Kenworth Moffett and The MFA
First Curator of Contemporary Art
By: Kenworth W. Moffett - Feb 25, 2015
First, I want to thank you Charles for the opportunity you are giving me to have my say about my years at the M.F.A. You were by far the best art critic in Boston when I was there and I have very much enjoyed our relationship over the years.
Of course, I took this opportunity to polish my accomplishments when I was lucky enough to serve as Curator of Contemporary Art at Boston’s M.F.A. (1971 to 1984.)
To put what follows in perspective, I must begin earlier, when I was at Columbia University majoring in art history. My mentor there became Meyer Shapiro, who was the star of the faculty at that time. His singling me out was huge for my confidence. I attended all of his lectures and was able to be the projector operator in his graduate seminars. Also important was a graduate seminar I audited given by Phillip Pouncey, who was then Curator of Drawings at the British Museum. He was a lovely, gentle man, not at all professorial. He wasn’t used to teaching and was concerned about how his class was going over. For some reason, perhaps because I was the only undergraduate in his seminar, he came over to me in the library to sound me out. We talked often after that. He gave me my first example of the pure connoisseur. He once said to me that when he went on vacation for even a week, he felt rusty, and had to do some looking “to get back my edge”. More like an athlete than a scholar, he saw himself as a finely tuned instrument that must be kept keen.
I applied to Columbia Graduate School but also Harvard’s. I was lucky enough to be accepted at both. I wanted to continue to work with Shapiro but he told me no, that I should go to Harvard. He said I’d “like it better” and besides, I’d taken all of his courses already. So it was that I became a graduate student at Harvard from 1957-1962. This is when I came to know the M.F.A. Collections. I remember being sent by Professor Jakob Rosenberg to the M.F.A. to study Ruben’s magnificent “Tamarya With The Head of Cyrus” with a view to distinguishing which parts were by the master and which by other members of his studio. Rosenberg was a German Jew who had fled Germany, where he had been Curator of Prints and Drawings at the museum in Berlin. He taught the introductory course for all graduate students. He did a little test in one session where he showed us 12 pairs of slides of old master drawings. We had to decide which one was “the best.” We later learned that each pair consisted of a work by a true master and one by a mere student or a forger. I remember being amazed afterward that so many of my fellow graduate students had done so poorly; I had gotten 11 out of 12! I could hardly believe it. Many of my fellow students were from far more sophisticated backgrounds. In any event, this occurrence gave me an enormous boost in confidence. Inexplicably, I’d been given a gift, “an eye”. I soon came to believe that I had to see the great museums of Europe to educate my taste, my eye. Later, thanks in part to Dr. Rosenberg, I was able to travel in Europe for two years and then, spend two more, researching my thesis in Berlin. (It was eventually published as “Jules Meier-Graefe as Art Critic”).
Professor Shapiro was right. Harvard did suit me better. At Harvard the stress was on connoisseurship, comparative evaluation, the development of your eye. That the Department is lodged in the wonderful Fogg Art Museum enabled this approach. There was even a collection of forgeries to hone your eye. The star of the Department was Professor Sidney Freedberg whose lectures were packed. His powers of dramatic description were breathtaking. And he always kept the focus on the visual effects of the painting. The social and political aspects, while not ignored, were only referred to in passing.
While at Harvard, I served for one year as president of the Graduate Student Committee and was in charge of the lecture series. I chose the theme of art criticism. One of those I invited was Clement Greenberg, I think it was my fellow student, Michael Fried, who suggested him.
