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Rubin, William S.

    Full Name: Rubin, William S.

    Other Names:

    • William Stanley Rubin

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1927

    Date Died: 2006

    Place Born: Brooklyn, Cattaraugus, NY, USA

    Place Died: Pound Ridge, Westchester, NY

    Home Country/ies: United States

    Subject Area(s): Modern (style or period), painting (visual works), and sculpture (visual works)


    Director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture, Museum of Modern Art, 1973-1988. Rubin was the son of Mack and Beatrice Rubin. His father was a self-made textile merchant and factory owner. Rubin grew up in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, attending the Fieldston School, serving as captain of the football team in his senior year. At Fieldston Rubin met Victor D’Amico, director of education at the Museum of Modern Art. Rubin volunteered at the museum working on special projects under D’Amico. He entered Columbia University, but joined the military during World War II to serve in the American occupation forces in Europe. His B. A. from Columbia in 1949 was in Italian language and literature. He spent a year at the University of Paris planning a career as a concert conductor. Rubin instead returned to Columbia to pursue an advance degree in history. At Columbia, a course under the medievalist Rosa Schapire, whose other research interest was the New York School, caused Rubin to switch to art history. After securing his M. A. in 1952, Rubin taught at Sarah Lawrence beginning in Bronxville, NY, and the City University of New York (1960-1967). He was an editor for Art International, collecting art in his spare time. Rubin bought the new Abstract Expressionist art of Jasper Johns and Frank Stella. His dissertation, granted from Columbia in 1959, was on modern ecclesiastic art. During this time, too, Rubin strengthened his friendship with Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the founder and “Director of Collections” at the Museum of Modern Art, inviting Barr to lecture at Sarah Lawrence. Barr invited Rubin to mount an exhibition of Andé Masson art at MoMA. Rubin’s skill led to an appointment as curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture in 1967. Rubin’s close connection with the art dealer Sidney Janis (1896-1989), both as a collector and art historian, resulted in Janis and his wife’s donation of their five Mondrians to the Museum. Part of Rubin’s mandate was to build in the area of Abstract Expressionist art which Barr had largely ignored. He swapped another work with Janis to acquire Jackson Pollock’s “One: Number 31, 1950” and convinced the art dealer Ben Heller (b. 1925) to donate Barnett Newman’s 1950-51 “Vir Heroicus Sublimis.” In 1968 Rubin mounted ”Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage.” By 1969 Rubin was chief curator of painting and sculpture. He was named Director of the department in 1973. During his tenure at the Modern, Rubin acquired Picasso’s ”Charnel House” (1944-45), Miro’s ”Birth of the World” (1925) and two 1950’s cutouts by Matisse, ”Memory of Oceania” and ”The Swimming Pool.” His most famous acquisition was Picasso’s ”Guitar,” 1912-13, a metal-construction sculpture, which Picasso gave outright from his own collection after Rubin offered to trade a Cézanne. Rubin donated to the museum David Smith’s ”Australia,” 1951, a work from his own collection. Rubin’s most celebrated scholarly exhibition was “Cézanne: the Late Work” in 1978. Rubin engaged in a public disagreement with University of Pennsylvania scholar Leo Steinberg over Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, an exchange covered in the pages of Art in America between 1978-1979. A large Picasso retrospective was held in 1980, also to the acclaim of critics. MoMA expanded in 1984 and Rubin was able to mount larger shows. The infamous ”Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern,” was organized with his handpicked assistant, J. Kirk Varnedoe. Pairing modern artworks with examples of the African and Oceanic art that had influenced them, the show emphasized formalism at the expense of the larger context both modern and non-western art had developed. The exhibition set off a debate between Thomas McEvilley who had negatively reviewed the show in Artforum. Rubin retired in 1988 but continued to organize exhibitions. “Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism” was launched in 1989 and “Picasso’s Portraits” in 1996. Critics despaired that Rubin would mount a show organized around Picasso’s womanizing. In 1994, Rubin asserted that the numerous paintings and drawings of Picasso in the1920’s were of the American socialite Sara Murphy and are not depictions of Picasso’s wife at the time, Olga. As Director emeritus, Rubin lived his last days in his loft off Broadway and in a home in Pound Ridge, NY, where he died. Rubin was a controversial figure. An egotist who married four times, he brokered art-world power usually to the benefit of MoMa collections. He continued the museum’s practice of selling off art works considered less-important or redundant by the staff in order to finance newer acquisitions. Rubin, however, began the practice of sealed-bid auction from dealers to increased revenue. His exhibitions built on the largely formalist and historically linear history of art established by Barr. Critics of Rubin and the Museum accused both of being unreceptive to new art and obsessed with the Museum’s place in the history of art. His painting and sculpture installations followed the Barr cannon of emphasizing masterpieces, great artists and French painting.

    Selected Bibliography

    [dissertation:] Modern Sacred Art and the Church of Assy. Columbia University, 1959, published in an abbreviated version, New York: Columbia University Press, 1961; “Pollock as Jungian Illustrator: The Limits of Psychological Criticism.” Art in America 67 (November 1979): 104-23, and Art in America 67 (December 1979): 72-91; and Reff, Theodore. Cézanne: the Late Work: Essays. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1977; Dada, Surrealism, and their Heritage. New York: Museum of Modern Art,1968; and Seckel, Héléne, and Cousins, Judith. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. New York: The Museum of Modern Art,1994; Pablo Picasso, a Retrospective. New York: Museum of Modern Art,1980; “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern. 2 vols. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1984; [“Primitivism” exhibition exchange:] McEvilley, Thomas. “Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief.” Artforum 23 (November 1984): 54-61; “Pablo and Georges and Leo and Bill.” Art in America 67 (March 1979): 128-47 [reply to] Steinberg, Leo. “Resisting Cezanne: Picasso’s Three Women.” Art in America 66 (November 1978): 114-33 and “Polemical Part.” Art in America 67 (March 1979):114-27.


    Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Research Guide to the History of Western Art. Sources of Information in the Humanities, no. 2. Chicago: American Library Association, 1982, p. 103; D’souza, Aruna. “Biography Becomes Form: William Rubin, Pablo Picasso, and the Subject of Art History.” Word & Image 18 no. 2 (April/June 2002): 126-36; Tomkins, Calvin. “Profiles: Sharpening the Eye.” New Yorker 61 no. 37 (November 4, 1985): ; [obituaries:] Smith, Roberta. “William Rubin, 78, Curator Who Transformed MoMA’s Collection and Identity, Dies.” New York Times January 24, 2006, p. B 7; “William Rubin.” The Times (London) January 27, 2006, p. 68.


    "Rubin, William S.." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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