PRINT May 2006

Richard E. Oldenberg

I HAD THE PRIVILEGE of knowing Bill Rubin as a colleague and close friend for thirty-five years. In 1967, two years before my own arrival at the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred H. Barr Jr. persuaded Bill to leave his professorial posts at Sarah Lawrence College and Hunter College and join the museum’s staff. About to retire as director of the museum collections, Alfred wanted to ensure that the painting and sculpture collection he had built and nurtured with such care would continue to be well tended. In Bill Rubin, who was then guest-curating the upcoming exhibition “Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage” (1968), he presciently saw a promising heir: an art historian with a discerning eye, clarity and grace as a writer, and familiarity with the art market as a venturesome collector. With Alfred’s support, Bill was named curator of painting and sculpture and, a year later, chief curator. In 1973 he was appointed director of the department, a position he held until his retirement, in 1988. During more than two decades of service to the museum and its mission, Bill’s lasting contributions to its development and vitality were extraordinary.

Bill’s primary concern was always the quality and scope of the permanent collection, which he termed “the enduring heart of the curatorial function.” Under his stewardship, the great painting and sculpture collection he inherited from his predecessors was continually extended and refined. His quest was not simply for works of quality but, above all, for works he felt the museum needed in order to document and represent properly the evolution of modern art. With tenacity, ingenuity, and well-justified confidence in his eye and judgment, Bill sought out and acquired, by gift or purchase, masterworks that filled lacunae in the collection and enhanced its special strengths. Many of the works that particularly distinguish the museum’s painting and sculpture collection owe their presence there to Bill’s dedication, connoisseurship, and persistence.

While Bill’s most enduring legacy may be found in the permanent collection, he also organized memorable exhibitions, with accompanying publications, which made major contributions to art history and scholarship. Always a teacher at heart, Bill insisted that an exhibition should expand our experience, reveal something we didn’t already know. While achieving this purpose, many of his exhibitions also elicited a remarkable popular response. Exhibitions such as “Cézanne: The Late Work” (1977), “Picasso: A Retrospective” (1980), and “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern” (1984), to name only a few, importantly helped to build and enlarge an interested, informed public for modern art.

In addition to his curatorial skills, Bill brought admirable personal qualities to his work at the museum—among them, generosity, integrity, refreshing candor, and a self-deprecating humor that tempered a not-inconsiderable ego. He could be very demanding when immersed in a project, but his impatience was forgiven as a reflection of the high standards he set for himself, and any hurts were healed by the warm appreciation he showed everyone involved when the project was completed.

As a colleague and friend, Bill was very good company, with wide-ranging interests and knowledge. He was a polymath, coming late to art history after studying musicology, Italian literature, and French history. He had played the clarinet in a chamber group, led an orchestra during his army service, and once even considered conducting as a career. Perhaps his virtuosity as a lecturer was an echo of this training. Speaking without notes, Bill shaped and paced his lectures as though they were movements in chamber music. Sharing a love of opera, he and I sometimes relaxed by discussing the merits of various singers. I still treasure a tape Bill made especially for me, pitting the tenors Jussi Björling and Beniamino Gigli “mano a mano,” as he put it, by juxtaposing their recordings of the same arias.

I also remember the trips we made together to seek exhibition loans or to cultivate potential donors. Bill prized his creature comforts, so we lived and dined quite well on these excursions. Russia, however, in the Soviet days of the ’70s, almost defeated him. On our first night in Moscow, in a hotel dining room staffed by a single sullen waiter, Bill tried to get toast with the caviar he’d ordered, even attempting to clarify his request by passing a piece of bread over the flame of his cigarette lighter. Having no success, he looked glumly at his plate and pronounced, “This is not a country for a spoiled, cosmopolite Jew.”

On a follow-up trip to Russia, I traveled alone. Also challenging was our visit to Vienna, with French museum colleagues, to seek loans for our planned “Vienna 1900” exhibition (1986). The initial intransigence of the Austrian officials produced an exceptional Franco-American amity. At dinner we all traded simulated slaps, saying, “Here is ein Klimt for you!”

Other trips had few such strains. In Paris, we were always well received by museum officials, with whom Bill had fostered close ties over the years. In 1975 he was instrumental in concluding a formal agreement between the museum and the French Ministry of Culture to collaborate on major projects. On several occasions, we also enjoyed the company of Picasso’s widow, Jacqueline, whose fondness for Bill led to important gifts to the collection.

In 1988, Bill chose to retire as the director of the department of painting and sculpture. Like Barr before him, he first helped to ensure that the collection would remain in good hands. Named director emeritus of the department, Bill continued to serve the museum as a consultant, concentrating on special exhibition projects, research, and writing. In this new role, he extended his long list of notable exhibitions with the presentation of “Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism” (1989) and “Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation” (1996).

In later years, Bill’s health became more precarious, with occasional hospital stays and ongoing medical treatments. He endured these downturns and their lingering effects with exemplary fortitude and spirit. With the devoted support of his wife, Phyllis Hattis, he carried on his productive life, savoring its pleasures despite some setbacks. He applied himself to completing a book on the works acquired for the painting and sculpture collection during his tenure, modestly focusing less on his own role than on the quality of the works and their special significance for the collection, on the artists who created them, and on the donors and patrons who had made their acquisition possible.

He dedicated his book, which hopefully will soon find a publisher, to Alfred Barr, citing his “unparalleled accomplishments.” Reviewing the history recorded in this manuscript and remembering Bill with deep admiration and affection, it seems very evident that one of Barr’s greatest accomplishments was the selection of Bill Rubin as his successor.

Richard E. Oldenburg is director emeritus of the Museum of Modern Art.