Kenworth Moffett's Formative Years at the MFA

Dialogue with the Museum's First Contemporary Curator

By: - Mar 10, 2015


Some time ago I requested an interview with former Museum of Fine Arts curator of contemporary art Kenworth Moffett. He preferred to work from written questions. Recently he posted a response to our inquiries.

He then made himself available for follow-up questions by phone from his Connecticut home. In order to prepare he asked what some questions might entail. He seemed surprised but interested in the thumbnail that was presented.

As background he asked that I visit Moffett's Artletter 2.0 and read the articles "How to Talk About Painting" and "The Aesthetic of Genius." I also read "Does Color Field Have a Future or is Pop Forever" and his essay "Clement Greenberg." This background proved to be useful. In addition to think pieces there are also a number of essays on individual artists. He told me that he is working on a piece about Pollock.

On my end I asked that he read my interview with Edmund Barry Gaither who also joined the MFA, at around the same time, as a part time curator. Both appointments for African American and Contemporary art occurred at the end of the tenure of Perry T. Rathbone as director. Moffett had previously sent comments on my dialogue with his daughter and biographer "The Boston Raphael" Belinda Rathbone.

These exchanges are a part of an attempt to create an understanding of modernism and contemporary art in Boston with a focus on the role of the MFA and the ICA. This is Part One of our dialogue.

Charles Giuliano As an undergraduate at Columbia you studied with Meyer Shapiro and projected slides for his graduate classes. During graduate study at Harvard you and your classmates Michael Fried and Rosalind E. Krauss represented a specific point of view in the criticism of Post War American art.

Kenworth Moffett Charles Millard is also important. He was later a curator at the Hirshorn. To me he has the one who had the best eye. Kermit Champa was important.

CG When you state "the best eye" in the context of Harvard that evokes the tradition of Paul Sachs and connoisseurship.

KM Sure. Arthur Pope. Sure. That was the tradition at the time. It had been going on for awhile. Everyone was looking back to (Bernard) Berenson. The Fogg then had Sydney J. Freedberg, Seymour Slive, Jakob Rosenberg. That was the emphasis there. It was the only place that had that particular emphasis. Panofsky of course had a lot of influence at Princeton. At Harvard that's what it was. I didn't really know that when I got there. It was about connoisseurship. Developing your eye. Being able to discriminate through comparative evaluation.

CG In your essay I was interested in the Fogg's collection of fakes as teaching tools. You were put to a test as graduate students choosing between sets of drawings one real and the other not. Making aesthetic decisions based on empirical observations. That seems specific to that era. There is no longer the primacy of the object in graduate study today. During my time of study it was common to project seemingly identical analytical cubists works by Braque and Picasso and discuss their identities and differences.

My professor, Creighton Gilbert, showed us the competition reliefs by Ghiberti and Brunelleschi and challenged us to choose the winner as well as why. It was a great exercise which I repeated with my students.

KM That was the emphasis at the Fogg. You wouldn't get that at Columbia. And I don't think at Princeton. They were into a different thing (Ernst) Gobrich, iconology.

CG My mentor and greatest influence in forming critical thinking was Gilbert. Like you with Shapiro I projected slides for his classes and so managed to hear all of his lectures.

I had two undergraduate seminars with him on Caravaggio and Michelangelo. When I started the Caravaggio seminar I had never heard of the artist. The approach in both seminars was the same. We started with the juvenalia and discussed each work until there was nothing left to say. The pace accelerated as we formed a vocabulary and methodology of approaching the artist. That's how I learned to look at work with depth and a variety of approaches. It was an amazing experience that is still with me.

During my first semester of graduate study at Boston University I was a part of a Michelangelo seminary with Helmut Wohl. He divided the pages of his wife's translation of Condivi's "Life of Michelangelo" among the students. Our mandate was to provide notes, which he edited and published, for the pages that fell to us. We never even looked at a single image. That dreadful experience added nothing to what I had learned with Gilbert.

Tell me about Shapiro.

KM Shapiro was amazing. He would get up there without any notes and he would just talk about all kinds of things making all kinds of references, He had an amazing memory for everything. He was dazzling. The place was jammed for his big lectures. He was just a star. He wrote some very intelligent things. Very cautious as a scholar. Very balanced courses. Was he a connoisseur? No. But as an art historian he was hugely impressive.

