A Champion of Art

Putting pen to paper, art critic Barbara Rose ’57 shaped the way we understand postwar art

By Judith E. Stein ’65

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Illustration of woman hugging herself
Illustration by Rowan Wu ’18

Barbara Rose ’57, the acclaimed art critic, curator, and filmmaker, died on December 25, 2020, at the age of 84. A trailblazer in the field of American art history, Barbara wrote the popular textbook American Art Since 1900: A Critical History (1967), which brought attention to previously unheralded artists. Unafraid to hold contrarian views, Barbara later wrote about contemporary painters ignored by colleagues who favored video art and installations and at a time when publications like Artforum proposed that painting had “ceased to be the dominant artistic medium.” They were wrong. It was very much alive. 

In 1965, Art in America published her seminal essay “ABC Art,” on the art shortly to be labeled minimalist. In it, she illuminated the shifting zeitgeist of the early 1960s as many young painters, sculptors, dancers, and composers turned their backs on the modernisms of their elders and instead favored a “blank, neutral and mechanical impersonality.” But Barbara didn’t “invent art movements,” she emphatically told an interviewer in 2018. “I just notice coincidences.” 

Morningside Heights was the right place at the right time for a young woman intoxicated by contemporary culture in the mid-1950s. A painter and ardent cinephile since her girlhood in Washington, D.C., Barbara transferred to Barnard from Smith in 1955. She enhanced her studies with studio art classes at Teachers College and binged on double features at the Upper West Side movie theatres. At the West End Bar, she met Beat Generation writers, former Columbia students who still gathered there.  

As in most college curricula, modern art was “European” and halted after Pablo Picasso. Barbara studied with the Baroque scholar Julius Held and with the classicist Marion Lawrence. Lectures by Meyer Schapiro, Columbia’s brilliant medievalist, drew her across Broadway. Schapiro was a rare academic who believed that to understand current art, one needed to befriend artists and visit their studios, a credo Barbara made her own. 

She knew many of the soon-to-be-iconic artists of the ’60s, including Jasper Johns, Philip Glass, and Donald Judd. Vibrant and outspoken, Barbara went on to grad school at Columbia when women there were a barely tolerated rarity. By 1964, with her thesis underway and her orals passed, she left the program to focus on contemporary art. 

Following a brief marriage to the future economic historian Richard Du Boff, she wed painter Frank Stella abroad in 1961 during her Fulbright year researching Spanish Renaissance art. The couple had two children, Rachel and Michael, and divorced in 1969. Following a 10-year marriage to “Hound Dog” lyricist Jerry Leiber, Barbara and Du Boff remarried in 2009 on what would have been their 50th wedding anniversary. In 1984, the same year Rachel graduated from Barnard, Columbia awarded Barbara a doctorate based on her publications. 

Barbara’s reviews in major art magazines segued into contributing editorships at Vogue, New York magazine, and Partisan Review. Among her publications are monographs on Claes Oldenburg and Barnett Newman, as well as a significant number that advanced the careers of women artists, such as the painters Helen Frankenthaler and Lee Krasner. During Barbara’s six-decade career, she served as curator of exhibitions and collections at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, taught at Yale and Hunter College, among other institutions, and wrote, produced, or directed a number of documentaries on artists, including one on sculptor Mark di Suvero.

Fearless when confronting art world pieties, Barbara courageously crossed the private/public divide with an account of her abortion, illegal in 1957. The landmark Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade was still pending when “The New York Abortion” appeared in New York magazine in May 1972 and was reprinted in Barnard Magazine that fall. The doctor had used no anesthetic, she wrote, “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.” My own experience, while at Barnard in 1962, little differed. Barbara and I became friends five years ago when she reviewed my book Eye of the Sixties. I was touched when she wrote to me as her newest “forever” friend, “although not sure how long my forever will be.” Alas, it was all too short. 

Latest IssueSpring 2021