With the passing of Bernice Berend Rose (1935–2023), the art world has suffered a true loss: an art world of curators, dealers, gallerists, scholars, connoisseurs, collectors, artists, art historians, students, and the art-loving public in general—all of those who made up the fabric of Bernice’s life and whom she best loved spending her life with.
To my mind, Bernice was one of the greatest curators and one of the most perceptive scholars of twentieth century European and American works on paper in the world—at least starting in the 1970s. She and I worked together on a number of projects in her later years and during that time, we came to develop a close friendship. I wrote this personal memoriam because I’ve always felt that Bernice somehow never received her full due or proper public recognition. Her contributions to the history of art via drawing are formidable, yet today, if her name is known, it is vaguely and only in passing. As of this writing, she has no Wikipedia entry and she is not included in the online edition of the Dictionary of Art Historians. Wikipedia is one thing, but this latter omission is astonishing to me. This memoriam, albeit in its small way, aims to remind us of what a brilliant, keen-eyed, and influential art historian Bernice truly was.
It would not be an overstatement to say that Bernice’s scholarship during the 1970s and 1980s made her a legend in her own time. And not least of all, Bernice was among a group of strong young women who paved the way for future female art historians to advance more easily through the ranks of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which she joined in 1965 as a secretary. Over the years, under the tutelage of William Lieberman, she worked her way up through the ranks of the Painting and Sculpture Department, first as an assistant curator and, later, as an associate curator. In 1971 Bernice joined the museum’s newly created Department of Drawings, and, in 1976, less than five years later, she was named the department’s curator.
1976 was an important year for Bernice, for it was also the year of her landmark exhibition Drawing Now: 1955–1975, in which she had organized a broad and eclectic array of works on paper by over fifty young artists ranging from Cy Twombly and Michael Heizer to John Cage and Dorothea Rockburne. It was Bernice’s Drawing Now exhibition that put the medium of drawing “back on the map,” for up until that time, drawing had been largely sidelined—considered a “minor” art compared to the more substantial mediums of painting and sculpture. But, as Bernice made clear in the introduction to her Drawing Now catalogue, this younger generation of artists had taken to drawing with a renewed intensity. She sided with them and argued that the drawings that these artists were making were just as significant as the other artworks that they were involved in creating, often three-dimensional constructions.
In her catalogue essay, she noted that: “drawing has moved from…that of a ‘minor’ support medium…to…that of a major and independent medium with distinctive expressive possibilities altogether its own.” Such an astute observation established Bernice as a drawing curator of considerable heft and prescience. Drawing Now put Bernice “on the map.”
Bernice went on to organize a long stretch of important drawing exhibitions at MoMA, elevating the medium on each occasion and demonstrating, once again, that drawing was deserving of its own attention. In 1987, she curated a show of over 300 works on paper by Roy Lichtenstein. Remarkably, this was the first time that MoMA honored a living artist with a show of their drawings. She delighted in showcasing the younger generation’s works on paper. One series of exhibitions that she organized, “New Work on Paper,” focused on just that, and appeared in annual installations. Bernice championed works on paper because she felt that drawing was as essential and valued as any other art objects being made. She always maintained that drawing involved as much about seeing, thinking, and interrogating as it would any art object, and she continually reaffirmed this ideology through her many exhibitions and her deeply thoughtful essays.
This is the Bernice who I met in 1993. She had left MoMA that year to head a drawings department at PaceWildenstein, a 57th Street gallery where I worked as Arne Glimcher’s assistant. This is when I first learned of her nickname, “Bunny,” for Arne seldom referred to her as “Bernice.” I have no idea where this funny little nickname came from, but even so, Bernice embodied what I imagined a curator from MoMA to be like: a snappy dresser; whip-smart and remarkably informed; able to talk comfortably and knowledgeably with anyone, let alone intimidating collectors. But above all, Bernice had an incredibly sophisticated and highly perceptive eye. She could absorb and interpret visual information instantaneously. She knew how to look. While at Pace she put on some of the most glorious shows, such as, Picasso and Drawing (1995). Her catalogue opens with what is still, to this day, a favorite Picasso drawing of mine, Debienne Watching Fernande Asleep (1904). Bernice also introduced me to the drawings of artists I was unfamiliar with, but that would later become significant in my own life as an art historian. One of these artists was Brice Marden, whose catalogue raisonné I would begin almost seven years later. Bernice had, unknowingly, become a mentor to me.
I left PaceWildenstein in June 1999 to pursue graduate studies at the University of Texas at Austin. A few weeks before I left the gallery, Bernice came running down the hallway toward my desk, waving a somewhat yellowed, slightly dog-eared looking book. It was her “going away” present for me, she said—a copy of her 1969 book Jackson Pollock: Works on Paper. She had included an inscription on its title page:
Dear Eileen, My first book. (Sorry it looks almost as battered as I). I am looking forward now to yours.
