum?

I would, indeed, recommend an acquisition on the basis of subjective judgment if I felt real conviction about it. As far as exhibitions go, I would probably find myself recommending one only when this conviction had endured over a certain period of time and was tested against an ongoing body of work.

So there is a factor of delay in judgments.

For exhibitions, yes. Having the main galleries only twice a year, the Department of Painting and Sculpture can have very few exhibitions.

I remember you said earlier that you view MoMA as a regional museum—that is, serving the New York public—rather than as an international museum serving an international public.

I didn’t say it was a regional museum. What I said was that in the first instance, it is basically a New York museum, as far as exhibitions are concerned (although most of these do travel). Out-of-towners and foreigners come mostly for the collection. Moreover, MoMA is more a New York museum now than years ago in the sense that whereas once it was the only modern museum serving the rest of the country, it is now only one of many, many museums, and it has no right to presume that it does things any better than they do. I think we can presume that we have a finer collection of modern art than any other museum in the world, yet, except for our special leverage in loans for historical shows, our exhibitions will be, individually, as good as the people who do them. And we have no monopoly on good people here. I hope that we get the best people, that we have the best people. But there are going to be “best people” in lots of other places. Given the multiplication of museums, this museum has somewhat less responsibility, proportionately, to the rest of the world than it had when it was the only museum entirely devoted to modern art. That being said, I must add that we do lots of things for the rest of the world. Our exhibition program provides shows (never seen at MoMA) that go all over the world. I would guess that we also lend more works of art than any other museum in proportion to the size of our collection. We found that in the two years before we reinstalled the collection, we had lent annually, in the form of single loans to other institutions or as works in our own traveling shows, more pictures than we had hanging on the walls.

Isn’t the policy of the museum in always originating its own shows, even those it shares with other museums, now somewhat outmoded? I want to qualify this. I mean that perhaps the time has come in the museum world for exhibitions to be jointly structured, jointly shared, and jointly financed, rather than one museum to issue and sell them to other museums.

The problem with your question is that it’s based on false assumptions. Just as you felt that this museum was always with the avant-garde, which it was not, so you feel we have always had a policy of not taking other shows, which is simply not true. The Seurat show, which took place here, was entirely produced by the Art Institute of Chicago.10 We also took a Léger show from the Art Institute of Chicago.11 We have cosponsored a large number of shows with museums all over the country. If we tended to originate most of our shows, there was good reason for it—though the situation has changed fairly recently. That is to say, the kind of shows and catalogues MoMA wanted to do, the quality it wanted to maintain—one could not assume this would be forthcoming from most other institutions. But, as I said, when the Museum felt it was forthcoming, it did, indeed, take shows that were entirely developed elsewhere. Many of our recent shows are cosponsored; the Duchamp show was coproduced with the Philadelphia Museum; the Caro show will be cosponsored with the Boston Museum. We have talked recently about encouraging other institutions to propose shows to us. For the very reason that you thought that we never took other museums’ shows, we sometimes don’t get proposals that might be interesting. I want to elicit those proposals. However, such shows, when we take them, will still represent a minor part of the program. There are real problems. Since we share the exhibition space among five departments, and because we design installations for each show, we must program at least a few years in advance. When another museum offers us a show that is ready to go in a year, we might have to reply yes, we’d love it, but only two or three years from now. Usually, they can’t keep their show together for that length of time. Nevertheless, I think both because first-rate people are doing first-rate shows elsewhere, and because no matter how good a curation we have, we can’t have experts in everything, we will take such shows as often as we can. We have, of course, had numerous guest directors, and that is one way of solving the substantive if not the financial problem to a limited extent. But I think in the future we will certainly take more shows originated by other institutions than we have in the past.

Sometimes a smaller institution near New York will do quite an important show that should have been seen in New York.

Certainly that happens. We’d love to get such shows if we can. But they don’t have to he at MoMA. New York now has three other museums with modern programs—four, if you include the Met. Even the Brooklyn Museum does an occasional modern show. None of these museums shares one space between five departments and they are thus more flexible in “lead time.” MoMA doesn’t have the best temporary exhibition space in the city anyway.

But doesn’t the Modern have more cachet?

Even if that’s true, it shouldn’t matter. People sometimes say, “Isn’t it an elitist notion that you have to generate your own shows?” Well, I think the real elitist notion would be to think that shows aren’t really the same if they happen somewhere else. If the work is good and it’s decently and honestly presented, that’s all that counts.



1. Alfred H. Barr, Jr. was appointed the first Director of the Museum of Modern Art in 1929. Barr worked to set up the Museum’s multidepartmental administrative structure. From 1947–67 he served as Director of Collections, and is presently a counselor to the MoMA Board of Trustees. Barr’s published work includes Cubism and Abstract Art (1936), What is Modern Painting? (1943), Picasso: 50 years of His Art (1946), and Matisse: His Art and his Public (1951).

2. Cubism and Abstract Art, catalogue by Alfred H. Barr., Jr., The Museum of Modern Art, 1936.

3. Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism, catalogue by Alfred H. Barr, Jr., The Museum of Modern Art, 1936.

4. Dorothy Miller joined MoMA as Assistant to the Director in 1934. She worked as Associate Curator of Painting and Sculpture from 1935–43, as Curator from 1943–47, then as Curator of the Museum Collections from 1947–67, and finally as Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture from 1967–69. She organized and wrote catalogues for “Americans 1942—18 Artists from Nine States”; “Americans 1943—Realists and Magic Realists” (catalogue edited with Alfred Barr); “14 Americans” in 1946; “15 Americans” in 1952; “12 Americans” in 1956; “16 Americans” in 1959; and “Americans 1963.”

5. The New American Painting (as Shown in Eight European Countries), D. Miller, 1959 exhibition director, catalogue introduction by Alfred Barr.

6. James Thrall Soby has been a MoMA trustee since 1942. He served as Director of Painting and Sculpture from 1943–45, as Chairman of the Trustee Committee on Painting and Sculpture from 1946–61, and is presently honorary chairman of that committee. Soby has written on Giorgio de Chirico, Paul Klee, and Joan Miró among others.

7. The Responsive Eye, catalogue by William C. Seitz, The Museum of Modern Art, 1965.

8 “16 Americans,” 1959.

9. The “Projects” series is an interdepartmental program. Shows of new art are determined by a revolving committee first chaired by Curator of Painting and Sculpture Kynaston McShine in 1971. Artists shown in the series include: 1971, Keith Sonnier, Mel Bochner, Sam Gilliam and Nancy Graves; 1972, Lee Friedlander, Richard Long, Emmanuel Pereire, Richard Tuttle and David Novros, Luis Benedit; 1973, Chuck Close and Liliana Porter, David Tremlett, Carl Andre, Robert Whitman, Eleanor Antin, Klaus Rinke; 1974, Barry Flanagan, Giulio Paolini, Rafael Ferrer, Sonia Sheridan and Keith Smith, Marlene Scott V.

10. Seurat, Paintings and Drawings, catalogue edited by Daniel C. Rich, Art Institute of Chicago, 1958.

11. Fernand Léger, Paintings and Drawings, catalogue by Katharine Kuh, Art Institute of Chicago, 1953.