PRINT November 1974

Talking with William Rubin: “Like Folding Out a Hand of Cards”

ON APRIL 29, 1874, 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. An interview with Mr. Rubin on the Museum’s exhibition and collection policies appeared in Artforum, October, 1974.

Let’s talk now about the collection of the Museum. We’d like your views on the Expressionist collection, for example, beginning with Munch and Ensor, and stretching its way . . .

Well, in some areas I think it’s very good––in fact, it’s certainly one of the best in the world despite a few obvious lacunae, the most notable of which is the absence of a painting by Munch. We’ve been very much aware of this, and have tried all along to do something about it. Since I’ve been at MOMA, we have been offered––on the basis of our solicitations and out of the blue––something like five or six paintings by Munch. None of them were really what one would want. They were late versions of 1890s images in which the drawing was flaccid, the silhouetting unsure, and the Munchian mystery lacking. The only ’90s picture we were offered was a view of people at a gambling table in Monte Carlo. You might imagine that Munch would have painted this subject in something of the spirit of Van Gogh’s Night Cafe––a threatening Strindbergian ambience, the sort of place, as Van Gogh wrote, where a man could run amok. But it wasn’t like that at all, curiously. It was almost the real Monte Carlo, and it didn’t have at all the quality that we wanted.

Three-and-a-half years ago, we bought an immense collection of Munch prints, which gives us, outside of Norway, the most complete collection of his imagery in the world. Munch was a great printmaker, and the prints, in fact, have his best qualities more consistently than do his paintings. That purchase was the thing to do, rather than put the money into a second-rate Munch painting. That hasn’t stopped us from looking for the right painting, of course.

After Munch, the other Expressionist artist we are trying most hard to acquire is Franz Marc. In some ways, it’s almost harder to get a really first-rate Marc. We have the requests out all over the world––especially in Switzerland and Germany. When Mares come up, we usually know about it. The best we’ve been able to turn up was a picture of a cat––a nice, run-of-the-mill Marc at a fantastically high price. Somehow, I don’t mind paying a very high price for a masterpiece––Pollock’s One, Picasso’s Charnel House, or Miró’s Birth of the World, for example. But there’s something that rubs me the wrong way about paying that kind of price for a “representative example.” (I must add that we have no funds for such purchases; these major works are acquired, in effect, by exchange of a group of minor ones from our reserves.) So we didn’t buy that Marc, and we’re still looking for one.

In the case of Munch, we have also tried to solve the problem in another way. I have been negotiating with Päl Hougen of the Munch Museum to see whether we can arrange an exchange. They would lend us a significant work by Munch, which could be changed, say, every two years. In return we would send Norway a group of pictures on extended loan or perhaps every so often a small exhibition. But as yet the Norwegians haven’t agreed to lend.

With the exception of Munch and Marc, the Expressionist collection is an excellent one. And in some areas––Kirchner and Kokoschka, for example––an exceptional one. We also have good pictures by minor Expressionists, such as Heinrich Campendonk. The pressure to fill the few gaps that we have follows from the synoptic nature of the entire collection––a conception which makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

As it is currently displayed, the collection starts with Post-Impressionism and except for the James Ensor paintings and Munch graphics, then postpones the appearance of the North Europeans who really continued its expressive side. Haven’t you weakened the impact of Expressionism by breaking it up?

It is no more broken up than history––the actual events––in fact less so. There is Expressionism and there is Expressionism: 19th and 20th century; German and non-German; Symbolist-oriented and Cubist-oriented, etc. Let’s look at the particulars. Alfred Barr had always put the Ensors with the fin de siècle things, and I felt that was more appropriate than putting them with the 20th-century German Expressionists. Our Munch prints are also in that area of the galleries; they are roughly contemporaneous with the Gauguins in the first room, and with the Klimt and the early Ensors in the second. The main 20th-century Expressionist room, which holds the Lehmbruck sculptures, Kokoschkas, Kirchners, Noldes, and so forth, is mostly Austro-German. However, I didn’t want to make it a strictly national thing, so I divided Rouault so that while you see a Fauve Rouault among the Fauve pictures, you also see Rouaults in the same room as the 20th-century Expressionists. Those Rouaults are hung on the “back” walls, which you tend to see as you leave that room. Thus they mediate, as it were, between the mittel-Europa Expressionist pictures and the School of Paris works in the next room. Now, as far as the other content of that Expressionist room, there were a lot of difficult choices. For example, we had to omit a very impressive Kirchner of soldiers taking a shower, The Artillerymen, which is a very big picture; it would have forced a number of other things out of the room. We had to omit a fine late Kokoschka landscape and some of our good Noldes, Beckmanns, etc.