He was very interested in the social. He was into impressionism. He was interested in what was going on at the time. That's what he dealt with. He wasn't focused on the individual work so much as the milieu and context. That kind of thing.

CG The Fogg group that you were a part of which have been identified as the Greenbergians (disciples of Clement Greenberg) seem to be fond of pronouncements and making rules. In your website essay you discuss Fried as determining a maximum width for the effectiveness of a painting. Stepping back too far to take in the whole of the painting meant loosing the sense of surface detail. One is then caught between being too close or too far. You argued against that with specific examples of works that exceeded Fried's ideal limits.

KM Don't say that everyone was like that. That was Michael Fried.

CG But his constraints were symptomatic of a point of view which has commonality.

KM There seems to be a certain kind of dogmatism. You keep insisting but I insist that wasn't the case. Michael Fried is a special case. He's very driven by ideas. Much more so by ideas than the works themselves. So yeah. He does do that and most of us can do that. That's the pitfall of formal analysis. I point this out (in an essay) don't I? Right?

CG You did and it surprised me.

KM Every mode of approach has its down side. There is the possibility of exaggeration so you have to be aware of that. With formalism there is a problem with that and I agree it's a kind of caricature. But there it is. (laughing) Clem (Greenberg) never would have said anything like that. But Michael would because he gets over specific.

CG Reading Greenberg he is very specific in stating who are the best artists as well as their best works and why. He states that ultimately Pollock is more important than de Kooning because he never let go of the figure. While respecting Pollock many artists I interact with do not consider de Kooning to be the lesser of the two masters.

KM There's so much that you're saying there that I don't agree with. We have to back up a little bit.


KM I don't think Clem was making any rules about that. Although it is true that the earlier you are in his career the more you get ideas getting in the way. Marxism and so on. Later on he got away from all that and was more purely empirical. The time I spent with him it was empiricism. We weren't into validating any ideas. Flatness or whatever.

(In Moffett's essay on Greenberg on his website he states that: "Any critic who aims to single out the very best, will automatically alienate the rest of the contemporary art world and will become a pariah and a bête noir. Perhaps this helps explain why there are so few great critics as compared to great artists. Often there is only one great critic of an age. Meier Graefe and Clement Greenberg were both unique in their time as was Baudelaire, Ruskin and Diderot. The longer Clem lived and the bigger the art world became, the more unpopular he became. Today his taste is totally out of fashion but he is still indispensable as a coordinate and touchstone and therefore still referred to constantly...

"Like any great critic, Clem had the empathy and imagination to let his taste be shaped by the greatest artists of his time, and the art world still has not caught up with him. If it is true that great art eventually passed him by, this was only after 40 years of being right about it.

"Clem’s ideas have gotten most of the attention, but it was his “eye” that was what was really great about him, at least for me. He was called a “formalist” but he never was comfortable with this term, and rightly so, since it implies a secondary stress on “content” which, in fact, is identical with form in any useful “formalist” model. Indeed, form should be thought of as existing solely for the sake of content. Clem’s kind of criticism might be called aesthetic criticism or connoisseurship, comparative evaluation of originals as to their visible form/content, their focused energy. Of course formalist rhetoric has only practical value and is only one way to approach art. It can be misleading but it also can be very useful. It is the best way to point to the visible artwork itself. As such it has been the parlance of the studio from time immemorial and is not an invention of the modern period, as is often maintained. The chief danger of formalist rhetoric is taking the natural tendencies of the medium and the concept of unity as paramount, while it is life enhancing energy, what Chinese aesthetics calls 'chi', that matters most..."

CG Let's discuss his views of kitsch which leads into the dilemma of Pop art.

("Avant-Garde and Kitsch" is the title of a 1939 essay first published in the Partisan Review, in which he claimed that avant-garde and modernist art was a means to resist the 'dumbing down' of culture caused by consumerism. He stated that "All kitsch is academic, and conversely, all that is academic is kitsch.")

KM Dwight Macdonald wrote about kitsch. It wasn't just Clem that was the thing at the time.

CG Are you talking about highbrow, midbrow and kitsch?

