By Carl Belz
I recently rediscovered the obituary I wrote for Barney Rubenstein, a Boston-based painter whose work and whose friendship exceptionally enriched my life for many years prior to his death in 2002. It was written on the assumption that it would be published in The Boston Globe, but it was filed away when I learned of the Globe’s policy to write its own obituaries. Rereading it, I have been moved to share it—in the company of a few images of Barney’s pictures—in the hope of sparking an awareness of his achievement to an audience that ranges beyond the Back Bay.
Barnet Rubenstein, 1923-2002
Barnet Rubenstein, painter, teacher, raconteur, sports enthusiast, and beloved friend of countless members of Boston’s cultural community, died in his Brookline home on April 15, 2002, Patriots Day, Marathon Day, with the Yanks at Fenway wrapping up a four game series with the Olde Towne Team. Born and raised in Chelsea, Massachusetts, he would have been 79 on July 21.
Of all the things Barney was, he was first of all an artist, always making images. He drew cars and comic strip heroes for fun while at school in Chelsea, and for diversion he drew tanks and planes while serving in the U.S. Signal Corps during World War II. He then started to draw and paint in earnest, figures and interiors and still lifes, first at the Massachusetts College of Art in 1946-47, and then for five years at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts where he would later teach for more than three decades. He became practiced in the manner of Abstract Expressionism while living in Southern France for twelve years starting in 1953, but he drew and painted ocean liners and buses and racing ponies—he called them New York subjects—when he came back to the USA in 1965 and took up residence at the Chelsea Hotel in Gotham. After returning permanently to Boston in 1975, he spent the next twenty years imaging take-out food containers, cardboard boxes, jars of cookies, and arrangements of fruits and flowers, and he continued to draw and paint up to the very end—mostly the tree-lined paths where he regularly walked—despite a debilitating neurological condition that made it nearly impossible, physically, for him to draw or paint at all.
|Barnet Rubenstein, Calumet Rider and Jockeys, 1967, oil on canvas, 20 x 16 inches
Like many artists of his generation, Barney could lovingly be said to have lived at times in a dream world untroubled by contradictions. He’d talk about making it in the Big Apple, though he didn’t have an entrepreneurial bone in his body. He’d describe series after series of ambitious pictures that he had in mind while working at a snail’s pace, as if time just didn’t matter. He’d be scheduled for a longed-for solo exhibition but would then want to postpone it because he wasn’t sure his current paintings were fully realized. But exposure and recognition came in spite of the endearingly mixed feelings he had about success: In numerous group exhibitions during the 1970s when realist-type painting enjoyed renewed attention, and theme shows began their ongoing ascendancy; in an eye-opening mid-career survey at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in 1979; in a handful of radiant solo shows at the Alpha Gallery during the 1980s; and in a crowning retrospective at the Rose Art Museum in 1997 that celebrated four decades of his achievement. As a result, public and private collections throughout New England and elsewhere became homes for treasured paintings and drawings that in many cases had to be coaxed from Barney’s studio.
|Barnet Rubenstein, Grapes, Pear, Apple, 1984, pencil and colored pencil on paper, 10 1/4 x 15 1/2" private collection.
Throughout his life—in his art, in his teaching, and in the stories he memorably told—Barney communicated a deep respect for art’s recent and distant past. In this he followed the model he learned as a student at the Museum School more than a half century ago, and he in turn gifted it to the generations of aspiring artists who studied with him, just as he gifted it to countless colleagues and friends, which was always with boundless generosity. He extended the same respect to the humble objects he painted—the fruits and flowers, the cookies and jars and boxes—patiently articulating each of them with nature’s life-giving light and attendant color. We know the pictures came about through painstaking effort and were hard to part with, but we don’t feel that effort when looking at them. We feel instead their joy and wonder, how they justify themselves by merely existing, and we in turn feel as though their maker was grateful simply for the opportunity to bring them into being. Such is the gift of art when it is practiced at its highest level, which is the way Barney practiced and gifted it, and a supreme gift it remains.
|Barnet Rubenstein, Sunflowers and a Rose, late 1990's, pencil and colored pencil on paper, private collection
Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University.