What obtains in that room is true throughout the collection––that we have good pictures that we presently don’t have room for. On the other hand, we put these pictures to work: we sent around a show of German Expressionism that went to smaller museums throughout the country (it even made a stop at the New York Cultural Center). This was put together from our reserves. We also lend many of these pictures individually––both from our galleries and our reserves––to other institutions. Two Noldes were out on loan last year; there isn’t a year that goes by that we don’t have a couple of Kirchners or Beckmanns out on loan, and so forth. In the case of the Noldes, the show was an important one, at the Nolde Museum in Seebull, Germany, so we lent our best pictures and our reserve Noldes went in the galleries. We have to weigh each request: how many people will be seeing the picture, the nature of the show, etc. If it’s an important retrospective, you do the artist’s reputation a disservice by not lending some of your major work. On the other hand, to lend a key picture to a college show in a small city––unless it’s a damned unusual show––is to deprive your New York audiences and out-of-town visitors, even scholars from other countries. Many of these people count on being able to see certain works when they visit New York.

To return to the installation, you will notice that the Expressionist room is, architecturally speaking, not in a direct line with the School of Paris rooms. This is partly because our now rather old building has piers in certain places, and the ways of dividing the space are therefore limited. But I rather liked the idea of having the Expressionist things open onto the French works, but not be something you had to pass through in order to go from Picasso to Léger. That, if you want to argue, is an art-historical judgment.

I don’t know if it’s a judgment, Bill. My feeling is that it’s a bias. One goes from early Post-Impressionist things, and, instead of continuing logically and systematically at that point to the German Expressionists, there’s a kind of detour which takes in Cubism. One tradition is suddenly dropped, and Cubism is brought in––partly, I think, because you wanted to bring in Cubism good and early to show a nice, secure basis for a constructive Cubist line, which is sympathetic to you. Then you go back to the German Expressionists, which chronologically has its problems. But also it means a stylistic jump.

I think that you’re simply wrong there. The fact is that all German Expressionism is later than early Cubism, and most of it is later than high Analytic Cubism.

The artists of Die Brücke are not later than the Cubists that you have got hanging.

Look again. The Brücke paintings, the characteristic Brücke paintings––let’s say the earliest full-blown Kirchners––begin 1908–09. The earliest. And the pictures we have hanging straddle the turn of that decade and go well into the next one. To show those works as if they came before the Demoiselles d’Avignon would be wrong. Now, you can’t very well show the Demoiselles plus 1908–09 Cubism, and then show some Kirchners, and then double back to continue the development of Analytic Cubism. You have to make the basic decision as to whether the span from Demoiselles through at least Analytic Cubism––that has to be a unit––should come before or after the German Expressionists. I made the decision that it should come before. This is right not only chronologically but intrinsically. Indeed, Demoiselles contains some of that “primitive” material before any German Expressionist thought to include it.

Demoiselles has two possible ways of being interpreted here. You can say that it’s the beginning of Cubism and leads off into that. But it also, as you say, has a primitive component. You’ve hung Demoiselles according to what you know about its future rather than in relation to a primitivistic impulse which it shows.

In fact, it shows a new formal as much as a primitivistic impulse. But let’s see what one’s options are. I put the Demoiselles d’Avignon in a center area because it is a crucial, a key picture. Your options in terms of the MOMA collection would be to surround it with either the Cubist pictures which grew out of it or, as you say, Expressionist pictures––Kirchners like The Street (we have no Expressionist pictures with “primitive” iconography). It seems to me that while the Demoiselles is at least two things, so to say, you cannot coherently relate it to both at the same time (at least in our spaces), and that the better choice is to relate it to the thing which emerged as its more central influence, which was the early––but also “Primitive”––Cubism of Picasso in 1908, such works as Repose and those which follow it.

If you do a chronological installation, as yours is fundamentally, it is subject to the character of the collection and therefore represents a kind of fiction––or a compromise––in which the successive facts of history and the works in the collection come together in ways that are not really congruent.