(“Masscult and Midcult,” Dwight Macdonald’s 1960 famous essay on cultural taxonomy, distinguished three levels in modern culture: High Culture, represented most recently by the modernist avant-garde but already moribund in Macdonald’s day; Mass Culture (“or Masscult, since it really isn’t culture at all”), also known as pop culture or kitsch (or, more recently, entertainment); and the insidious new form Macdonald labeled Midcult. Midcult is Masscult masquerading as art: slick and predictable but varnished with ersatz seriousness. For Macdonald, Midcult was Our Town, The Old Man and the Sea, South Pacific, Life magazine, the Book-of-the-Month Club: all of them marked by a high-minded sentimentality that congratulated the audience for its fine feelings.)

That was when popular culture was merging into the mainstream of art. So were Greenberg and Macdonald fighting a rearguard action. Was it Katie bar the door against the onslaught of the philistines?

KM Actually it's the 1960s when kitsch broke into serious art. (Some 40 years after Greenberg's prescient Pre War essay.) With Pop and Warhol right?

CG Actually I would go back to the mid 1950s with early (Jasper) Johns and (Robert) Rauschenberg.

KM Yeah, yeah, you could do that. They were still heavily influenced by abstract expressionism at that point. But Pop in its purest form was in the 1960s. And Warhol was the primary figure you could say.

(Many critics view Johns and Rauschenberg as more substantial than Warhol. Initially they were known to snub Andy. There is also the issue of where to locate Cy Twombly who was not a part of Pop but closely related. Evaluating John Chamberlain is also problematic)

At the time I though this is temporary. It can't last. I was totally wrong about that. It just seemed so superficial compared to what I was enthusiastic about. I noted it. I looked at it. I saw it. It was poster art and had its something I guess. I didn't find in it any deeper value. It wasn't anything like what I was getting from Louis or Pollock.

CG If you look back at mainstream Post War art by the time you get to the second and third generations of abstract expressionism. And, as you state Johns and Rauschenberg represented accents of that, I would say that what they were doing was Oedipal. It had reached the point that in order to be free you had to kill the father. That father being what Irving Sandler described as the Triumph of American Art. The abstract expressionists had become so globally dominant that it wasn't viable to walk in their footsteps. There were many manifestations of breaking away of which Pop became the most dominant. It was necessary to go into the cave and kill the Minotaur.

KM That's the conventional reading of it for sure. In a nutshell. It's a conventional reading of it. For me, the upshot of the Abstract Expressionists was the Color Field Painters. They are the ones who followed on from Pollock.

CG Isn't that fourth generation abstract expressionism?

KM I don't know what you want to call it. They were in the late 1950s early 1960s. (Morris ) Louis, (Kenneth) Noland, (Jules) Olitski, (Friedel) Dzubas, (Helen) Frankenthaler and so on.

CG Weren't they following the same thread?

KM You could say that. They were interested in advancing abstract art.

CG Take that forward to the next generation and the group you have identified as New New Painting.

KM Right.

CG So there is an absolute continuity between what was going on in the late 1930s to the present.

KM 1940s. It begins with Pollock. There wasn't anything in the 1930s.

CG What about (Arshile) Gorky?

KM Well, you know. Pollock is the central figure here. And his first great painting is 1943 "The Mural."

CG The one he painted in the apartment of Peggy Guggenheim?

KM The one she gave to (University of ) Iowa.

CG Right. The one from her apartment.

(After the war she closed her NY Gallery and returned to Europe settling in Venice. Before Pollock became established she had him on retainer and owned works produced under that contract. She gifted a number of his works which at the time had relatively modest evaluations.)

KM You could say that was the first big statement of lyrical mural painting let's call it. That was the beginning. There was an analogous development in Europe which also has to be taken into account. As regards the US that was basically it.

CG In an essay on your website you speak of the relatively low evaluations for Color Field when compared to the market value for Pop. You state that the auction record for a Louis is about a million.

KM No it's almost $4 million based on a recent auction sale. There was a big wide band striped painting at Christie's. It was featured which was a first for a Color Field painting.

CG You described under a million evaluations for the best pictures by the rest of the Color Field painters.