Clem was very down to earth and casual. I don’t remember what he said except that studying philosophy was important to generate a relevant vocabulary for discussing art. Later, I took him out for drinks and we really hit it off. I didn’t know much about him and his writings, but there definitely was a connection. At one point I enthused about a show of contemporary Spanish abstract paintings at M.O.M.A. Clem said “Your reactions are coming too easily to you”. I was floored. And it took some time to process what he meant. But then I got it. I was trying too hard to like the work. I was letting the M.O.M.A. dictate my taste. I wasn’t being led by comparative evaluation, connoisseurship, as I was when I was dealing with older art. Clem’s approach was exactly the same approach that prevailed at Harvard. Clem was like Pouncey, Freedberg and Rosenberg, but now with contemporary art. Moreover, he had a greater appetite for looking at art than any of my fellow graduate students. We became fast friends, and after I returned from Europe and began teaching at Wellesley College I got to see Clem in New York. We often went gallery hopping. He was great to look at art with and we could go on for hours. If the art was good enough, we felt more energized at the end of the day than when we started out. We were on a kind of a high. Thanks to Clem, I got to go to the studios of great living painters like Adolf Gottlieb, Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler and many others. I learned from Clem that very special thrill to see great work when it’s a new born. It became my lifelong passion. Teaching, curating, directing, advising, were only my day job.
When I returned from Europe and began to teach at Wellesley College, Clem was often at the home of Lewis Cabot, a collector who was from the renowned Boston family (they speak only to God). Lewis certainly was inspired by art. He loved to look and always had his own fresh take. He was a trustee of the M.F.A., which, at that time, was going through a tumultuous period.
The Director, Perry T. Rathbone, was under fire from a group on the board, led by a business man, George Seybolt. They wanted Perry to be more like Thomas Hoving, the director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, who was just then getting lots of press for his daring efforts to open up his museum, reach out to the community, to popularize, to market. Perry was seen by this group as beholden to the old patrician families and therefore out of date. Also, Perry had just gotten himself in trouble over a portrait painting by Raphael which he had bought for the Museum’s centennial celebration. It turned out that Perry, together with his art buddy, Hanns Swarzenski, Curator of European Decorative Art, had brought it into the country without declaring it. Furthermore, the Italian government immediately demanded its return, claiming that it had left Italy illegally. This put Perry in peril and gave powerful ammunition to the Seybolt faction. Hoving had already founded a Department of Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan, naming Henry Geldzahter as curator. Geldzahler had already done his epic show: “New York Painting and Sculpture, 1940-1917”. Add to this that the Boston Art Community was up in arms about the museum’s perceived neglect of local and contemporary art. The dealers, Portia Harcus and Barbara Krakow, had just opened a huge space across the street from the museum calling it Parker 470. A newly formed “Visual Artists Union” held its meetings there. Perry was invited one evening and faced a call for the museum to create a department of contemporary art among other things. Then there was the famous “Flush With The Walls”, a pop up protest exhibition staged by artists and held in the MFA’s men’s room. So there was serious pressure on Perry from several directions.
Another criticism of Perry was that he wouldn’t appoint a Curator of Painting because he wanted to do this himself. It was his special fun to play curator with Hanns. He loved acquiring art and didn’t want to give it up.
As regards Modern Art, Perry had acquired an early Matisse which was good but not at all like Matisse’s well known, mature works. His splashiest modern acquisition was Picasso’s “Rape of the Sabines.” Perry’s taste tended toward expressionism. He had known and championed Max Beckmann’s work already when he was director in St. Louis before he came to Boston.
When it came to contemporary art, Perry acquired a very big, very inert, Nicholas deStael, and a Karel Appel. He also bought a beautiful David Park. As for exhibitions, he engaged Michael Fried to do a big retrospective of Morris Louis’ short career. He also engaged Virginia Gunter to do a very ambitious big show: “Earth, Air, Fire and Water: Elements of Art.” It got lots of attention especially after The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals picketed the show. It included a work which contained live eels. Some of the artists in the show were Robert Smithson, Dennis Oppenheim, Michael Heizer and Christo. Stylistically, it was already post modern and conceptual. Very up to date. It was also fun and controversial. With this show, the MFA was as “out there” as any museum in the country. So Perry was making a real effort to show contemporary art. And keep in mind that contemporary art didn’t have anything like the popularity or respect that it has today and this was especially true in Boston. When I was appointed one of the most distinguished trustees, Walter Muir Whitehill, official historian of the museum, sent a blistering letter to all of the other trustees protesting the founding of the new Department. Whitehill felt that it would lead inevitably to “a lowering of standards” and “an over involvement with commerce.” (He was right on both counts of course, but completely beside the point.)