Inevitably, the image of art history that emerges from this collection is far from perfect, although it is the most complete synoptic view of 20th-century art anywhere. I do not see how it is possible to avoid your “compromise” without being able to choose precisely the pictures you want from the whole of what the century has produced, and to place them in an architectural installation which you are entirely free to design yourself. And even then it probably wouldn’t work since looking from picture to picture, going from gallery to gallery involves linear time, and many different kinds of works were in fact executed simultaneously, or almost so. What I faced, in any case, was a series of columnar supports every so many feet throughout the building, so the number of rooms, their size, and their relationship to one another, were fixed within certain limits. I was locked in a situation where I could not have more than once in a while a room that was not on a continuous path, so that you get a monolinear effect which is not true of history.

I would have preferred, let us say, central “core” rooms, with others radiating from them, and so forth. None of that was possible. However, it is not only the limitations of the collection but also, paradoxically, its strengths that militate against art-historical balance and accuracy. There are visitors just concerned with seeing as many as possible of our great pictures. They’re not interested in history. They certainly wouldn’t want to see a first-rate Kirchner displaced by our second-rate Jawlensky for the sake of inclusiveness. And they probably don’t even like the fact that a few of our fine Matisses have to go unhung in order to make room for paintings by such artists as Kirchner. But that’s what you sometimes have to do; in that sense, all installations in museums with rich collections involve some compromises.

Supposing one assumes that the collection had certain biases before you took it over, and that we are merely asking you about those biases which you are not responsible for.

The strengths were, perhaps, biases, somewhat more than the weaknesses. One of Alfred’s biases was, in fact, in favor of Expressionism. That we are tremendously strong in Picasso had to do with Alfred’s bias in favor of Picasso. That we are weak in Fauvism may be more the result of chance than Alfred’s fault. Alfred tried to get certain Fauve works; perhaps he didn’t try quite as hard as he did for some Picassos and so forth but he really tried quite hard––I know the correspondence. However, one of the things that I felt when I came to judge the collection myself was that Fauvism was a weak area. In the last few years, we have done, I think, some very successful things in this area, though they’re invisible since the pictures in question were purchased at our suggestion by a trustee and are in his bequest to us. They were too expensive for us.

What we are saying is that there seems to be a little too much emphasis in one direction, and that what we would call, in the broader sense, Expressionism and its roots are less well represented than they could be. There have been, for example, dozens of first-rate Jawlenskys for sale at very low prices over the last ten years.

Not low prices, at least not in the six years I have been at MOMA. In Jawlensky, however, you do touch upon an artist whom Alfred didn’t seem to care much about. Four-and-a-half years ago I got a trustee to buy an extraordinary Jawlensky I found in the hope that it will come to the collection, and I think it will. But it was no cheap picture. I cannot speak about Alfred’s attitude toward Jawlensky; I know that Alfred had very strong feelings about Kokoschka, Kirchner, Beckmann, Nolde and Lehmbruck––and, of course, most of the Blaue Reiter.

Alfred’s conception was the first “ecumenical” conception of modern art museology. If you look at other modern collections in museums anywhere in the world, they will naturally have strengths and weaknesses. But these disparities are much greater than at MOMA. For example, the Museum of Modern Art in Paris doesn’t have a single Mondrian, no Kokoschka, and no Boccioni. It’s mostly French painting. The Tate has a broader collection, but even then . . . .

Few Expressionist works, very few.

So there you are. I mean, what would you compare the MOMA collection to?

That’s not the point. The American art scene and modern art history in America is in a very different situation to what it is in most other countries, particularly France, Italy, and places like that. The paucity of major Fauve paintings as combined with some weak areas in Expressionism seems to cut the Museum off––

What are the weak areas of Expressionism? You mentioned Jawlensky, and admittedly we now have only one weak picture which I chose not to hang.

I’m not speaking of German Expressionism, I’m thinking of Expressionism as a whole and in relation to Fauvism, which had that primitive thing that one misses.

