A Character, A Force, A Diva: Barbara Rose, 1936 – 2020
When “ABC Art,” published in 1965 in Art in America, went the equivalent of viral, it launched the remarkable, decades-long, international career of art critic and art historian Barbara Rose. Rose, who was also a curator and filmmaker, died on December 25, 2020 after a long struggle with breast cancer. She was 84 and was active to the end. In that seminal article, she outlined clearly and forcefully the significance of the pared-down work by a coterie of little-known, lower Manhattan artists who would soon become Minimalist icons. Among them were Frank Stella, Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt. Since that debut, Rose helped shape the discourse of some of the major art movements of the late 20th Century through a constant stream of exhibitions, publications and documentaries. While she concentrated on modern and contemporary art, she also explored European art history in The Golden Age of Dutch Painting (1969). Fast forward to 2011, she became the first Morgan-Menil fellow at The Morgan Library and Museum in New York, resuming research on a project that linked the medieval illuminated manuscripts of the Apocalypse with commentaries of Beatus of Liébana with the drawings of Joan Miró, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso.
Her first book, American Art since 1900: A Critical History (1967), highlighted artists who were not fully canonical: John Marin; Joseph Stella; Stanton Macdonald Wright; and she included Irene Rice Pereira among them, at a time when female artists were seldom—if ever—acknowledged in such surveys. Pivoting, Rose began to champion painters and painting in the 1970s, in defiance of Greenbergian formalism and the nearly universal declaration of the medium’s demise, transformed into an impassioned advocate. She curated American Painting: The Eighties, an exhibition of 41 artists at the Grey Art Gallery in 1979, in advance of the decade, the bravura a characteristic trait. It was both applauded and derided, also characteristic. But whatever criticism was lobbed at it, the essential premise, that painting was alive and kicking, was absolutely right. It was followed by a sequel, Abstract Paintings: The 90s at the Andre Emmerich gallery in 1992 as she reprised her commitment to painting many times over.
Other books by Rose included Pavilion: Experiments in Art and Technology (1972); Monochromes: From Malevich to the Present (2006); and, more recently, Painting after Postmodernism: Belgium-USA-Italy (2016.) The latter accompanied the exhibition of the same name that she curated in Brussels, an exchange between artists from those three countries. In it, Rose laments our extremely unstable and changing times and our “increasingly inhuman, technologically driven, globally-networked world.” She defines the spaces of its reproduced imagery as postmodernist, borrowed from “photography, film and video.” To counter that, she said, we need a “rebirth of a pictorial space” which is “ambiguous and amorphous” created by a “visionary consciousness.”
Born in Washington, D.C., Rose attended Smith College, but completed her undergraduate degree at Barnard College in 1957. She studied art history at Columbia University, which was one of the top-ranked departments in the nation, with an illustrious faculty that included Julius Held, Meyer Shapiro, and Rudolf Wittkower. Among the friends she made then were filmmaker Michael Chapman, artists Carl Andre, Larry Rivers, and Stella—whom she married in London in 1961, when in Europe on a Fulbright fellowship to Spain. Her Spanish sojourn was the beginning of a long, requited affair with a country that became a second home to her, awarding her the Order of Isabella the Catholic in 2010. Other awards include the College Art Association’s Distinguished Art Criticism Award in 1966 and 1969, as well as a Front Page Award in 1972. She did not complete her doctorate (contemporary art beckoned) but Columbia awarded her a Ph.D. in art history in 1984, in recognition of her many contributions to the discipline.
Rose wrote regularly for Studio International, Art in America, Artforum, Vogue, New York magazine, Partisan Review, and others over the years, and was editor-in-chief at the Journal of Art, which she co-founded, covering a range of subjects that dealt with art, culture, and politics. As well, she wrote monographs on many, if not most, of the artists of the 1960s and 70s, a dazzling line-up that included Claes Oldenburg, Helen Frankenthaler, Ellsworth Kelly, and Barnett Newman.
She taught at Sarah Lawrence and Hunter College, among other institutions and was director of the art gallery at the University of California, Irvine and the Katzen Arts Center at American University in Washington, DC. She was curator of exhibitions and collections at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston—not without controversy—where she curated Miró in America (1982); Fernand Léger and the Modern Spirit (1982); and a retrospective presciently, cannily dedicated to Lee Krasner (1983), too long eclipsed by her famous spouse. Rose’s films include the documentaries The New York School and American Art in the 1960s (1972). She collaborated with François de Menil and Philip Glass to make North Star: Mark di Suvero (1977). Lee Krasner: The Long View (1978) was a solo effort, as was the film about the master printmaker, Tanya Grosman: A life with painters and poets (1979).
Rose was married four times to three husbands: art and music stars Stella and Jerry Leiber, and bookending them, economist Richard Du Boff, her first and last, who survives her, as do her children Rachel and Michael Stella and four grandchildren.
Rose was an art world fixture and provocateur. Criticism did not cramp her style or self-assurance. She was a character, a force, a diva, quirky or brilliant or both, depending upon your perspective. She had panache, spirit, curiosity, and ambition, and disdained the increasing monetization and corporatization of the art world. She said, with typical pungency, in Nathaniel Kahn’s 2018 film, The Price of Everything, that she’d only been to one auction, and it was distressing to see “art on the auction block, like a piece of meat.” Trenchant, outspoken, confounding, she could be formidable but also amiable. She could also be hilariously irreverent—and often salty. Let’s not rehabilitate her. She was bracingly, admirably who she was, and that was much more than enough.