Lewis Cabot was the driving force that created the Department of Contemporary Art. Seizing on this moment, when Perry so badly needed support, Lewis made Perry an offer he couldn’t refuse: Lewis would form a visiting committee for the new department which would raise the money for the salaries of the new curator and a secretary. The museum would provide the space. Perry agreed. Lewis also went to great lengths to reassure the supporters of the Institute of Contemporary Art so that they wouldn’t feel threatened.
Lewis wanted me to take the position of Curator, but I had reservations. I was just getting started at Wellesley and liked teaching. Then, there was my vague belief at the time, that scholarship was a higher calling than museum work. I’d already turned down Tom Messer at the Guggenheim who offered me a curatorship back in the 60’s when he became Director there. But most of all, I was concerned that I was going to be working for a director who I had been forced on. That was disturbing. Still, I was interested enough to agree to be half time at the museum, while keeping my full time, tenure track position at Wellesley. Wellesley agreed to this arrangement. I don’t think many people in Boston realized that I was only half time at the museum. I certainly gave a full time effort there. Some years I did four or five shows at the MFA while teaching five courses at Wellesley. I had lots of energy in those years.
Once appointed, I realized that I had badly underestimated Perry. Above all, he was an art lover, as was Hanns. They greeted me with open arms. Perry gave the Department a beautiful big space right off the Huntington Ave entrance. He also had Tom Wong, the museum’s designer make it into a modern space i.e. open, with a high ceiling and painted white. The floor was covered with a beautiful dark grey carpet.
The first thing I wanted to do as Curator was to acquire, as the corner stone of the museum’s collection, Jackson Pollock’s “Lavender Mist”. To me, Pollock was most important artist of the post war years and “Lavender Mist” was his masterwork. I immediately contacted the owner who was the artist and collector, Alfonso Ossorio, who had been one of Pollock’s early supporters. He didn’t want to sell “Lavender Mist”, but he did agree to sell another Pollock which he had, “No 10,1948”. It is a long freeze like picture and has Pollock’s signature features: black enamel drippings and aluminum paint. I love this picture; I always hung it before my desk in those rare times when it wasn’t on view. Perry loved it too. I remember flying down to Ossorio’s estate on Long Island in a small plane, with Lewis and Perry to buy “No. 10”. It was a very exciting moment and we all enjoyed it immensely.
I was able to exhibit Pollock’s picture at the opening of my first show in the new space. It was an exhibition of the painter Jack Bush’s beautiful color field, “Shash”, pictures. I thought the show was ravishing. Clem came up for the opening and agreed. One reviewer suggested that I had shrewdly chosen Bush because he was Canadian. No, I had chosen him because I loved his paintings and wanted others to love them too. I wanted to expose the best to the public. Hilton Kramer, critic of the New York Times was glowing, but he also foresaw controversy because of my known closeness to Clem. The local press was very positive about the Pollock, the show, and the new Department.
My first big exhibition in the museum’s main exhibition galleries, then on the second floor, was “Abstract Painting in the 70’s" a big show of pictures by those abstract painters who I deemed most inspired at that moment, the beginning of the 1970’s. There were 12 painters, with 4 works each, some very large, up to 20’. All the pictures had been done in the last two years, many selected from the studio. The painters were Adolph Gottlieb, Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, Friedel Dzubas, Jules Olitski, Jack Bush, Larry Poons, Robert Goodnough, Walter Darby Bannard, Dan Christinson, and Richard Diebenkorn.
Clem came and loved the show but pointed out that the Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park” pictures looked empty in the context of the show. He said I might better have chosen Ludwig Sander. He was certainly right about Diebenkorn. I’d noticed it too, while hanging the show. The Diebenkorns had fooled me. They look like they should be good paintings, real paintings, struggled with. But they never come alive.
As for sculpture, I wanted to build on the two great David Smiths which Perry had already acquired. I showed Antony Caro, Tim Scott, the British School and later sculptures by Jules Olitski, and Michael Steiner. I had a real advantage here in that Lewis Cabot was already an ambitious collector, and especially of sculpture. He has since given many great pieces in his collection to the M.F.A.