KM Poons just got a million for a dot picture from the 1960s. That was just recently in December or January.

CG It's unfortunate that we connect dollar values to collection activities.

But consider what Sam Hunter as the founding director of the Rose Art Museum was able to accomplish. With some $50,000 in seed money from the Gervitz-Mnuchin families (Leon Mnuchin and his wife, Harriet Gevirtz-Mnuchin,) he acquired about 21 works mostly Pop but also a Louis, (Robert) Motherwell, and some other pieces. (The museum opened in 1961).

When Brandeis University threatened to sell the collection and close the museum the value of 7,500 works was said to be $350 million.

KM I know all about that because I talk to Lois Foster all the time. I knew Sam and he taught at Harvard one summer. (laughing) He stood up there in front of all those students and took out his paperback and read from it. We didn't take him too seriously.

CG That was an important publication. As was his text book "Modern Art" with Jake Jacobus. I used it for my courses. His writing was very clear and precise. I knew Sam well and as an undergraduate tussled with him in the school newspaper, The Justice. Unfortunately, he did not teach at Brandeis.

KM He was good at that but he kind of reflected the scene. That's the way he was. More like a generalist really. He was, you know, a good writer.

CG We went head to head quite a few times.

KM I was a reader for his course during the summer which is why I was in his class. I was reading exams.

CG I was surprised to read that you describe Frank Stella as a Pop Abstractionist. What do you mean by that?

KM It's like Pop. Rigid and brittle. He's terrible with color. Terrible.

CG If you look at Noland's "Chevrons" and Stella's "Protractors" wouldn't there be an obvious visual similarity.

KM There was just a show at the Paul Kasmin Gallery. You walked in and there was a large Louis. There was a Stella next to it which was just a kind of distraction.

I like Stella's sculpture. In recent years he can be very good. He has an excellent imagination in three dimensions. He is to be taken very seriously as a sculptor. In my view.

CG I saw his sculpture this fall and thought it was dreadful.

KM He's very uneven. But that's OK. He keeps moving on. You have to take that into consideration. He's done some terrific sculptures. But I know what you're saying. A little undisciplined. Not a very good editor of his own work, But he can be great as a sculptor in my opinion. But I'm delighted that he turned to sculpture as he was always better in three dimensions than he was in two.

CG It seems to raise a flag with you when I use terms like Color Field Painting or Formalism.

KM Formalism. I tripped over that. Color Field Painting I use all the time myself. It's a useful term.

CG What's wrong with Formalism?

KM Formalism implies that you're more interested in form than content. Clem felt that form and content were the same thing. I would use the term modernism. If you're talking about Greenberg and what I did. I'm interested in modernism. That makes sense. Then you have post modernism. To me that's more useful. More apt.

CG Where does figuration come in? I was surprised in your discussion of dimension limits with Fried that you went all warm and fuzzy over Rubens.

KM I love Rubens. Come on. He's great. That's what I was schooled on. Rubens, Raphael, Leonardo. All of the Color Field artists loved that stuff. With Clem we went to Old Master shows all the time.

CG Talk to me about figuration post 1945.

KM It didn't have that momentum or group things that there was with abstract expressionism. There were some terrific painters. Lennart Andersen. I name a bunch of them. George Nick is a terrific painter. I don't know if he's around. Barney (Rubenstein) of course. I love figurative painting. I always did. I went to school on that.

CG You have written that John Graham was undervalued. You also championed Horacio Torres.

KM I did a big show of him at the museum. (Torres)

CG Where does John Graham fit in today's critical spectrum? Why is he undervalued?

KM Some of the cross eyed women are great. He was an oddball and he didn't stick to one thing. He is a bit all over the place. In that sense it's understandable that he is not as well regarded as some of the others. As an artist he was tremendous.

CG Did you collect any of that for the MFA?

KM I collected a lot of figurative art. Oh yeah. I mention a lot of them in the piece that I did.

CG What did you acquire?

KM I got a Lennart Andersen. I got Barney. Of course I did a show of Barney. Horacio. Estes. (thinking) Fairfield Porter. Gabriel Laderman. There were many of them. Albert York. Another under appreciated artist. I notice now that he's been picked up by Matthew Marks Gallery. They sent me the book about him. He was undervalued for a long time. I did a show of his work. I love figurative art. If it's good it's good.

