Lusty Art Hunter Bags Picasso, Makes MoMA Modern

"Australia" (1951) by David Smith. Originally in William Rubin's personal collection, this masterpiece was donated by Rubin to the Museum of Modern Art. Source: The Museum of Modern Art via Bloomberg

One weekend in 1970, William Rubin got a call from Picasso’s biographer Roland Penrose. Thieves had stolen artworks from Penrose’s English country house and were holding them for ransom.

The loot included a rare 1914 Cubist construction by Picasso, which Rubin, then chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, had long coveted to fill a gap in MoMA’s collection.

Penrose needed $114,000 fast and was willing to make a deal.

As Rubin (1927-2006) recounts the story in his captivating memoir, “A Curator’s Quest,” he can’t remember which MoMA trustee he phoned -- David Rockefeller or CBS mogul William Paley. But on Monday the money was wired to England.

The Tate Gallery intervened, eventually landing the Picasso in London. But this did not faze the tenacious curator and, later, director of the world’s greatest collection of Modern art.

In 1971, Rubin met with Picasso in the South of France and charmed the Spaniard into giving MoMA, among other masterpieces, his seminal Cubist sheet-metal relief “Guitar” (1914) -- the “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” of sculpture.

MoMA Coups

Picasso’s “Guitar” would have been a crowning acquisition for any curator. It was merely one of many coups during Rubin’s two decades at MoMA.

There, from the late 1960s to the late 1980s, he mounted exhibitions, traded, sold and acquired artworks. He also wooed and coddled temperamental artists, collectors, donors, gallery dealers, museum directors, MoMA trustees, politicians and billionaire philanthropists.

At MoMA, Rubin conceived groundbreaking, beautifully installed shows devoted to Dada and Surrealism, Cezanne’s late work, primitivism in 20th-century art, Picasso’s portraiture and Picasso and Braque’s Cubism.

There was also the legendary 1980 blockbuster, “Picasso: A Retrospective,” which took over the entire museum.

“A Curator’s Quest” is filled with snapshots and peppered with the Rockefellers, the Guggenheims, world leaders and movie stars.

My initial impression of “A Curator’s Quest” was that it was a name-dropping vanity project.

Artistic Integrity

Yet it is really not about Rubin’s accomplishments. Though written in the first-person, the book selflessly celebrates art, artists, MoMA and Alfred H. Barr Jr.’s founding legacy, which Rubin, with indefatigable integrity, sought to uphold, further and fine tune.

The visual heart of this lavishly illustrated, thinking-person’s coffee table book is its nearly 240 full-page color reproductions chronicling Rubin’s major acquisitions, everyone from van Gogh to de Kooning.

“A Curator’s Quest” is strongest in the book’s superb leading essay, where we experience a fanatical curator.

Lustful Hunter

Here we see Rubin as a lustful, vigilant hunter with a keen eye, a diplomat who brokered art deals with Russia during the Cold War, and a consummate businessman who instigated the advantageous though controversial process of taking sealed bids from dealers when selling works of art.

Interwoven with detailed stories of how, for how much and from whom Rubin acquired artworks are his personal tastes, honest opinions and passionate descriptions.

Matisse’s vision, Rubin writes, represents the “sensuous sublime,” while “Vuillard reveals himself the greatest Intimist of modern painting.”

It is impossible, of course, to agree with everything Rubin did. In some ways, especially his embrace of Pop art and Conceptualism, he is responsible for letting down MoMA’s guard against Postmodernism, which continues to undermine the very ideals he and Barr held dear.

But you can’t fault Rubin’s honesty and doggedness. He never lost sight of the prize.

“A Curator’s Quest: Building the Collection of Painting and Sculpture of The Museum of Modern Art, 1967-1988” is published by Overlook Duckworth (624 pages, $100).

To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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