I also did one person shows of some of the painters I showed in “Abstract Painting in the 70’s”: Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Friedel Dzubas, and of course, Jack Bush. This work, Abstract Expressionism/Color Field plus David Smith inspired sculpture, seemed to me to be the strongest new art out there. Here was my greatest enthusiasm. But I also had enthusiasm for good representational work. I showed Al Leslie, Horatio Torres, Richard Estes, Gabriel Laderman, Dorothy Knowles, John Koch, Neil Wellever, William Beckman, Albert York, Lennet Anderson, Georges Nick, Barnet Rubinstein, Paul Georges, Fairfield Porter and many others. I also always wanted to keep Boston up to date as regards trends in the art world even if I myself wasn’t enthusiastic about them. For example I traveled to Germany to try and get Josef Beuys to do a show. (He wouldn’t, he was still angry at the U.S. because of Vietnam and other political issues.) Sometimes I engaged a guest curator, someone distinguished in Boston’s art community. So I had the Director of Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, Chris Cook, do a Conceptual Art show. It was a one-person show of the work of Douglas Huebler; Carl Belz, later Director of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, did a Post Minimal show, the work of Christopher Sproat and David Rohm, and John Arther, a local writer, whose advocacy for representational art was well known, did shows of Al Leslie and Richard Estes. I was still half time with no staff except a full time secretary, so a guest curator, whose fee could be budgeted under the show, was a good solution all around.
Sometimes I worked with other MFA Curators like the show I did of contemporary ceramic art with Jonathan Fairbanks, Curator of American Decorative Arts. Then, there was the several shows of area artist I did with Clifford Ackley, Curator in the Print and Drawing Department: “Boston Watercolor” and “New England Works on Paper”.
One of my biggest thrills was to co curate the first exhibition of American painting to go to China. I chose the 10 contemporary pictures from the collection, Ted Stebbins, Curator of American Painting chose the rest, some 60 in all. My pictures were much larger than any of the others. I chose works by Pollock, Gottlieb, Hofmann, Kline, Louis (2), Dzubas, Frankenthaler, Olitski and Welliver.
I took the opportunity to go to Japan for a week to see art there. Then I flew to Beijing for the opening. What an experience! Everyone was dressed the same and the populace was still fearful because of the recent horrors of the Cultural Revolution.
I had showed the contemporary pictures to the mayor of Shanghai who led a delegation to Boston to preview the show. No problem. But when the pictures were pulled out of the crates, the Chinese officials were furious at their large scale. They demanded that we withdraw “the objectionale pictures” from the exhibition. They just couldn’t accept the vigorous, individual self assertion of these paintings. Immediately, the American Government took over the negotiations. Reagan stood fast: these were part of American art and if China won’t show them, we will take the whole show home. After some days of delay, the Chinese relented and the show opened, but two hours late, a face saving measure. The crowds were huge. Most popular were the Sargents and the Pollock.
I’ll take the liberty here to tell one of my favorite stories. I was asked to speak at the three main art schools: Souchou, Beijing and Shanghai. I had prepared a powerpoint presentation on the connection between Pollock, Hofmann, the New York School and Chinese Aesthetics. I had a translator who put my words into Mandarin. My first venue was in Souchou. The room was full, two or three hundred students, and I thought my talk went well, but, when I asked for questions, I got nothing. No one was willing to speak up. The lady from the U.S. Embassey who traveled with me advised me afterward that next time I should ask for written questions. So in Shanghai abstract art, so that he could translate them into Chinese. I took his handwritten address. My “guide”, a government official who accompanied me everywhere, wanted me to show it to him but I waved him off. Many years later, I learned that the student had been sent away to a work camp because of the incident. (He came to America years later and contacted me.)
The museum trustees decided in the late 70’s that the building must be climate controlled. This involved closing down large parts of the museum. So the call went out for ways to keep the museum visible during this down period. I did three such projects. First, I curated a satellite museum created in Faneuil Hall marketplace in downtown Boston. The trustees had arranged with the developer, Rouse and Company, to have an entire floor of one of the two, long 18th century buildings for our satellite. We had 100,000 square feet. Tom Wong did the design and I did the first exhibition, “Faces of Five Thousand Years”. It let me chose from all mediums and from all of the great departments in the M.F.A. What could be more exciting and fun? It was a huge success and we got national coverage. It seemed like the perfect outreach. It was open for two years and attracted, 350,000 people, many of whom had never been to the M.F.A. on Huntington Ave.