CG How did you come to the MFA. It seems that Lewis Cabot was the key figure.

KM Absolutely. Lewis was the one. He put it all together. He went to Perry (T. Rathbone) with a proposal and that's the way it went. I've pretty much paid that out as much as I remember of it.

CG You came in as Perry was on the way out.

KM Perry was wounded. He wasn't leaving. But it didn't look good for him.

CG You arrived in 1971 and he left that year. So there was limited contact.

KM He had that Pollock ("Number 10"  a Moffett acquisition) in "The Rathbone Years" (exhibition hastily organized by the curators to honor the departing director). He loved that Pollock. We got along great. Perry was a fun guy to be around. So was Hanns (Swarzenski) for that matter. Perry could be frustrating to deal with. He would say "Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes." And then (laughing). He was hard to deal with. Very slippery. But, no, he was definitely an art person.

CG I'm assuming he was easier to deal with than Merrill Rueppel.

KM Rueppel was kind of rigid. He had risen to his level of incompetence. He was good at what he did at the Dallas Museum which was I guess OK. When he got to Boston he was out of his depth. It was pretty obvious right from the start. He was very defensive. We had distinguished guests at the museum and he wouldn't come down. They had to go up to his office things like that. That's always bad when you have somebody who's on the defensive. It's not what you want in a leader.

CG When Rueppel was let go I had a phone conversation but that was my only direct communication. He was the only MFA director from Rathbone to Rogers that I did not know personally. There was that Sunday piece expose in the Boston Globe by Robert Taylor. It was supposed to continue that week. The illustration depicted him as a Don Quixote. The coverage implying a cabal of curators against him was so devastating that he was gone right after that article.

Doing research on that era it is impossible on line to find anything about him. I was able to fine a one paragraph obituary in a town paper. His interlude at the MFA has been swept into the dust bin of history.

KM He was a nice enough person to talk to.

CG Belinda Rathbone touches on him in her book as a part of her views on board president George Seybolt.

KM I met him a couple of times. He was ok a back slapping kind of guy. This happened before I came but the curators told me that he had them watch an ad presentation for Deviled Ham. Something about how he planned to market the MFA. All the curators had to show up. The curators were... (laughing).

CG I believe they were promotional films. A number of people have commented on that incident.

KM The curators kind of dismissed him as a philistine. He was the instrument of the time which was driving the museum to open up and all of that. He was doing something at the time that was going to culminate in Malcolm (Rogers).

CG In my dialogue with Belinda (who saw Seybolt as the nemesis of her father) I  said that the MFA today is more the museum of George Seybolt than Perry Rathbone. She didn't agree as you may well imagine. Seybolt was moving the museum away from the domain of the good old boys with its patrician paternalism into the diversity that we see today.

KM That's absolutely right. That was a part of the Post War thing. It was happening at the Met at a faster clip than it was in Boston. It was everywhere that it was going to open up.

CG Barry Gaither was a part of that and he describes Seybolt as a supporter of his efforts.

KM Open things up and bring in more business people. It was a change after the Second World War. He was a part of that and in that sense, yes, he was a part of history. But don't you know the curators of the MFA were very powerful. Not that I was powerful. I was the low man on the totem pole.

When it came to Rueppel there was no question that they were going to organize against him.

CG Were you a part of those meetings?

KM Yes I was, Jan (Fontein) and I were kind of point men on that actually.

CG Now that it's all history can you describe what was going on?

KM Pretty much as I've said. He seemed to us out of his depth. He wasn't the right man to bring the museum into a new era. Malcolm turned out to be that person. Jan wasn't that person either. I loved Jan but the job made him jittery. He managed and did a good job. He's intelligent and fair minded but like I say it was emotionally too much for him. It was a little wobbly but we did have some years of stability. Which was good. Jan was well liked which made it easier. Malcolm was the one who came in and rode herd on those curators. What Rueppel tried to do but incompetently. Malcolm came in and did it and now the museum is more open. One museum and different departments don't have as much power.

CG There are different opinions about that. It will be interesting to see what prevails of the changes once Malcolm finally leaves the museum in the near future.