PRINT May 2006

Yve-Alain Bois

FOR YEARS BEFORE I MET HIM, WILLIAM RUBIN loomed larger than life. And after I gradually got to know him, he loomed even larger still—but differently.

When I came to America in 1983 from France—where twentieth-century art was still almost entirely absent from the curricula of art-history programs, where criticism was sheer belletristic babble, and where the Musée National d’Art Moderne had only five years earlier received from the powers that be the means to support a veritable acquisitions policy—Rubin seemed a giant. I had not seen any of his landmark exhibitions, except when they had appeared in Paris (typically a year after their debut at the Museum of Modern Art) in poorly installed, somewhat watered-down versions, such as “André Masson,” in 1977; “Cézanne: The Late Work,” in 1978; and “Giorgio de Chirico,” in 1983. Yet I had dutifully read their scholarly catalogues, as well as those of “Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage” (1968) and “Frank Stella” (1970), and the benchmark-setting “Picasso in the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art” (1972). I was also familiar with many of Rubin’s essays: his Art International reviews of the late ’50s and early ’60s (still among the best on Jean Dubuffet, Arshile Gorky, and Ellsworth Kelly); his more ponderous quartet on “Jackson Pollock and the Modern Tradition,” the first properly art-historical treatment of the origins and development of the drip paintings (appearing in Artforum from February through May 1967); and his eight-hundred-pound-gorilla attack on the endless Jungian gibberish attending Pollock’s work, published a decade later in the November and December 1979 issues of Art in America. Add to these Rubin’s numerous articles on Picasso and Cubism, including “Cézannisme and the Beginnings of Cubism” in the catalogue of his late Cézanne show, and the fascinating polemical debate that followed between him and Leo Steinberg.

This is only a sample: Rubin wrote a lot. (How did he find the time? I always wonder.) Yet I never failed to read him, because I knew that no matter how much I might disagree with him, his work represented the best of a certain tradition that I was utterly deprived of in France. The scope of his knowledge was daunting, as were the relentlessness of his research, his refusal to abandon any thread, and his indefatigable energy in making sure that no stone was left unturned. By the time I met him, I had grown familiar with his assertive prose, his inclination toward overkill, his matter-of-fact, positivist tone, which often concealed—to my mind, regrettably—his brilliant intuitions.

I had heard Rubin derided as immune to criticism, frightfully intimidating, and even authoritarian—in short, unapproachable. However, my first personal encounter with him wasn’t at all what I had been led to expect. It came at the end of a symposium accompanying his formidable exhibition “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern,” cocurated with Kirk Varnedoe at MoMA in 1984. My brief lecture, which would form the basis of a review published shortly thereafter, had contained in embryo a severe critique of what I saw as the flaw of the exhibition (its pseudomorphic comparisons). To my utmost surprise, Rubin publicly replied to my presentation by saying that had he heard it sooner, he would have conceived of the show slightly differently. Yet unlike those of other critics, my argument was conducted on formal grounds—Rubin’s territory—which is why, I understood later, it piqued his curiosity rather than exasperated him.

Rubin (he was not yet Bill to me then) summoned me to his office at MoMA the next day. There, for a good two hours, the pair of us blissfully smoking our pipes, we debated my main point: that the show’s splendid opening juxtaposition of Picasso’s 1912–14 Guitar and the Grebo mask that had famously led to its momentous invention had promised an investigation of formal relationships that were structural rather than essentially morphological (for there is little resemblance between these two objects), but that, in the end, this promise had not been fulfilled. Needless to say, Rubin had many counter-arguments in store. Yet our conversation ended with him agreeing that, in order to elaborate on the pairing of the Grebo mask and Guitar and to highlight the principle of montage that is at work within them, it would have been easy to present a second confrontation, this time with objects that would be morphologically even more different yet structurally similar (I had given him several possible examples). I puzzled over this final acquiescence, for it did not rhyme with the common prejudice that Rubin was (like so many of his art-historian peers at the time), if not hostile to, at least unconcerned with theoretical issues. Once again, it was only much later that I understood why my proposal had passed the litmus test: Not only was my theoretical point translatable into the space of an exhibition, but it articulated palpable visual differences and similarities between objects; that is, it was a response to existing objects, not a set of a priori constructs that objects would then serve to illustrate. Though a born pedagogue, Rubin was never crazy about long and elaborate wall labels: An exhibition had to convey an argument, but do so without words.

The second time I met Rubin was at the 1988 opening of “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” an exhibition curated by Hélène Seckel at the Musée National Picasso in Paris. He was in a radiant mood, not only because the show was “absolutely perfect” (his own effusive words, making my friend Hélène blush), but also because the Demoiselles was securely fastened to a wall in the Hôtel Sallé (he had insisted on traveling on the same plane, not wanting to be in the position of surviving the painting should it be destroyed in a crash). Rubin had recently read my essay on the dealer-critic Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (elaborating on the mask/Guitar pairing in a more thoroughly structuralist and Saussurian vein) and had been convinced by it. He therefore warned that he would ask me to contribute to yet another symposium at MoMA, this one destined to celebrate his forthcoming exhibition “Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism” (1989), the best I have ever seen in the museum—the best, I daresay, that I have ever seen in any museum. Not only was my earlier preconception of Rubin’s hostility or indifference to theory definitively put to rest by what he told me my task would be, but so too were rumors concerning his arrogance: I was to explore Picasso’s and Braque’s Cubism as a sign-system, a topic to which he himself would have liked to attend but for which he had realized, after several fruitless attempts, he lacked the necessary background.