Another outside project was to stage a giant sculpture show at the I.M. Pei designed Christian Science Church complex in the name of the M.F.A. I showed a group of pieces done at York University in Toronto by Anthony Caro. I had the help of David Mirvish, the Toronto collector, and Mark Favermann, the well known Boston designer and writer (for Berkshire Fine Arts). The leaders in the church were skeptical, but Ruth Barratt, a church leader, who had initiated the project, pushed it through.
The church and the whole complex is brutally stark so Caro's brown steel looked very elegant set against the reinforced concrete.
My third outreach project was to show a selection from the M.F.A.’s collection of Color Field painting in the beautiful first floor space of Boston’s Federal Reserve Bank. It was the first time that the bank had hosted an art exhibit. The spaces were beautiful and as if made for such a show.
It turned out that some years later Alfonso Ossorio changed his mind about selling “Lavender Mist” and called me. I wanted to go for it as did Lewis. Some suggested trading back No. 10 to lower the price. But I wanted both and that is what I proposed to the board. But at that very moment, a new Director to replace Perry was appointed, Merrill Ruepple, who had been Director at the Dallas Museum. He was appointed, above all, by the efforts of Seybolt. Ruepple was a weak type who felt out ranked by the museums’ distinguished curators. He decided to show them he was boss by forbidding them to teach at the local universities, like Yale, Harvard and Wellesley. This was a breathtaking miscalculation in a university town like Boston. He had quickly alienated the curators who promptly organized themselves against him. He had to back down about the teaching. Another of Rueppell’s blunders was to torpedo “Lavender Mist” at the Collections Committee meeting. It would have tied up the big funds for several years and he wanted to buy things himself. In this, he was, ironically, very like Perry. He was the new director so he got his way, but when, a year or so later, “Lavender Mist” was sold to the National Gallery in Washington, and for nearly twice the price of what we would have paid, Rueppell was humiliated and I had a problem. I’d made the director look bad. He called me into his office and told me I should start thinking about my next career move. I told him I would. Meantime, several trustees had already told me to sit tight, that Rueppell was going to be fired momentarily. So I just waited. A few days later Rueppell was out. But we had lost “Lavender Mist” for the museum’s collection. Some years later, Martha Baer of “Christie’s” told me that Rueppell told her that blocking the Pollock was his biggest mistake.
I loved Morris Louis work and so did Lewis who at one time had a beautiful “Stripe” in his living room. We went to Marcella Brenner with the proposal that Boston become a center for Louis’ art. After all, the museum had done the first Louis retrospective in 1967. She liked the idea. Eventually, the M.F.A. bought a beautiful, important early Veil, “Breaking Hue” from 1954. In turn, the museum received 5 paintings as gifts and 3 more designated as “promised gift.” The nine were exhibited together in 1979. There were two wonderful “Veils”, the best wide band “Unfurled” I’ve ever seen. There were also a classic narrow band “Unfurled”, a spectacular “Flora”, “Winged Hue”, and two first rate “Stripe” pictures. Later, she also gave to the M.F.A. a group of early, and probably unfinished, canvases meant as studies or discards, so researchers could study his working methods (no one had ever seen him working).
After I left the museum, it seems that no one there was interested in the M.F.A. remaining the study center for Morris Louis. Mrs. Brenner took back the 3 promised gifts. Still the M.F.A. has the best collection of Louis work of any other museum. I had made sure that the three promised gifts were less essential, but I do regret that the museum lost “Beth Dalet”, a very unusual tall dark “Veil” that is truly special.
