The Invisible Man: William Robinson


This is adapted from a letter from Henry Adams, nominating William Robinson for the Cleveland Arts Prize.

When there’s a great exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art, not many people stop to think about who was responsible for creating it, or about the challenges of making it happen.  The key visionary and impresario behind a great many of the CMA’s top shows in recent years has been William Robinson.  He has organized in total some thirty exhibitions for the Museum, including several of the most notable held anywhere in the world.  Yet for most Clevelanders he remains an invisible figure.  It’s time to change that.

Bill is unquestionably one of the small handful of truly original-thinkers in the world of art history—an exemplary figure as a scholar, curator and teacher. His publications include a number of intellectual landmarks—catalogues and books which have won the admiration of scholars and connoisseurs both in America and Europe for their originality, the soundness of their scholarship, and their powerful grasp of the big issues of modern art.

Bill was born in France, where his father was serving in the United States Air Force, and he lived first in the Loire Valley and then in the famous cathedral town of Laon until he was ten.  As a consequence he is fluent in French (he’s since become conversant in several other European languages as well), and grew up with constant exposure to the museums, historical landmarks and battlefields, including the Normandy beaches and Verdun.  He once confessed to me that his intense connection with Impressionist landscape painting is surely somehow connected with the fact that he frequently cycled through very similar landscapes as a child.

He saw a darker side of European history as well.  A chilling experience that has haunted him ever since, was a visit to the town of Oradour-sur-Glane, where during World War II German soldiers shot the men of the village and then crowded the women and children into a church and burned them alive.  A distinctive feature of his art-history writing is the fashion by which he has explored not only the beauties of art, but the ways in which it illuminates the tragic side of things.  Bill’s writing is intensely disciplined, meticulous, and seemingly restrained, but in the end its peculiar power and force derives from an underlying emotion and the relentlessness with which it probes the deepest and often darkest mysteries of human nature.  He also sets the achievements of artists against the panorama of historical events, so that history and art engage in a sort of conversation with each other.

After returning to the United States, Bill’s father joined the Strategic Air Command as a member of the U.S. civil service, and the family moved to Bellevue, Nebraska, just south of Omaha.  Not surprisingly, the shift from European to American culture was a shock.  For a time, Bill found an outlet in music, and by high-school became a successful keyboardist and traveling musician with rock-and-roll, soul, and jazz bands. Although enormously satisfying, he eventually tired of the late hours and nomadic lifestyle.  By the time he graduated from college he had shifted to art history, which he fell in love with from his first class.  Offered the opportunity to study at Columbia University with the great Impressionist scholar, Theodore Reff, he chose instead to come to Cleveland to accept a fellowship in the joint art history program of Case Western Reserve University and he Cleveland Museum of Art.

Starting as the protégé of Edward Henning, Chief Curator of Modern Art, Bill progressively worked his way up from museum fellow to curatorial assistant, associate curator and eventually to full curator and department head—all the time deftly administering an impressive range of projects.  In his curatorial role he has made a number of brilliant acquisitions, including paintings by figures such as Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, Emil Nolde and Max Beckmann, which have filled major gaps in the museum’s collection in areas such as Surrealism and German Expressionism.  He has also acquired important works by lesser known artists, such as the Swedish symbolist Eugène Jansson and Augusta Savage, a leading African-American sculptor of the Harlem Renaissance .

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After receiving his doctorate in Art History from Case Western Reserve in 1988, he went on to receive a Certificate in Management from the Weatherhead School of Management in May 2003 and a certificate in Spanish language studies from the Instituto Estudios Hispánicos at the Universitat de Barcelona in Barcelona, Spain, in June 2001.  Always passionately dedicated to scholarship, he has put very substantial effort into advising graduate students and teaching seminars in the art history program at CWRU—notably an in-depth, meticulously well-organized seminar on Picasso.

Bill is particularly well-known as one the most original, conscientious and perceptive writers on the work of Pablo Picasso, the subject of his remarkable book Picasso and the Mysteries of Life (2012), a study of the artist’s Blue-Period masterpiece La Vie. The product of nearly ten years of research, this book combines outstanding sleuth-work with scientific examination (such as infra-red reflectography), and provides a whole new understanding of Picasso’s early years.  Bill literally peeled back the layers of the painting to uncover what is hidden below the surface, thereby illuminating Picasso’s creative process step by step.

