On December 25, 2020, eminent art critic and AICA-USA member Barbara Rose passed away. To honor her work and legacy, AICA-USA asked colleagues who knew her to scribe a memory from their time with Barbara.
Barbara A. MacAdam
Barbara was a naughty girl and a dedicated scholar. She was often outraged and outrageous—unfiltered and unsubtle in her appraisals, showing childlike enthusiasm and conviction. That was her strength. It made her easy to understand and fun to read and work with.
When I would ask her to tone down expressions of anger, she’d first resist, but would then elegantly rewrite and almost circumvent the problem. She turned out to be more reasonable than she or her editors would expect. And she was extremely generous in her support of artists and writers she favored, eager to establish networks.
As for the illness—the breast cancer she endured over the course of ten years—she treated it as an annoyance to be spoken of offhandedly and not concealed or whined about.
It is difficult to resist the urge to call Barbara to complain with me about a shabby exhibition, a simplistic article, an annoying panel . . . or the reverse, a new and unexpectedly talented young artist or one as crazy and brash as a Larry Rivers.
I first encountered Barbara Rose (and her then husband Frank Stella) when I was an undergraduate at Barnard, taken to a party at their home. I was too awed and too callow to have anything but a perfunctory “I’m very glad to meet you” exchange with my hosts—the most glamorous people I’d ever met, I thought—but I vividly remember Barbara’s blond prettiness and her real, hot pink Chanel suit. (She was working for Vogue, at the time.)
Years later, when I was a rookie curator and she an established presence, we connected in the art world, mostly through artists we both admired and wrote about, such as Helen Frankenthaler. Barbara’s scholarship was often invaluable. We were never close, but we always chatted at length at openings and gatherings. Our meetings were sporadic and usually by chance, because we lived in different parts of the world, but we had friends in common and we followed each other’s work with interest. Her often contrarian views were always stimulating. I remember a particularly provocative conversation about an exhibition we both disliked when we met by accident on a Lexington Avenue subway train.
Some of my most extended time with Barbara was fairly recent. In 2016, she organized Painting After Post-Modernism: Belgium-USA, a large, ambitious declaration of her conviction that painting that addressed the eye and the emotions was still vital and potent, despite the prevalence of work in “alternative” media that dealt with politics, sociology, and all the rest of it. Installed in an enormous, multistory space in Brussels, the show was a series of solo exhibitions by eight Americans and eight Belgians, with Larry Poons and Walter Darby Bannard dominating the American section.
After showings elsewhere in Europe, a version of the exhibition travelled to the Reggia di Caserta, near Naples, with nine Italian painters, some friends of mine, added. The installation in the immense 18th century palace was, to say the least, problematic. Nothing could be attached to the walls, which all had rococo decorations, so the works were set on elaborate free-standing supports and spot-lit in darkened rooms, to minimize the backgrounds. The result was less than ideal.
Barbara knew it, but she made the best of it. At the press conference, she was gracious, generous to the artists (some of whom were protesting), and appropriately grateful to everyone. She was ill, very tired, and very disappointed, with good reason to be angry, but the entire time we were in Caserta, she was unfailingly (and somewhat uncharacteristically) polite in two languages, despite the stress and the distortion of her show. She even managed to get the lighting improved. Grace under pressure. The cocktail created in her honor for the opening may have helped, but she was still impressive.
“You're my newest friend,” Barbara Rose wrote me in an email. “I don’t make a new friend until somebody dies. I keep the same friends forever. I still have my friends from grade school in DC. So now we are forever, although not sure how long my forever will be.” As it turned out, forever proved all too short.
I’d long been aware of her writings when in 2002 I interviewed her for my biography of Richard Bellamy (Eye of the Sixties). As a Barnard senior in the late 1950s, Barbara lived in the same shabby brownstone on Central Park South that housed the Hansa Gallery, the legendary cooperative that Bellamy directed with Ivan Karp. We talked about the circle of friends she shared with Bellamy, whom she regarded as a Bodhisattva. Her enthusiasm for my book encouraged me before and after Eye’s publication in 2016.
Barbara’s contributions as an art historian, critic, curator, and filmmaker are widely recognized. But one of her writings, little known today, warrants attention. “The New York Abortion” appeared in New York magazine in May 1972, eight months before the Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade made abortion a constitutional right. At the time, abortion was newly legal in New York State, but activists were working to repeal the law. It was courageous of Barbara to share the horrific details of the illegal abortion she’d had as a twenty-year-old grad student.
She described how sixteen years earlier, her friends had searched for a doctor willing to break the law and then loaned her $500 to pay the fee. Barbara wryly observed that the abortionist’s Upper East Side office resembled the swank interior of the Charles of the Ritz beauty salon. But there was nothing chic about what happened there. The doctor used no anesthetic “because in case the apartment was raided, the equipment could be folded back into the ample closets and everyone had to be up and out.” The nurse turned up the volume on a radio to muffle her screams.
I read “The New York Abortion” when it was reprinted in the Fall 1972 issue of the Barnard alumnae magazine. I’d been at Barnard eight years after Barbara, and I too had an illegal abortion, at nineteen, an experience not much different from Barbara’s. To the many reasons we remember our dear friend and colleague, let’s add her willingness to take a private event public, hoping that women would never again endure such treatment.
AICA supports art writers around the world through public programs and membership that includes free access to museums across the globe. Since its formation in 1950, AICA has been committed to elevating the values of art criticism as a discipline, and acting on behalf of the physical and moral defense of works of art.
AICA supports arts writers around the world through public programs and membership that offers free access to museums across the globe. AICA-USA represents the largest national section of AICA International with over 450 distinguished critics, curators, scholars, and art historians working throughout the United States. As part of the international organization, we benefit from a global reach in presence. AICA-USA is intent on international communication, elevating the values of art criticism as a discipline, and acting on behalf of the physical and moral defense of works of art.
AICA's membership card is recognized for entrance to museums around the world. Members are invited to attend the annual AICA International Congress, hosted each year by a different member nation, and the AICA-USA annual meeting, which is held every year in May.
Organized in collaboration with CUE Art Foundation, this program matches emerging critics with experienced AICA-USA members who guide them through the process of writing a catalogue essay.
A partnership between The Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant and AICA-USA that gives art writers the opportunity to strengthen their work through one-on-one consultations with leading art critics.
Every fall, in cooperation with the New School's Vera List Center for Art and Politics, AICA-USA presents a Distinguished Critic Lecture.