I’m proud of the acquisitions that I made for the museum’s collection. I’d cite Friedel Dzubas’ “Sunspoke”, 30 feet long which was first shown in the World’s Fair in Montreal in 1966. Next I’ll mention Larry Poons’, “Railroad Horse” which is 25 feet long. It too, is one of the wonders of Post War American painting. Then there are the 6 Louis’s. Others include masterworks by Pollock, Hans Hofmann, Robert Motherwell, Adolf Gottlieb, Jules Olitski (2), Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland and many others, as well as many excellent representational paintings. Altogether, I acquired over 100 works, many of them large, half by purchase, half by gift.
What I didn’t acquire was the works by the Pop and Conceptual artists like Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and Bruce Nauman. They had already become expensive after the 1972 Robert Scull sale. Further, if I wanted to acquire a work for the collection, I had to formally present the work to the trustee Collections Committee and be enthusiastic. I just couldn’t muster much enthusiasm for Pop or Conceptual Art, especially since we had another pressing need. There was no early 20th century pictures to tell the modernist story. So, despite the fact that I was Curator of Contemporary Art, I felt I had to try and get some key, early 20th century pictures. I did manage to get a great high cubist painting by Picasso, and a seminal work by Joan Miro from 1925.
Soon after Rueppell left, Jan Fontein was appointed Director. He was Curator of Asiatic Art and a friend. Under Jan’s tenure the Museum stabilized. Everyone liked Jan. One of his first things he did was to finally appoint a Curator of Painting, John Walsh. Walsh brought in Ted Stebbins as Curator of American Painting. Both were accomplished scholars but politically ambitious and secretive. Later, Walsh tried to get Jan’s job and Ted soon began gunning for me. Also, suddenly, my access to acquisition funds became very limited since these two curators, quite naturally, wanted to make their mark. I did find a great Mondrian from his best period, but I couldn’t get Walsh to support it.
(Tension between Walsh and Fontein was well known. Researching major 19th French century paintings on loan to the MFA I found that they were owned by the billionaire William I. Koch. In an article published in the daily Patriot Ledger I reported, based on tax reports from the Koch foundation, that while working for the MFA Walsh was being paid some $25,000 annually as a "consultant." By then Walsh had departed to become director of the Getty Foundation. Asked about a potential conflict of interest and museum ethics Fontein claimed to have known of and approved the arrangement. Charles Giuliano, editor)
In 1978 I resigned my tenured professorship at Wellesley. After 12 years I had gotten tired of lecturing and I was having more fun at the museum. At the same time, I had my title changed to Curator of 20th Century Art because I felt the museum needed to focus on early 20th art. It got changed back to the Curator of Contemporary Art after I left.
I also want to mention my connection to local artists. I got around to studios, galleries, and exhibitions. Also, there were those younger artists who were excited by what I was showing at the museum. One of these artists, Lucy Baker (who some years later became my wife). She organized a group of artists who met in each other’s studio for crits. I was usually at these meetings too. In 1985 this group exhibited at the Federal Reserve Bank curated by Lucy Baker. I exhibited the best in the group in a show, “Boston Painters and Sculptors” that I did at the Danforth Museum called “Abstract Art in New England”. This Boston Group or New England group was to evolve into the New New painters group, which have had many shows both here and abroad, in galleries and museums. They are the direct heirs of Pollock and Color Field.
Shortly before I left the museum I worked with the developer Hines and Company, to build a collection for their new office building in Harvard Square in Cambridge. It was called the M.F.A./HINES collection. The agreement was that the museum would eventually be able to choose from the collection for the museum’s own collection. I have no idea what was finally accessioned by the M.F.A., if anything. There were 41 artworks, some quite large, by 40 abstract and representational artists from the U.S. and Canada.
As Hilton Kramer had predicted, my tenure at the M.F.A. was controversial, and it grew more so as time went on. The most important factor here was a radical shift in taste which affected the whole art world. It’s been called “The Warhol Effect”. It was a switch away from the autonomous, visual object as a product of inner necessity, to something more aimed at the audience and more paraphraseable, more verbal, more to do with context of one kind or another. Beginning in the late 60’s, this trend eventually came to be called “Postmodernism”. More and more it came to dominate the art world and thereby marginalize my heroes, the Color Field from painters of the 1960’s. From the postmodern point of view, Color Field is merely visual and decorative. Postmoderns don’t get modernism’s spiritual message, its expressive edge. One only has to go to the auction viewings at Christie’s and Sotheby’s to see how Color Field has been shunted off into smaller side rooms. Pricewise there’s no comparison. For example, the highest price achieved for a Warhol so far is $104.2 million in 2013; the highest price at auction for a Color Field painting is $4 million for a Louis “Stripe” picture last year at Christie’s.