Fauvism is a different matter. Relative to the importance of the movements, we have much more Expressionism, even with our lacunae, than we have Fauvism. For whatever reason, Fauvism was scanted. But Alfred, in any case, saw Fauvism much more in the line of French painting than in relationship to the “primitive” aspects of Expressionism. Consequently, if he scanted it, it would not be for the reason that you’re suggesting. I don’t think he really intended to scant it, but if he did––let’s say it didn’t excite him as much as Cubism––it was not because of its Expressionist content, as you can tell by the way he writes about it. At the same time, you are absolutely right that when you walk through the collection, it is literally embarrassing that you walk past all those great Cubist pictures––and things that come out of Cubism––and then you compare it to our one Fauve wall which doesn’t even have a Matisse or a Braque Fauve on it (though these are the two slots we have filled––for future generations). Until we receive the bequests I’ve negotiated, the main Fauve lacuna is Matisse. But another generation will have it. You have to take the long-range view. On the other hand, it obviously would be wonderful if we had these pictures now so that Fauvism would not seem to be overwhelmed by the Cubist paintings around it.

How does a curator arrive at his notion of history in relation to his sense of taste?

Well, it varies. In my generation, from my own experience, it comes first from looking at pictures and second, from studying art history, writing about it, participating in it in some way.

But it’s not an idea-less situation. I mean, you have certain ideas which must be in any curator’s mind. You say for your generation––what would those ideas be?

Among museum men Alfred was unusual in his generation, one might almost say in “advance” of it, in being less the pure connoisseur and more the art historian. My generation tends to be more art historical than most of the people of Alfred’s generation. Alfred apart, the people who built modern collections in museums here and elsewhere tended to think of the fineness of the single work rather than the comprehensiveness of the collection. If they could get another great Cézanne even though it meant that they wouldn’t have a Braque of a Chagall or whatever, that didn’t matter. Alfred, as you probably know, sold a number of Cézannes, Degas and other late 19th-century works that came to the museum in the original gift of Miss Lillie Bliss. But you have to see what he got: Les Demoiselles, Matisse’s Piano Lesson, Brancusi, etc. This is how he built the collection. Instead of a collection that was heavy in Post-Impressionism and lacking in other areas, he decided that he was going to spread out and try to represent those things.

But Bill, Alfred was not only different from the, people of his generation in other museums, he was different from most of the other people who helped found this museum.

Indeed. It was a kind of combination of their predominantly connoisseurship approach with his more art-historical bias. Remember that the curators propose; the Painting and Sculpture Committee disposes. In other words, neither Alfred nor I have had the final say. It’s a series of checks and balances. I think you have to judge it by the results. As it functions now––and it wasn’t always like this with Alfred––it’s very rare that the committee does not take the recommendation of the staff.

On what grounds have they not taken it? Too expensive, or . . .

It can never be simply that it’s too expensive, because the way the acquisitions committee works technically is that if they think the thing is worth having for the collection, it is accepted subject to funding (although obviously, one is not going to propose things for which there is no hope of raising money).

What I’m getting at is this, you see. Do you think that it is wise for an institution to continue having trustees determine what finally enters the collection rather than, say, a committee of your colleagues as experts––someone like George Heard Hamilton?

But George is a trustee, and is the chairman of the acquisitions committee. As I’ve said, the committee is partly made up of art historians and museum men. There are also artists––though not painters or sculptors––like Philip Johnson. Johnson has been a remarkably valuable member of that committee for many years. This is above and beyond, of course, his role as founder of MOMA’s Department of Architecture and Design. In the days when the committee tended to reject certain things that Alfred proposed––our first Barnett Newman, for example––Philip often bought them with his own funds and later made a gift of them. There are a number of collectors on our committee who have very good eyes for painting and who contribute a lot. My feeling is that this is a good committee, and I don’t mind at all having to present the material to them. I have never found that if I had real conviction about an acquisition and could make a good argument for it, they would countermand it.

Let me go back for a moment. We’ve agreed that Barr was unlike others of his generation. What formed the ideas of your generation of curators, and how does it differ from Alfred’s? Now, you’ve indicated one of the ways in which you share a methodology with Alfred. What is different?

I find that my own views about the collection and about the exhibiting of it are very much like Alfred’s. That’s partly because I was brought up on Alfred’s museum and on the collection as he built it. And if there’s anything wrong, it’s probably that I’m too much a creature of the education I’ve had. Modern art education during and just after World War II was, in the first instance, very much a question of this museum and its publications. I was Meyer Schapiro’s student for many years. But even his sense of modern art was conditioned by what was to be seen in this museum. It was only when I began to travel widely as a graduate student in the early ’50s that I sufficiently realized that there were aspects of art history that were not represented or out of focus, so to say, in this collection. Of course 20 years ago this collection was a lot less full, so that the misimpressions you got were much greater than now. But there are still things which don’t ring true, and these are the things which one tries to do something about.