There would be myriad anecdotes to recount about the “Picasso and Braque” symposium, and although MoMA published selections from the proceedings (edited by Lynn Zelevansky), the text does not quite convey the vivid and sometimes cantankerous nature of the debates. I shall recall just one incident, for it says a lot about the respect Rubin commanded. At the outset of the symposium, we (speakers and auditors alike) had been pained to learn that Leo Steinberg had decided not to give his presentation, he and Rubin having recently squabbled, as they sometimes did (when in the know, I tended to side with Steinberg). Not prepared to absent himself totally from a debate concerning a matter so dear to him, Steinberg had nevertheless been a remarkable presence throughout the four-day gathering, generously providing illuminating comments at every possible turn. At the very end of the last day, or rather, about half an hour before the time was up, Rubin coyly asked to be excused to go conduct his graduate seminar at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts. Springing to his feet before anyone else had time to react, Steinberg proposed a toast to the departing professor for having offered us, thanks to his impressive curatorial muscle, such an unforgettable exhibition. The long, roaring applause did not stop until Rubin had left the room.

It was during the “Picasso and Braque” show that Rubin became Bill for me, and from then on, I visited him in his smoking-allowed office every time I came to New York. We saw the exhibition several times together, discussing various minute points of chronology (was this or that painting predicated on this or that one, or the reverse?), which led to further discussions about the evolution of museology and the function of MoMA as an institution (should it set a cutoff date for its permanent collection, after which it would just act as a Kunsthalle, in effect erecting a barrier between the modern and the contemporary?). Chronology as a heuristic tool was something he cared deeply about; the thematic approach that is becoming dominant in the presentation of modern-art collections in museums worldwide did not have his sympathy. On this count, he was the true successor of Alfred H. Barr Jr., even if he liked to poke fun at the famous chronological diagram of modern-art movements adorning Barr’s 1936 Cubism and Abstract Art. It certainly governed Rubin’s whole attitude toward acquisitions: “Fill the gaps” was his motto, and his pride was immense when he was able to secure for MoMA a painting or a sculpture that made “the story” clearer, even if it was a promised gift that would only benefit the visitors of the future. His attitude was the same with regard to exhibitions: They were useless, even harmful, if they did not clarify “the story.” They had to have a point. This actually had practical consequences, as I learned when accompanying him on his searches for the supremely fragile paintings of Ad Reinhardt for the retrospective he curated in 1991: I learned that to persuade a museum or a private collector to lend a prize possession and risk endangering it, one has to have a pretty convincing story to tell, which means, first of all, that the curator himself has to be convinced.

“The story”: This is where the reproach of dogmatism often hurled at Bill seems most grounded. He had fairly ecumenical taste—the private collection he had acquired before joining MoMA as well as his publications and exhibitions attest to that—but he was the first to recognize that it was limited. According to him, the story it was MoMA’s mission to tell was that of what he dubbed “High Modernism.” His version of it was of a much wider scope than Clement Greenberg’s, for it included, for example, Pop art, but he doubted it had a much longer lifespan. In any case, Bill’s “High Modernism” was pretty much object-based and bound to a fairly traditional notion of medium specificity. It fit his conception of the art museum as an unsatisfactory but necessary compromise between the private spaces of the wealthy class and the public spaces of democracy (he liked fairly small rooms, similar in scale to those of a bourgeois apartment, in which viewers could isolate themselves in the contemplation of a handful of works installed together with a purpose). In view of this, his response when criticized for failing to go after Earthworks or Conceptual art for MoMA’s collection, in hindsight, makes a lot of sense. “The museum concept is not infinitely expandable,” he countered. “If someone offered us the Spiral Jetty [1970] and enough money so that we could maintain it and protect it in perpetuity—because the minute we took it into the collection, we would be responsible for its care—we might do just that. But it still wouldn’t be in the Museum of Modern Art (and couldn’t be seen in relation to its other modern art).” This was said in 1974, in a remarkable two-part interview published in Artforum: Amazing, isn’t it, that what he imagined as the ideal fate of Smithson’s work describes, grosso modo, the arrangement conceived for it by the Dia Art Foundation a quarter of a century later? As for Conceptual art, was he so off the mark when he wrote: “Why can one not accept that forms of art may emerge—or have emerged—which transcend museums, that belong elsewhere? . . . I feel, for example, that a great many Conceptual works are far more comfortable in an art magazine than in a museum”? To some at the time, this com- ment doubtless sounded conservative, but, in fact (and here’s one more prejudice about Bill that will have to go), it revealed that his grasp of works such as Dan Graham’s Homes for America, 1966–67, or Mel Bochner and Robert Smithson’s Domain of the Great Bear, 1966, was much better than he was credited for—and perhaps even better than that of many of this new art’s most ardent advocates.

Yve-Alain Bois is a contributing editor of Artforum.