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Kynaston McShine, Curator of Primary Structures, Information, and More, Dies [UPDATED]

McShine, the former Curator at Large of the Museum of Modern Art and Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Jewish Museum, died at 82.

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I met Kynaston soon after Raj started at MoMA, and somehow we got along and became friends. As he was packing up for retirement I visited him one day and took some portraits … sometime after, I was told by someone at the museum I had done something terrible. As I am wondering what that could have been, they jokingly added 'you showed us that Kynaston could smile'. I reckon he was both a legendary curator and tough cookie, having made his way from the Caribbean to the forefront of the international art world. (He was also the only curator of color at MoMA for many years.) . This morning Kynaston passed away. Just a few days ago at the hospice, we saw this same twinkle in his eyes – and that is how we'll remember him. Godspeed, friend! #kynastonmcshine . . . . . . . . . . . . . . #nyc #portrait #moma #museumofmodernart #art #artnews #curator #restinpower

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Kynaston McShine, the former Curator at Large of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Jewish Museum, has passed away. He was 82 years old.

It’s difficult to pinpoint what McShine was best known for: his extensive work at MoMA, his 1966 exhibition at the Jewish Museum, Primary Structures, or his genuine, unabashed love of modern art — in all its forms. Born in 1935 in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, McShine attended Dartmouth College and undertook graduate studies at the University of Michigan and New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. He also received honorary degrees from the University of the West Indies and the San Francisco Institute of the Arts.

In 1965, he became the Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Jewish Museum of New York, premiering the groundbreaking Primary Structures: Younger American and British Sculptures one year later. The exhibition’s significance is not simply that it was the first museum survey of minimalist art — although it was — but that it helped solidify the term itself. According to the Jewish Museum, which remembers McShine in an homage today, the term “minimalism” was not even mentioned in McShine’s catalogue text for the show. With artists like Judy Chicago (then Judy Gerowitz), Ann Truitt, Sol LeWitt, Ellsworth Kelly, and Dan Flavin on view, it was a critical success and, more largely, a marker of changing perceptions about art-making.

When McShine, Barbara Rose, Robert Morris, Mark di Suvero, and Donald Judd participated in the museum’s panel on “New Sculpture,” di Suvero stated: “Primary Structures is the key show of the 1960s … my friend Donald Judd cannot qualify as an artist because he doesn’t do the work,” referencing the artist’s use of fabricators to build his sculptures. Judd’s reply: “The point is not whether one makes the work or not … I don’t see why one technique is any more essentially art than the other.” That the exhibition is seen as “the harbinger of Minimalism” is, at best, an accurate understatement.

McShine continued to work with the Jewish Museum, becoming Acting Director from 1967 to 1968 and organizing exhibitions such as Large Scale American Paintings, and one-person shows of Yves Klein, Robert Irwin, Gene Davis, and Richard Smith. He would go on to spend most of his career, though, at MoMA, holding five positions over 40 years: Associate Curator of the Department of Painting and Sculpture (1968–1971), Curator of Exhibitions (1971–1984), Senior Curator (1984–2001), Acting Chief Curator (2001–2003) and Chief Curator at Large (2003–2008). Early on in his career there, he helped develop the Projects series, dedicated to experimental work by younger artists. Then, in a move just as crucial as that which created Primary Structures, McShine curated Information, a 1970 exhibition of work by over 150 artists from 15 countries, among them Yayoi Kusama and Vito Acconci.

The art in Information sought to challenge or disrupt both the museum space (such as Stig Brøgger’s wooden platforms) and visitors’ typical experience (Group Frontera, from Argentina, recorded visitors in the museum, answering questions on a tape they’d then watch live). In the exhibition’s accompanying release, McShine referred to the show’s inclusivity: “[The artists’] attempt to be poetic and imaginative, without being either aloof or condescending, has led them into the communications areas that INFORMATION reflects.”

Under his direction, MoMA also presented retrospectives of Robert Rauschenberg, Joseph Cornell, Marcel Duchamp, and shows like The Natural Paradise: Painting in America, 1800-1950 (1976), The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect (1999), and An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture (1984) (the latter exhibition was the impetus for the feminist art/activist group Guerilla Girls’ protest, which noted that of the 169 artists in the show, only 13 were women).

In 2003, five years before his 2008 retirement, McShine received the CCS Bard Award for Curatorial Excellence. A public statement issued by Glenn D. Lowry, the director of MoMA, sent to us via email, speaks to the curator’s influence and innovation — and to his warmth: “The Museum of Modern Art mourns the loss of Kynaston McShine, a daring and pioneering curator with an unfailingly sharp eye and a keen sense of the moment. His record of important exhibitions and acquisitions is extraordinary … He was famous for his gruff manner, which masked a warm and deeply affectionate colleague who cared enormously about modern art and the Museum that was home to him for more than forty years.”

Update: Since the publishing of this article we received a message from the Foundation for Arts Initiatives, where McShine had been on the board since 1995 and stepped down at the beginning of 2017. Below is their statement in full:

We are extremely sad to lose our beloved colleague Kynaston McShine. Kynaston joined our Board in 1995, one year after the opening of the American Center’s new building in Paris. He was one of the small group of Trustees who navigated the American Center in difficult circumstances, from the closing of the building in 1996 to the establishment of a grant-making foundation. The Foundation has been steered directly by arts and museum professionals since then.
During his 21-year tenure on the Board, Kynaston never ceased to compel us to think about things differently. Always straightforward, critical and lucid, he never shied away from speaking his mind during our deliberations. As the world and the arts landscape were changing, he kept his focus on art-making and in the present.
Kynaston recognized the lack of support for younger, independent or junior curators in institutions to travel and pursue research to develop new projects. This led to one of his most important and lasting contributions as a Trustee, the establishment in 2001 of the Foundation’s program to support such travel and research, which continues today.
Kynaston’s rigorous commitment was an essential part of who he was and cannot be replaced. We will miss him dearly.
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