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Kynaston McShine, Curator of Historic Art Exhibitions, Dies at 82

Posted January 12, 2018 5:13 p.m. EST

Kynaston McShine, an audacious museum curator who organized some of the most influential contemporary art exhibitions of the late 20th century, died Monday in Manhattan. He was 82.

His death, at the Mary Manning Walsh Home, was announced by the Museum of Modern Art, where he worked for over 40 years, until 2008. No cause was given.

McShine cut a distinctive swath through the art world. A West Indian, he held a highly visible curatorial position when the ranks of art museum curators in the United States were almost entirely white.

Known for his wit and elegance, he spoke with an upper-crust British accent, was fiercely private and rarely gave interviews. He could be brusque and imperious one moment, charming and conspiratorial the next.

Especially in the 1980s and ‘90s, McShine exercised a great deal of influence on what the Modern acquired in the way of postwar and more recent art, and applied a keen eye to its installation in the permanent-collection galleries.

He organized two exhibitions that have become part of art history. The first was “Primary Structures: Younger American and British Sculptors,” a show of new abstract sculpture at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan in 1966, during a hiatus from the Modern.

It was one of the first museum exhibitions devoted to the movement that was becoming known as minimalism, which the show’s success accelerated. It cast a wide net, encompassing 44 artists using stripped-down forms and industrial materials in diverse ways, but at its core were the handful of leaders of the trend.

“Primary Structures” achieved such historic status that in 2014, as its 50th anniversary approached, the Jewish Museum revisited it with an exhibition centered on a beautiful scale model of the museum’s galleries as they existed in 1966, complete with miniature sculptures.

By 1968 McShine was back at the Modern, this time in the department of painting and sculpture as an associate curator. In 1970 he made a second, bigger splash with “Information,” an international survey of about 130 artists, filmmakers and collectives that explored the tangled strains of mixed-media, participatory and ephemeral works gathered under the umbrella of conceptual art.

“Information” was predicated on the idea that people were living in a new age, in which communication technologies connected them as never before and deluged them with images.

Showing works that were overtly critical of the government and the war in Vietnam as well as of museums themselves, the exhibition set out to disturb the artistic and political status quo. That it was held in a museum as prominent and as Balkanized (in terms of art mediums) as the Modern made it all the more effective. “Information” was rife with unfamiliar artists: South Americans Hélio Oiticica and Marta Minujin, for example, and Group OHO, a five-person collective from Yugoslavia.

But there were also plenty of downtown Manhattan stalwarts, among them Richard Serra, Robert Smithson and Yvonne Rainer, as well as art critic Lucy R. Lippard. She had given McShine access to her extensive files on art’s new directions while he was working on the show.

Those files became, in 1973, the basis for Lippard’s book “Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object From 1966 to 1972.” Primarily a densely annotated chronology, it includes “Information.”

The disruptive spirit of the show was apparent in its catalog, which was printed on cheap stock using a typewriter font and gave each artist at least one full page to use as desired. The astounding range of creativity, irreverence and abstruseness that resulted was bracketed between endpapers with wide-angled views of masses of humanity: The first showed the 1963 March on Washington, the last the 1969 Woodstock festival.

Kynaston Leigh Gerard McShine was born on Feb. 20, 1935, in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, the oldest of two boys of Austen Hutton McShine and the former Leonora Pujadas. His father was a bank president; his mother founded Trinidad’s League of Women Voters and was its first president. His large, close and comfortably well-off family had produced doctors, lawyers and a judge or two among its branches.

Children in the extended family had nannies, and those not sent to boarding school in England — McShine and his brother were not — attended the prestigious Queen’s Royal College, the second-oldest secondary school in Trinidad and Tobago, sharing classrooms with the islands’ white elite.

McShine was one of the first in his family to attend college in the United States rather than England, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree from Dartmouth College in 1958.

Before entering the nursing home, McShine had homes in Manhattan and on the East End of Long Island, in Springs. He leaves no immediate survivors.

McShine never publicly explained how his interest in modern and contemporary art began, but at Dartmouth one of his best friends was a son of Celeste G. Bartos, the philanthropist and collector and a Museum of Modern Art trustee. McShine recounted that when he visited the family in Manhattan he would sleep on a Mies van der Rohe daybed beneath a painting by Joan Miró.

In 1959, after a year of graduate work in English literature at the University of Michigan, he got a job in the Modern’s department of public information. From there he went to the museum’s department of circulating exhibitions. Organizing a traveling exhibition of the work of abstract expressionist painter Robert Motherwell, he said, “blew my mind.”

During the early 1960s, McShine attempted further graduate studies, this time in art history at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. But his heart already belonged to museums, and to presenting exhibitions there.

McShine was instrumental in establishing the Modern’s Project exhibition series, small-format shows devoted to the art of emerging, experimental artists, and became its director.

He organized the series’ inaugural show, of the work of Keith Sonnier, and over the next eight years organized those of Sam Gilliam, Rafael Ferrer, Jonathan Borofsky and Bill Beckley.

He also mounted large monographic exhibitions at the Modern on, among others, Marcel Duchamp (1973, with Anne d’Harnoncourt, curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and later its director), Robert Rauschenberg (1977), Jackie Winsor (1979), Joseph Cornell (1980), Andy Warhol (1989) and Max Ernst (1993). His last such show was “Richard Serra: 40 Years” in 2007.

Having suggested in his introduction to “Information” that painting might not be up to the task of dealing with the complexities of contemporary reality, McShine shifted course — as art did — and in 1984 organized another sprawling show, “An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture.”

A dizzying panoply of mostly younger artists, it accounted for nearly every aspect of recent painting, especially neo-expressionist figuration, and quite a bit of sculpture.

The survey received mixed reviews and was criticized for its low number of women: 13 out of 165 artists. That ratio so outraged a group of female artists that they founded the Gorilla Girls, an anonymous feminist collective — still active — best known for scathing posters often parsing the percentages of women or black artists in museum collections, exhibitions and blue-chip galleries. In 1999, with “Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect,” a high-concept, beautifully laid-out exhibition at the Modern, McShine surveyed the museum as an artistic subject, alternately revered or reviled.

The show reached as far back as a fanciful late-18th-century portrayal of the Louvre in ruins but also included younger artists like Barbara Bloom, Louise Lawler and Fred Wilson, whose work would not have been possible without the breakthroughs of the artists in “Information.”

McShine rose from associate curator to curator to senior curator to acting chief curator in painting and sculpture before becoming the museum’s chief curator in charge, a position he held for five years before his retirement in 2008. In an email this week, Ann Temkin, who had worked at the Modern as McShine’s curatorial assistant in the late 1980s and then took over as chief curator of painting and sculpture in 2003, said:

“Kynaston’s sensitivity was deep and his opinions were strong. At the museum, he championed the poetic, the unexpected and the individual as opposed to the academic, the predictable and the institutional. His lasting contribution to the life of the museum, and to the lives of countless artists and colleagues, is immense.”