PRINT May 2018


Kynaston McShine

Alex Katz, Kynaston, 1963, oil on linen, 35 × 48". © Alex Katz/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

I AM STANDING in Galerie Lelong, looking at a show of the art Hélio Oiticica made during his years in New York in the 1970s. On the front desk is a book that I pick up and skim, finding an interview with a fellow Brazilian who was close to Oiticica in those years of shared exile. He is asked whom the two men spent time with—who was their social world. Well, he says, we were pretty much alone, we didn’t really know anyone . . . except, of course, Kynaston McShine at the Museum of Modern Art.

This memory from a good few years back, which I now can’t completely reconstruct—was Oiticica’s friend the filmmaker Neville D’Almeida, perhaps? Not sure—is nevertheless clear in my head in the one detail that made me burst into laughter at the time: They didn’t know anyone except, of course, Kynaston McShine. It didn’t matter to me that Oiticica would actually have to have known Kynaston: In 1970, he had been included in MoMA's “Information” exhibition, one of the rare shows that lodge their curator in art history. (Kynaston organized at least one more such show, “Primary Structures,” at the Jewish Museum in 1966; others were no less memorable.) But even if that weren’t so, of course Oiticica would have to have known Kynaston, simply because Kynaston would have to have known Oiticica. Kynaston knew everyone.

I am at my desk in the MoMA Publications Department sometime in the late ’90s, editing this or that, when a phone call comes in from a friend in the Department of Painting and Sculpture. My friend is in a state of high hilarity: Mick Jagger has come to see Kynaston. He has gone first to the reception desk at the main entrance; the receptionist has called to tell Kynaston he’s there; Kynaston has replied, “Send him up.” The P&S department of that era is a long, cluttered corridor, with a row of offices on one side and a row of file cabinets on the other. Mick Jagger has navigated the long corridor to Kynaston’s door, which is closed; he has knocked on the door; Kynaston has replied, “Wait!” Mick Jagger has lounged against the file cabinets for a good fifteen minutes before Kynaston has let him in. A great many curatorial assistants have suddenly found they have pressing business in the file cabinets. It has been a scene.

I can’t do justice to Kynaston’s acute and sensitive mind or to his poetic and eccentric soul. Now warm, now forbidding, now obdurate, now slyly, wonderfully funny, he was always unique. But maybe these stories, fluttering around his edges, show how, to people who knew him, he seemed somehow central—seemed to be someone whom not just the museum but a much wider world revolved around. Mick Jagger, two relatively unknown Brazilian artists in a cocaine-strewn apartment on the Lower East Side of the ’70s—of course they knew Kynaston. Of course.

David Frankel, formerly the editorial director of the Museum of Modern Art, is a writer and editor who lives in New York.