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Bill was also the principal curator and scholar of one of the thought-provoking, inspiring, and emotionally wrenching exhibitions of the last few decades, Barcelona and Modernity, which explored Barcelona’s role in nurturing the early careers of some of the greatest artist of the 20th century—including Picasso, Antoni Gaudí, Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró—and the eventual destruction of this artistic flowering during the Spanish Civil War by the Fascist regime of Francisco Franco.  With a combination of bold insights and meticulous research, this exhibition provided a whole new window into some of the greatest achievements of modern art and their tragically conflicted cultural setting.  It traveled to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and bowled over audiences there.

Somewhat similar in approach to his seminal Picasso book, Bill’s exhibition Van Gogh Repetitions examined seemingly familiar paintings but placed them in a completely new light.  Van Gogh often made “répétitions” or alternative versions of his own paintings but his reasons for doing so varied. And in the general literature on Van Gogh this practice has been described somewhat haphazardly, with the sequence of the various paintings of the same subject often confused.  Working with a top-flight scholars and conservators, Bill used x-rays and other tools to analyze them brushstroke by brushstroke, developing a new understanding of their sequence and purpose.

What was fascinating about the exhibition is that paintings which at first glance seemed quite similar turned out upon closer examination to be quite significantly different.  For the casual visitor, the exhibition was an invitation to look at and study Van Gogh’s paintings with a new intensity; for the scholar the catalogue resolves a whole host of matters that had been confused.  The exhibition received widespread attention, including a full-page article with color illustrations in The New York Times, and was a model of how an exhibition can present a highly technical show, full of path-breaking new scholarship, which at the same time drew huge crowds and enjoyed enormous popular appeal.

Most recently Bill was the curator of the immensely popular exhibition, Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse (2015-16), an exhibition that due to his deft touch both as curator and scholar was not a mere collection of pretty paintings but a profound and moving statement about changing views of the garden and man’s relationship to nature. The exhibition provided both intellectual substance and the aesthetic experience of rare encounters with beauty.  He showcased not only highly familiar works—such as Monet’s expansive triptych of waterlilies—but also stunning paintings by lesser-known figures who worked in a variety of styles from nearly photographic in their realism to wildly abstract.

A glance beyond the household names on his resume will show an impressive depth of scholarship.  Notably, he has written excellent studies of the work of Diego Rivera, Édouard Vuillard, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, George Hendrick Breitner, Adja Yunkers, and Otto Dix, and other fascinating figures.  He’s the author of a thought-provoking and amusing article on De Chirico forgeries, which brings out the slipperiness of the Surrealists themselves, who deliberately passed off copies as originals and misdated their own work.  Some of this work has a feminist slant and illuminates the emergence of notable female artists, including the Russian painter Alexandra Exter and the Ohio artist Alice Schille.  He’s also the author Modernism in the Midwest and Breaking Tradition: Ohio Woman Painter, 1870-1950, the first significant study of the role of woman painters in Ohio.

Indeed, Bill has been without question the leading scholar on the art of Ohio and the Cleveland School, the author of fascinating studies of figures such as William Sommer, August Biehle, Carl Gaertner, Clarence Carter, and Charles Burchfield, as well as the principal author of the best book-length study of the Cleveland school to date, Transformations in Cleveland Art (1996), which provided the first synthetic history of art in Cleveland from the late 18thth century to the 1940s.  By no means perfunctory, Bill devotes the same penetrating insight to Cleveland art as to that of internationally-known figures.  For example, the exhibition catalogue he wrote for the Southern Ohio Museum in Portsmouth, Ohio on the work of Clarence Carter, revealed for the first time Carter’s extensive use of photography, and pinned down the real-life sources of the vernacular subject-matter of his paintings.

All of this leaves out something of Bill that is a bit more difficult to measure—his generosity to others and the impact of that.  I first met him when I was a curator in Kansas City and organizing a show on Thomas Hart Benton.  Completely out of the blue, Bill contacted me to inform me of a major painting that I didn’t know about, and cheerfully passed on all his carefully prepared research on the work to me.  Later on, when I joined the staff of the Cleveland Museum, Bill was unfailingly generous and never seemed to succumb to the jealous back-biting that’s the bane of large organizations. These traits of personal character have certainly contributed to Bill’s amazing batting average in the tough game of wrangling loans for major exhibitions.

Bill has been an outstanding ambassador for Cleveland, who is liked, respected and admired by museum professionals throughout Europe and even in Asia. He has done a great deal to show that in its intellect and scholarship and overall quality, Cleveland can match what is produced anywhere in the world.