PRINT May 2006

Robert Rosenblum

IN UNEXPECTED WAYS, Bill Rubin and I seem to have been twinned for life. He was born in New York City in the summer of 1927 (a Leo only eighteen days my junior), and each of us at one point considered a career in music or musicology before ending up doing graduate work in art history. He went uptown to Columbia, and I went downtown to NYU. I got my Ph.D. in 1956; he got his in 1959. And during those years, when we first met and when most art historians, either out of ignorance or aversion, shied away from contemporary art, we both espoused not only Abstract Expressionism but also the work of a new artist of our generation, Jasper Johns. And then came Frank Stella, whom we both wrote about in the late ’60s. But there was still another bond: The two of us were lifelong slaves to Picasso. I, however, never tried to meet our master, fearing that I might tremble and expire at the very sight of this Olympian genius, whereas Bill, notoriously fearless, was able to extract not only documentary information from him but also a masterpiece of Cubist sculpture, the 1912–14 Guitar, for the Museum of Modern Art. I remember feeling honored and privileged when, in the summer of 1971, Bill invited me to his house on the Côte d’Azur for a brief working vacation of rigorous discipline, during which I was to read and, if I had enough pluck, perhaps even correct or challenge the magisterial manuscript he was preparing as the catalogue of MoMA’s Picasso collection. Twenty-five years later, I felt no less honored when he asked me to contribute an essay to the catalogue for his landmark show, “Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation” (1996). We were even part-time academic colleagues. Throughout his tenure at MoMA, Bill was an adjunct professor at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, where we often taught the same students and ended up on the same oral-examination committees.

But in fact we almost always saw things differently. In a way, that was also the nature of art historians of our generation, which emerged under the illuminating lights and disturbing shadows of Clement Greenberg’s unswerving faith in his own system of law and order—opposing “major” and “minor,” main roads and byways, high art and kitsch. This was a faith delivered with such papal assurance that, as in a confrontation with the one “true” religion, the only choice could be acceptance or rejection. With a self-confidence matching Greenberg’s, Bill presented a famously lucid vision of modern art in his lectures, curatorial work, and copious writings, all of which were based on the most scrupulous scholarship, with no detail left unexamined. His publications, whether on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, or on Dada and Surrealism, have uncommon heft and authority, each one a weighty landmark that towers above the competition. With a lapidary precision that continued in the tradition of one of his great mentors, Alfred H. Barr Jr., he pruned prose and history to their essentials. I confess that I chose the complementary path, preferring mess to order, the tentative to the certain, promiscuous taste to timeless purity. But Bill, however much he might have disagreed with my wayward views, always tried to respect my insistence on blurring the boundaries that seemed so inviolable to him. Once, in the spirit of academic freedom, he invited me to present some of my eccentric ideas at his graduate seminar. When I showed Joaquín Sorolla together with Picasso, he greeted the comparisons with affectionate discomfort, a mixture of indulgent tolerance and high-minded shock, although later, at MoMA, his patience ran out when I crossed swords with him at a meeting by waxing enthusiastic over Eric Fischl, whose illustrational style and narrative intrigues were for him beyond the pale.

The truth is that we disagreed about many, many things, ranging from the relative importance of an emerging artist to the proper approach to the history of twentieth-century art. But the truth also is that, just as I suspect he was envious of my refusal to believe in fixed values, I know I was often envious of his ability to cut through the infinite confusions of aesthetics and history with a laser-beam clarity that dispelled any fog of doubt.

Robert Rosenblum is a contributing editor of Artforum.