So your part would really be, as you see it, one of balancing and completing a kind of outline which Barr began.

Partly that, and partly extending it as history unfolds. That it to say, Barr and his colleagues built a great collection. That collection, nevertheless, had lacunae. There are not only movements but individual artists and, perhaps most of all, particular works which Alfred didn’t go for––or didn’t know, as was the case with Miró’s Birth of the World––which I felt I wanted for MOMA. For example, Alfred did not have much feeling for Pop art. As you know, he bought only a small, unimpressive Lichtenstein. I worked very hard to make it possible for us to obtain the Drowning Girl. But when you consider the incredible job Alfred did, it sounds rather niggling to say that there were areas in which one way or another he didn’t do the necessary. Successive generations of curators and critics must deal with that. Every individual will have holes in his perception, or biases or whatever, and they should be pointed out. We have several Painting and Sculpture curators rather than one partly for this reason.

To turn to another area of the collection, would you say that Symbolism is adequately represented?

Well, this is a problem that really has to do with a definition of the 19th-century limits of the Museum collection––and I think that this may indeed be a question of an art-historical view or bias on Alfred’s part as to the role of Symbolism as it feeds into 20th-century art. As we saw earlier, the collection begins essentially with the late 1880s––as a background for the art of our century. Now, one might argue that Symbolism is of this period. Alfred would have said that the great Symbolists are Gauguin, Rousseau, Redan, Klimt, the late Monet. He would not have said Khnopff. All right, there’s a perfect example. Why not Khnopff?

Don’t you think that is because the study of Symbolism has advanced past the point it was at in Alfred’s time?

I don’t think any area of study was very far in Alfred’s time. We tend to think, because we are aware of what Futurism and Cubism . . .

The study of Cubism was ahead of the study of Symbolism.

Perhaps, but I doubt that the study of Fauvism, Futurism, Orphism or De Stijl was any more advanced. Quite to the contrary. There was probably more literature available and much more Symbolist art to be seen in the early 1930’s––Moreau, Kubin, Böcklin, Klinger, the Belgians, to say nothing of Redan––than there were works visible or literature on, say, Futurism, or even Cubism. A man going to Europe and touring the major museums would have seen much more Symbolism, and I’m sure Alfred did. I think rather that Alfred defined the modern period in such a way that he saw certain types of Symbolism as not feeding in that directly. Now, I think it would be fair to argue that, after all, why does Fernand Khnopff not feed in? Isn’t there something in Surrealism that has to do with him? There’s a grain of truth in this, though in fact, Moreau had much more to do with it than Khnopff. And yet, though Alfred was a great amateur of Surrealism, he never really made much of an attempt to acquire a Moreau (though MOMA had a Moreau exhibition). I rather think that in the area of Symbolism, Alfred probably did not feel that Moreau or Khnopff were modern painters. There’s no question in my mind that Alfred thought of this collection as a 20th-century collection with certain late 19th-century roots, and that the late 19th-century introduction was to be made up of the things that fed in. Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and so forth––but also the Nabis, Redan, Ensor, Munch, Rousseau, Klimt, art nouveau. I don’t think he thought that the Belgian Symbolists, for example, really fed in.

What’s your view?

I think that in an ideal modern museum, I would like to have a Khnopff and a Moreau. Even more, I would like the right kind of Ferdinand Hodler landscape, which we’ve been looking for, thus far without success.

Just in the study collection? Or would you hang them?

In an ideal situation––which would mean much more exhibition space for the collection than we have now––I would like more turn-of-the-century material. On the other hand, I would have to be frank and say that given our present space limitations I probably wouldn’t be able to hang a large Moreau, for example, if we got it as a gift. That would force me to take down one of the Rousseaus, Ensors or Vuillards––in any case, something in that second gallery. Those are the choices one has to face here . . .

