PRINT May 2006

Frank Stella

WHEN WILLIAM RUBIN pointed out that at the end of the nineteenth century, Cézanne’s “characteristic work was largely unknown,” we are quite surprised. On the face of it, it seems odd. A sense of art-historical puzzlement draws us toward Cézanne and into the grasp of the scholar illuminating him. As the process unfolds, we experience William, the art historian, laying out the final arguments in a series of brilliant catalogue essays for what was at its onset a modest Museum of Modern Art exhibition titled “Cézanne: The Late Work” (1977). At nearly the same time, we come to realize that his alter ego, Bill Rubin, the art lover, is planning to reinforce the historical arguments with a visual assault. The result is a stunning exhibition of paintings that will become an almost unimaginable success—in effect, a magnified surprise, produced by Bill, that mirrors our initial surprise at William’s remark.

The larger-than-life circumstances of the Cézanne exhibition gave it a standard-setting impact that served as well as a wonderful public portrait of William. However, at the time, I was more taken with the exhibition’s private portrait of Bill, a portrait perhaps more singular and less stressful. Surely it was Bill Rubin who had all the fun handling and hanging the paintings, while it was William Rubin who had to do all the work assembling paintings from all over the world and producing a beautiful, on-time catalogue. Naturally, I was drawn, magnet-like, to Bill, but I was amazed, always amazed by William. I loved art and could easily share that love with Bill. On the other hand, for better or worse, I did live in the art world with William. What William managed and manipulated with ease—this overgrown and convoluted art world—I could barely manage to navigate. As you might expect, in the end I gave up trying to keep up with William and simply spent all of my time with Bill, having fun, loving art.

It’s too bad it couldn’t end up that way, Bill and Frank having fun, loving art. William would just never let it be. “Yes,” he would say, “maybe that did happen, but that doesn’t explain why or how it happened.” While I’m not sure why or how it happened, or how I came to share part of all that art and fun and love bound up in a life truly lived, I am sure where it happened. It happened in the realm of the pictorial—the land where picture and painting rule. This is the realm that William was determined to build for others, for us, really, a world of engaging beauty that Bill believed in with his whole heart and soul.

So together William and Bill fused the facets of our world, the art world, the studios, the galleries, the collections, and the institutions, into a manageable, if not meaningful, whole, into a pictorial realm that is touched with grace—what might be called a visual paradise approachable by and available to all.

Frank Stella was the subject of solo exhibitions curated by William Rubin at the Museum of Modern Art in 1970 and 1987.