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Kynaston McShine, curator of Historic Art Exhibitions, dies at 82

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Trinidad-born Kynaston McShine, an audacious museum curator who organised some of the most influential contemporary art exhibitions of the late 20th century, died on January 8, 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 instalation in the permanent collection galleries.

He organised 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.

Primary Structures achieved such historic status that in 2014, as its 50th anniversary approached, the Jewish Museum revisited it with an exhibition centred 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, but there were also plenty of Downtown Manhattan stalwarts, among them Richard Serra, Robert Smithson and Yvonne Rainer, as well as the 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 Dematerialisation 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 February 20, 1935, in Port-of- Spain, 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, 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 in T&T.

McShine was one of the first in his family to attend college in the US rather than England, earning a bachelor of arts degree from Dartmouth College in 1958.

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.

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.

(The New York Times)


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