I’ve tried to point up one little relationship at that point in the installation––between de Chirico and Rousseau––that is never thought about. You’ll notice that I’ve juxtaposed our big de Chiricos in the second room with the Rousseaus and I think you see immediately what I’m getting at––the white, atmosphereless “dream” light, the silence, the flat silhouetting, etc. Now, as it happens, one of our Rousseaus was painted within a few years of our de Chiricos. Most MOMA installations had the Rousseaus at the very beginning; Alfred’s installation began with Rousseau. He was placed before Cézanne––the first thing you saw. I’ve changed it; I’ve put Cézanne first. Though we think of Rousseau as a 19th-century painter, he lived, after all, into the Apollinaire world, and that’s the context de Chirico painted out of. We don’t usually think of de Chirico as a contemporary of Rousseau, but as a proto-Surrealist painter and, of course, I bring him back in that context on the third floor. The Rousseau-de Chirico thing is only one of a thousand little “threads” that you try to make link pictures, link rooms, and so forth––that you hope the visitor will see. It doesn’t matter if he doesn’t see them; but you try to point these things up anyway. By the same token, since you’re not entirely free to hang things in any way you want, and since you don’t have all the pictures you want, you inevitably find yourself making some sort of sacrifice here in order to do something else there. If we hadn’t been rich in de Chiricos, I would have had to choose between putting de Chirico near the Rousseaus or near the Magrittes and the Dalis.

When you’re making your choices, you seem to have a great confidence in distinguishing between major works and other works. Now, what would be the source of your ranking, the source of the idea by which you rank them?

By which I think a thing is a major work? Certainly, my first instinct is just my own reaction––a purely subjective reaction.

You didn’t have it when you were six years o ld. It came as you trained.

I think that’s quite true. Anyone who looks at paintings every day of his life, is trained as an art historian and spends his time looking, reading and studying, develops strong feelings, forms a taste. Certain pictures begin to emerge.

Which has to do with the notion of “major?”

One uses that word as a matter of convenience.

You use it as an organizing principle.

The hierarchy is inherent in the works themselves. Qualitative differences do exist. And beyond the intrinsic question there are art-historical differences. There is also the question of the size of the picture––which has a somewhat different meaning than in deep-space, Old Master painting. A great Rousseau that is 7 x 9 feet is a “major” work in a way that a 1 x 2 foot Rousseau of the same quality is not. When you’re installing you have to think about the axes of the viewer’s passage, of the grouping of pictures, and so forth and so on. I very consciously, where feasible, put large pictures on axis so that as you move into the room, the other pictures tended to be grouped around it. That wasn’t an art-historical point; it was purely a visual and esthetic point. For example, you walk in––the Cézanne Bather is the thing that’s right in front of you. You walk into the next room, and the big Rousseau receives you. If you stand toward the center of the first room, you see the Cézanne Bather, you see part of the Rousseau Dream, part of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and part of the Three Musicians. It’s almost like folding out a hand of cards, if you know what I mean. And for anyone who plays these cards, so to say, you don’t have to see the whole picture to recognize and understand the relationship. Okay. I found this very exciting myself.

Other people may not. Because of their nature, or because of some other connection between them?

Well, obviously, there’s a principle of development there . . . . I wanted this impact of large key pictures on the axes. As Mark Rothko said, eight feet of red is redder than two feet of red. And though that’s not exactly true, we understand what he meant. I think that a wonderful big modern picture, be it by Picasso, Rousseau, or whomever, has a different effect––it simply does––than a smaller one.

What about the scale now––“major” seems to be speaking of the size.

That’s one dimension. The other dimension depends, let us say, upon a subjective view of quality. Kirchner’s Artillerymen is iconographically, I think, one of the more interesting pictures we have. It’s a fine picture––one of the biggest of our Kirchners. But it is not as good as most of the others.

Leaving size apart, what makes a picture less than “major,” not as good as others?

I’m afraid nobody has ever figured out a way to measure, to quantify quality. You can’t attach a wire to a picture and have it ring up “masterpiece.” We’re all making assumptions––you do too. We’re human beings and art is not mathematical.

That is not the only alternative to the je ne sais quoi.

In a scientific discipline there are verities, there are demonstrable truths, subject to proof. Quality in art is not subject to proof. We make our judgments as individuals. We also tend to form collective views, and obviously as individuals we like to know what the collective view is. There are times when my view differs from the collective view and times when it doesn’t. For example, I’m sure that all three of us here would feel that Barney Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimus is really one of his great pictures. And since I can’t show all our examples of Barney’s work . . .