I cherish her Jackson Pollock: Works on Paper book. In it, Bernice had tackled the development between Pollock’s drawings in relation to his paintings, a feat which, as far as I know, had never been attempted before. But perhaps most exciting to me was the fact that Lee Krasner had allowed Bernice to sift through piles of undated Pollock drawings to try and determine their exact chronological order. I thought that was amazing! And Bernice did get to see my first book. In 2013 Phaidon published my monograph on Brice Marden—who, during the course of my research, made many of his drawings available for me to look through.
Here I must emphasize that Bernice never looked “battered.” She had a beautiful style, an enviable assuredness, and a stately elegance. She could, occasionally, give the impression of the “absent-minded professor.” But a fashionable one, for she favored Prada, Missoni, and the occasional agnès b. When we worked together on 57th Street, our lunch dates consisted of window shopping at Stephane Kélian, Charivari, or Bergdorf Goodman. Bernice was great fun. She knew everyone and she was always going to luncheons, openings, or dinners with interesting clients, artists, or well-known curators. Bernice could easily hold her own with the very best of them. It was through Bernice that I met the inimitable Barbara Rose—another art historian “hero” of mine. Bernice and Barbara had met back in the early 1960s because they kept getting one another’s gallery invitations, despite the fact that they were totally unrelated to one another. In the eyes of some, Bernice Rose and Barbara Rose, because of their shared interests and their last names, had somehow become interchangeable. They eventually became fast friends. In fact, the last time I saw Bernice, she was with Barbara at a gallery opening. At one point, Bernice and her husband Herb had gotten a place in Santa Fe and Bernice traveled there often. She found that she did her most productive writing there. Bernice was a cat lover, and she had a great, big, fluffy feline that she carted around in a cat carrier. Her beloved cat traveled back-and-forth to Santa Fe with her, without ever making a fuss, and likely served as her “muse,” or at least a calming presence.
Bernice spent her time with intelligent achievers, movers-and-shakers, and people who wanted to make a positive difference in the world. She traveled to all kinds of faraway places and exotic locations. She socialized with the artists, the curators, and the collectors. She was worldly and wise, organizing shows and writing catalogue essays. From my perspective, Bernice was living the life that she wanted to live. Not many people get to do that.
Above all else, I loved looking at art with Bernice. We used to go to the auction previews together and she would point out the most remarkable passage of paint or extraordinary pen-and-ink line she had observed in even the smallest of works. I once asked her where she had learned to look so closely and with such insight, and she told me that she had learned much from the legendary eye of Bill Lieberman, head of MoMA’s Department of Drawings and Prints from 1960 to 1979 (with a brief interlude), as they went through the museum’s collection together. Bernice, in turn, freely and generously imparted a considerable amount of her knowledge and expertise to me. There was often a story behind what she wished to explain and she was as fascinating a raconteur as she was enthralling an instructor.
In 2007 the Menil Collection, Houston, appointed Bernice the inaugural chief curator of its new (and, at the time, unbuilt) Menil Drawing Institute. Before they even broke ground, Bernice had begun to spearhead the Jasper Johns Catalogue Raisonné of Drawing. It was no easy task to get the Menil’s board on board, the artist enthused, and to secure the funds to complete such a project. But Bernice made it happen, just as she so often did, and once the basic pieces were put in place, she asked me if I would manage the production of the Johns catalogue raisonné as its project director. At the time, given a choice to work on the catalogue raisonné of Johns’s paintings and sculpture (which was also in production at that time), I probably would have opted for working on the paintings. In retrospect, however, I realize how incredibly fortunate I was for having been given the opportunity to work on the drawing catalogue raisonné. Bernice was among the foremost experts on Jasper’s drawings, and looking and thinking about them with Bernice was, without question, among the richest and most fulfilling experiences for me within my career. And it was not only Bernice’s eye that was so gifted, but also her ideas about drawings were unique and inventive—be it drawings by Johns or Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque or Joseph Beuys, or anyone, really. Bernice always had a cache of ideas percolating for her next show, next book, next article, next presentation.
In 2018, Yale University Press published the six-volume catalogue raisonné of Johns’s drawings (covering 1954 through 2014). The artist, Kate Ganz (Senior Editor and Object Examiner on the project) and all of us who contributed to the publication are very proud of it. For Bernice, the publication is a magisterial swan song.
Bernice was rather petite (although I always had to run to keep up with her at the Houston airport, and my legs are considerably longer than hers!), but intellectually, I consider her to be a giant, a true titan when it comes to the study of contemporary drawing. She was perpetually curious, and generous with her time as well as knowledge. While looking at drawings, she was rarely rushed and could get deeply lost in thought. She was also generous of spirit and loved to leave little gifts on our desks at the Johns office in the morning. You might come in and find an Italian-designed spoon from Eataly or a trinket from the MoMA Design Store. In stature, Bernice was a small woman, but she could have an immense heart. She was also very complicated.
I wouldn’t be true without addressing the elephant in the room. Bernice could be many things to many people, myself included. Yet, despite her sometimes-challenging personality, I loved Bernice and will miss her greatly. Fortunately, she will live on in the brilliance of her writings, the documented memories of her many exhibitions, the Jasper Johns Catalogue Raisonné of Drawing, and the legions of drawing curators that her work in the field of contemporary drawing helped to generate in the 1970s and 1980s.