PRINT May 2006

Richard Serra

William Rubin (right) preparing “Cézanne: The Late Work,” Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1977. Photo: D. Gordon/The New York Times.

WE HAVE ALL HEARD the often-told anecdote of how Bill Rubin was able to secure from Picasso the gift of the artist’s 1912–14 sheet-metal Guitar for the Museum of Modern Art in 1971. In his memoir, Rubin describes the work as “the first of a new race of constructed—as opposed to carved or modeled—sculptures” and as “an object more radical and influential in the history of sculpture than was Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in the history of painting.” As a sculptor, you gotta like this guy.

When I think of Picasso, I think of him as a relative of sorts, as someone who is part of my mental family. I don’t want to imply that he was a mere Freudian figure when he was alive; rather, he was another artist with whom I had an on-and-off imaginary dialogue over the years. What does this self-conscious admission have to do with Bill Rubin? He was the associative link. I could not think of Bill Rubin independently of his relationship to Picasso, and when he invited me in 1984 to pull together a retrospective for the Modern, this association added more weight to the challenge.

And now I see him smiling out of his New York Times obituary in a photo taken in 1996, during the installation of his Picasso portraiture show. Behind him are two great Picasso paintings: Girl Before a Mirror and The Mirror, both 1932. He looks the same as he did about ten years earlier when I sat across from him discussing my forthcoming exhibition at MoMA—the same light in his eye, the same Cheshire grin, the same aloof self-confidence. Well, not exactly the same—as he leaned toward me, he conveyed an utter seriousness: “Richard, since I have been curator we have done twelve one-person shows of living artists, and I wanted each and every one of them to count, and they have, with few exceptions. I want you to give this exhibition your best effort.” It was all said with good intentions in a matter-of-fact manner, but with a tinge of Vince Lombardi before the big game. I liked him for saying it. It reminded me of my jock days. I understood that he was going to hold me accountable.

He had a few other issues that he wanted to clear up in this meeting. We agreed that Rosalind Krauss would curate the exhibition and write the main text for the catalogue. He was, however, suspicious of the political ideology of Douglas Crimp, whom I had chosen to write the second essay. I told him that Douglas was reasonable and that I wanted his viewpoint to remain in the catalogue. We reached a compromise. He was insistent, however, upon not having a photograph of Tilted Arc, 1981, on the cover of the catalogue. That disagreement persisted until after he spoke at the hearing on Tilted Arc. When he came to testify, he introduced himself as “William Rubin, the director of the department of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art.” He then said, “Richard Serra will shortly have a large retrospective exhibition of his work at the Museum of Modern Art.” He requested a moratorium on the removal of my sculpture from Federal Plaza, stating that “even posing this question now seems to me inappropriate and unethical.” As we know now, the Republican government couldn’t have cared less about the cultural institution Bill Rubin represented or about what he and many others said on my behalf. For me, his appearance at the hearing was not only a much-appreciated gesture of support; it also helped me get back into my work. The MoMA exhibition coming right after the Tilted Arc fiasco brought me psychologically past a very difficult moment of my life, and it is in this context that I remember Bill Rubin. The Tilted Arc affair made it very difficult to raise money for my exhibition. Corporations did not want to be associated with my angry battle against the government. Bill Rubin found the means. He allowed the show to happen. I will always be grateful to him for having given me the benefit of the doubt.

Richard Serra’s first retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art was mounted in 1984 at the invitation of William Rubin; his second will open in the summer of 2007.