But things can change. In this regard, it’s important to remember that advocates of the Pollock/Color Field/Smith tradition were in top positions in all of the major museums on the east coast, E.A. Carmine at the National Gallery, Charles Millard of the Hirshhorn, William Rubin at the M.O.M.A., James Monte at the Whitney, and myself at the M.F.A. Henry Geldzahler at the Met liked Pop and Color Field equally to go by his famous show “New York Painting and Sculpture 1940-1969”. But for his first one person show later the same year he chose Jules Olitski’s sculpture. (I wrote the catalogue).
Were we all so wrong? Or did fashion overtake the best? In any event, all of those curators who I just named left their positions in the 80’s. Connoisseurship had become outdated. From here on, it was all about market forces, brands, copycat collecting, globalization, and the rapidly growing 1% or rather o.1%..
Will the art of the 60’s ever be reevaluated and Color Field be recognized for how great it is? Only when the number of high net worth individuals stops growing? Or when “blue chip” works of the Pop and the Post Modernists of the 60’s become scarce enough? Is there an end to the celebration of consumer society? No one knows but the value is there and I do believe in the genius of capitalism to eventually find and commodify value, so I’m not pessimistic about the long run. And it’s already too late, for the painters themselves to enjoy it. They’re already dead except for Larry Poons and Walter Darby Bannard, who are 78 and 80 respectively.
The criticism of me was that I was “too narrow” or “in the pocket” “of the notorious Clement Greenberg, to quote Milton Esterow of Art News. Hatred of Greenberg was rampant. Once Bill Rubin offered me the position of Director of Exhibitions at M.O.M.A. I was of course flattered. But then it turned out that a condition was that I wasn’t to be seen around town with Clem. The other condition was that Bill censor my writing. Later I was criticized as too much the critic when I wrote “Abstract Art and Middle Brow Modern” in the “Partisian Review”. I wasn’t very political in my writing for sure. But I was going to have my say no matter what.
The collector trustee and the high end dealers are the masters of the universe when it comes to the art world. Curators usually serve the interests of trustee collectors and I was no exception to this, since Lewis Cabot selected me to show the art that he loved. In time, other collectors came along and wanted their interests served. Graham Gund is a perfect case. I showed his whole collection in 1982. It had incredible diversity for the time and also some very beautiful Color Field paintings which I hoped to get for the collection.
I had a group of patrons who loyally supported me: the collectors , Lewis, Henry and Lois Foster, George and Lois de Menil, Marny and Arthur K. Solomon. This made it harder for my enemies. And especially since I was just then doing the hugely successful Fairfield Porter in the museums main exhibition galleries. Henry Foster, one of the group, who I had brought to the museum, later brokered an agreeable separation and I left the museum on good terms with all.
I’d had a long run â”€ 13 years and, truth to tell, I didn’t have much more that I wanted to do. After I did the show of Larry Poons’ paintings in 1981 and the Fairfield Porter show, there weren’t any other major figures who I wanted to feature. Undoubtedly some felt that my leaving was a defeat for the Greenberg School. I suppose it was. But from my point of view, it all worked out great. Within days of the announcement of my departure, I was engaged by a Boston collector as an art advisor to help him build a collection of Impressionist, Post Impressionist and Early Modern paintings. The following seven years were my most lucrative and exciting. I often travelled to England and Europe. It also left me lots of time to look and write. But I will always be very grateful for my exciting years at the M.F.A. and for the many dear friends I had there especially Tom Wong, Clementine Brown, Jan Fontein, Perry Rathbone, Hanns Swarzenski, Tom Wu, James Watt, Bruce MacDonald and Jonathan Fairbanks.
Moffett Interview Part One.