That satisfies a requirement: size, consensus and je ne sais quoi. Is that right?

Before all that it satisfies my gut reaction––that I’m deeply moved. But I would also imagine that in this case it has something to do with its being a big picture––that the relationship of size to the experience is not utterly accidental. The fact that when only a handful of people knew Barney’s work all of them thought highly of Vir Heroicus may have confirmed my own feelings––I don’t know. Not everything we have purchased represents the very best, for reasons we can’t control. We have a first-rate Cubi sculpture of David Smith’s, for example. But it is not one of David ’s greatest Cubi––and I regret that very deeply. It was the best one available by the time I came to this museum. Had I had my druthers, there are half a dozen others that I would have preferred. But they had already been sold––almost all to museums.

I think you’re right that it isn’t the best Cubi. I don’t know either quite why it isn’t the best Cubi, but still and all I haven’t committed myself on it one way or the other. But you have. It’s here in the museum. What is the thing about it which led you to get it, despite the fact that you knew that it wasn’t, perhaps, one of the best in the world?

It’s also very far from the worst Cubi. It was the best one left in the Smith estate––at least in my estimation. I loved David’s Cubi. I saw them being made, and I thought they were wonderful sculptures. Even a middling Cubi has expressive qualities that aren’t found elsewhere in David’s work. I’m not saying they’re better or worse; they’re different. If we didn’t have great Cézannes, I would go for a good Cézanne rather than settle for no Cézanne at all. But I don’t feel that way about all artists, obviously.

When does a painter deserve a room of his own?

A room of his own?

Like Léger, who has virtually a room of his own.

But he doesn’t. Anyway, I’ve never thought in those terms.

There’s only one other picture in the Léger room.

But, you see, that picture––the monumental Picasso, Three Women at the Spring––is very important in the ensemble.

What I’m trying to say is under what circumstances does a painter deserve a massive presentation such as Léger’s?

Offhand, I can think of only two painters in the collection who have rooms of their own: Picasso and Matisse. I guess that happens when, to give a fair sense of the artist’s work, based on what we have in the collection, it takes a room or nearly a room to do it. I don’t know what I would remove from that Léger room. It is perfectly true that I could have made it entirely a Léger room if I’d been thinking in those terms, but I wasn’t. Picasso’s Three Women is hung in there for very important reasons. First, I wanted it in proximity to––but not adjacent to––Picasso’s Three Musicians, which was painted in the same summer; the Neo-Classicism of Three Women is the more explicit form of the Classicism implicit in the Cubist work. But also, as a picture representing three women in very volumetric, consciously classical and monumental manner, it has affinities to the Grand Déjeuner of Léger, which is on an opposite wall; it is also at right angles to Léger’s Three Musicians, which is on the east wall of that gallery just as Picasso’s Three Musicians is on the east wall of the previous gallery.

All those little relationships, you see, refer to what’s going on in the early ’20s . . . . Thus I have tried where I could to point up certain things, and to set certain things in interesting juxtapositions, and so forth. For example, in the German Expressionist room, the way the hands work in the Kokoschka double portrait of the Tietzes. You see immediately the relationship to the hands in Wilhelm Lehmbruck sculptures and that the very gesture of the Lehmbruck hands is picked up again in the Kokoschka Self Portrait, on the side wall. Now, unlike certain other interrelations, that’s not a formal thing; it belongs to the expression of the human body. Formally the Lehmbrucks and Kokoschkas have certain affinities, but what one is dealing with here is essentially the notion of psychological expression through the posture of the body. I juggled the things around in that room a number of times to try to multiply certain kinds of affinities and cross-references. We don’t normally think of Lehmbruck with Kokoschka; in fact, Alfred had isolated the Lehmbrucks up in the sculpture gallery on the third floor.

I would say we don’t normally think of Lehmbruck.

That may be but he’s a great artist just the same. I’ve always loved these sculptures, but I disliked seeing them in the third floor sculpture galleries in the context of Brancusi and so forth. I don’t think Lehmbruck was essentially about that. I wanted to bring him into the world of Kokoschka and Expressionism, where the emphasis was on the human body as an expressive thing. So I brought him down to the second floor.

Even if we agree that a standard of quality is sort of unverifiable, that experts might agree with one another but it can’t really be formulated.

