PRINT May 2006

Rosalind Krauss

THERE SEEMS TO BE an absolute divide between academics and curators, the former engaging with language, the latter with objects. William Rubin would thus have seemed an unlikely candidate for the post of chief curator of painting and sculpture when the Museum of Modern Art was hiring for the position in 1966. But Rubin, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College at the time, had a masterly way with objects. His personal collection already boasted several masterpieces of Abstract Expressionism, including works by Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Ad Reinhardt, as well as the sculpture many consider David Smith’s finest work: Australia, 1951. Constituting as his collection did an absolute qualification for the MoMA position, Rubin was happy when Vogue commissioned an article on it, with a text written by Annette Michelson.

A superb teacher, Rubin remained independent of aesthetic ideologies, even the convincing analyses developed by Clement Greenberg. Accordingly, his collection included an important Lichtenstein, and his first ambitious MoMA exhibition, in 1968, was “Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage,” which focused on aesthetic phenomena despised by Greenberg. Rubin’s pedagogical background led as well to his genuine respect for and interest in the ideas of a younger group of scholars, of the generation of his former students.

Rubin’s pursuit of this led to his decision to commission texts from some of these former students for the catalogue for his massive and ambitious “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern” (1984), cocurated with Kirk Varnedoe. I had the honor of engaging with the work of Giacometti, a project that changed my intellectual life. Another example of Rubin’s determination that curatorial concerns should have discursive implications, both permitting and encouraging younger critics to involve themselves directly with the materials of actual exhibitions, was the symposium he constructed at the beginning of his 1989 “Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism” show, for which some of the specially invited scholars were scheduled to present papers; the proceedings of the symposium were published as the second volume of the ambitious catalogue. This commitment to discourse, which Rubin understood as the critical and intellectual matrix within which to develop a real understanding of historical and aesthetic phenomena, distinguished him from all his peers at MoMA.

As the Vogue article anticipated, Rubin’s additions to MoMA’s collections were masterful. His friendship with Picasso allowed him to persuade the artist to part with one of his fetish objects, the 1912–14 Guitar, which had opened the way to his whole aesthetic project of collage and thus constituted a keystone in the history of modernism. The full roster of Rubin’s acquisitions is too long to itemize here, but one of his major purchases was Joan Miró’s Birth of the World, 1925, the “dream” painting that represents the breakthrough to the artist’s most important work.

Those scholars who had the honor of working with Rubin recognized his intellectual energy and his quest for truth, no matter how challenging and unconventional. It is this commitment to discourse that is part of his extraordinary legacy.

Rosalind Krauss is University Professor at Columbia University