William Rubin (Brooklyn, NY, 1927 – Pound Ridge, NY, 2006), curator and art historian, was director of the Painting and Sculpture Department at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, between 1969 and 1988. He was also an active participant in the negotiations to move Guernica to Spain and, in 1980, he curated the exhibition Picasso: A Retrospective, one of the biggest public successes of all the exhibitions held in the museum across its seventy-five-year history.
William Rubin’s initial studies in Literature and Italian at Columbia University were interrupted by his enlistment in the American army during the Second World War. Following a spell in Paris after the war he went back to university, and upon attending a course run by Meyer Schapiro he decided to steer his degree towards Art History. Rubin worked as a university lecturer and was editor of Art International, before joining the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1967. Two years later he took over from Alfred H. Barr Jr. as head of the Painting and Sculpture Department, where he organised exhibitions such as Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage (1968), The New American Painting and Sculpture: The First Generation (1969), Cézanne: The Late Work (1978) and Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism (1989).
In some respects, Rubin is considered an intellectual heir of Barr, notably through a shared linear and chronological view of art history, through giving great works and names central narrative importance and through a positioning rooted in Formalism. Yet his interest in Abstract Expressionism and contemporary artists like Anthony Caro and Frank Stella, from whom he acquired significant pieces for the museum, distinguished him from his predecessor.
When Pablo Picasso passed away on 8 April 1973, the press immediately echoed the artist’s wishes regarding the destination of Guernica. William Rubin challenged the debates surrounding the painting’s legitimate ownership, arguing that Picasso had not referred to the establishment of a democratic regime but a republic, quite possibly in an attempt to keep the painting. After the death of Francisco Franco on 20 November 1975, the Spanish government’s actions were particularly vehement, and in the final phase of negotiations Rubin set the conditions and delivery date of the work with Roland Dumas, the lawyer and executor of Picasso’s will, and Javier Tusell, the then director general of Fine Arts. In 1979 it was confirmed that the canvas and the preparatory sketches would be transferred to Spain as an indissoluble whole. In 1980, after almost more than forty years of the painting’s loan and ahead its imminent departure, Rubin organised the exhibition Picasso: A Retrospective, which spread across the museum’s galleries to become at once an homage to the work and its official farewell to New York City.