Since it can’t be formulated, and never will be formulated, what more . . .

Perhaps it’s not there. Perhaps it’s just attributed to the work as a result of a particular phase of taste.

Nobody will convince me it isn’t there. To imagine that things aren’t there just because we can’t prove they are is a rather mechanical view of experience. I’m just as sure that it’s there as I am when I’m in love with somebody. How can you prove that? You can only feel it. There’s no wire you can put on some guy that rings up “love,” or “he only thinks he’s in love,” or “he’s faking it” . . . As far as taste goes, the best work survives its vagaries––and has for centuries.

But in the act of purchasing, you resort to greatness––a quality judgment.

It’s pure cant to pretend that you can escape quality judgments. But the act of purchasing is subject to many considerations. For example, given our limited funds, is this what the collection needs most? Is this the artist the collection needs? Is this the work the collection needs? Is this the best work of that type we can find? Now the judgment as to whether it’s the best work is, in the first instance––but only in the first instance––my judgment. Then it is in the judgment of the other curators, just as when they propose something, their judgment is the first. Then it goes to the committee. I think you will find that in actual fact there tends to be considerable agreement about these things.

I would expect that because you guys are all the same.

But are we all the same? Is Kynaston McShine’s taste, for example, that similar to mine? I doubt it. He asserts his differences in our acquisitions meetings, let me assure you––and in his choice of exhibitions.

But still, you all share a certain notion of culture.

We are, admittedly, products of modern Western culture.

You wouldn’t be more specific?

Well, urban America—New York––culture to an extent, though Kynaston is originally from Trinidad, and Jenny Licht, to pick another example, is from England. In fact, I sometimes find myself being odd man out in this group of curators, though I don’t think this is because I am the only native New Yorker among them.

But it isn’t that you and they appreciate totally different sets of cultural artifacts. It’s that you have some differences within an area you are agreed to call “art.”

I think there is perhaps even disagreement there. There are common areas of agreement, and areas of disagreement. Now, on the committee there is also a variety of views. George Hamilton, for example, has had a different take on things than Bob Goldwater did. Bob Rosenblum too.

To return to the question of installation, don’t you think that the distinction drawn in the galleries between painting and sculpture is to a large extent rather artificial? The Brancusis are separated, Arp cannot be sufficiently seen in the round. The sculpture itself kind of drifts, creeps off in a kind of aimless way in the collection––to some extent.

I agree that ideally the sculpture should not be as separate from the painting as it is now. If you recall the old installations, you will see that I have tried in some small way to correct this. The Lehmbrucks are a case in point. The fact is that we are saddled with a building that has a lot of problems. The module size of the galleries that we are committed to as a result of the frequent piers is such that if we were to intermix all the sculpture and paintings, we would end up being able to hang much less painting. The space that would be required for protection of the sculptures, and the desire to avoid placing them so that they were seen against a painting would result in that. Therefore, I accepted the continued use of what I think is an inflexible gallery––that narrow, dreary third floor space––for much of the sculpture, while bringing more of it into the painting galleries. But there is also, of course, a great deal of sculpture in the garden and some in the lobby.

In regard to its largely separate installation, an argument can be made, up to a certain point, that sculpture has its own history. It has a history of symbiosis with painting, to be sure, but there is also a history of sculpture as it relates to sculpture. It’s interesting, for example, to see The Serf by Matisse near the Rodin Nude Balzac; there’s a clear relationship there. I have hopes that we will one day get the 1901 Matisse painting of Bevilacqua, the actual model for The Serf. I would then want to hang that in the same context. What I’m saying is that if one had the space and setup to permit an ideal installation, one would be constantly switching back and forth. I think that Alicia Legg, who installed the third floor sculpture gallery, did marvelously within the limitations of what could be done. She made a tremendous number of studies in an attempt to break out of a very constricting framework. But if you want to say that those sculptures would look better if we could bring them out of there, I’m in agreement. And in the best of all possible worlds, David Smith’s Australia wouldn’t be in the lobby but in amongst the Abstract Expressionist paintings upstairs. But to add it to the Smith already there would mean representing one less Abstract Expressionist painter in all likelihood. When I installed the collection last year, I thought of so many things that I would have liked to have done, but they were just impossible. I hope I’ll live long enough––live here long enough––to install this collection in a really flexible way.