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DAVID RUBIN

ALWAYS THE
BLIND SWIMMER



Photo: Michael Salerno



Gordon Onslow Ford at Bishop Pine
Preserve, Inversness, California, 1983.
Photo: Nata Piaskowski.









GordonOnslow Ford, "Arising Hearts,"
1991, acrylic on canvas, 41 x 54 3/4".









Max Ernst, "The Blind Swimmer,"
1934, oil on canvas, 36 3/8 x 29".
Courtesy the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Note—Rubin is currently The Brown Foundation Curator of Contemporary Art at the San Antonio Museum of Art.  When based in Los Angeles, he was a frequent contributor to ArtScene.

When I interviewed the late Surrealist Gordon Onslow Ford in the 1970s, he told me about a favorite phrase that Max Ernst had used for the title of some of his paintings:  “The Blind Swimmer.”  What Onslow Ford was essentially explaining to me was his philosophy of life—keep moving forward, like the swimmer who is blind and doesn’t know what lies ahead, but is fearlessly willing to go on the adventure. Accordingly, Onslow Ford believed in destiny.  Ever the symbolist, he carved a path through the woods in the shape of an ellipse that led from his house and full circle back to it.  In that he was also a believer in reincarnation, I assumed that this, like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (which Onslow Ford’s ellipse very likely pre-dated), was a symbol for the life cycle. As Onslow Ford saw it, we leave the house (the womb), we explore the unknown that lies ahead, and eventually we return to be reborn in the house to be launched on a new exploration.

Philosophy aside, I was awed by the Surrealistic mystic.  I walked the elliptical path through the woods with him, and I have often been guided by his words of wisdom.  At the time I met him, I was teaching art history at Scripps College, while also serving as Assistant Director of the Galleries of the Claremont Colleges.  I was reviewing Los Angeles exhibitions for various local and national publications, and, in 1982, I had the pleasure of meeting Bill Lasarow and subsequently writing for ArtScene during its infancy.  In short, I was wearing three hats, while also trying to finish a dissertation on automatism and the formative years of abstract expressionism.  

Young and naïve when I had entered academia in my late twenties, I thought that what I was doing at that moment was the goal.  That was what my life would be about.  Yet, as I began meeting artists who became role models, peers, and friends, I soon came to recognize the parallels between what I had studied about New York in the 1940s and what I was witnessing in Los Angeles in the early 1980s.  The kind of excitement conveyed to me in interviews I conducted with Robert Motherwell, Lee Krasner, and Ethel Baziotes was happening all around me.  A creative vortex much like the one that defined the New York art world of the 1940s had somehow spun its way to Southern California and it was flourishing.  Drifting, as it were, from the historical figures of the dissertation to being much more fascinated with the artists of my own time and place, I came to the adult conclusion that I didn’t have to be locked into retelling the same history over and over again; I could actively participate in a new history that was unfolding before my eyes!  My primary mission, in other words, became to work for the living artist, as opposed to dead ones.  And, although I never finished the dissertation, I earned my “Ab.D” (“all but dissertation”) when I published what I had learned from my research in the March, 1979 issue of Arts Magazine, a special edition devoted to Jackson Pollock.  When I withdrew from Harvard, my former museum studies teacher Agnes Mongan (the first female museum director in the U.S.) sent me a handwritten letter that I have to this day.  Referring to the art historians at Harvard, she wrote, “Let the old boys blow off steam.  Have a wonderful and productive career.”

And so began my Onslow Fordian adventure.  Never planning my moves calculatedly, my journey over the past twenty-five years has been a series of unexpected twists and turns.  By the mid-1980s, I threw away the art historian’s hat and focused on my curatorial work and critical writing.  By the 1990s, I landed a curatorial role at a major contemporary art center and, by virtue of the leadership position I had now assumed, stopped reviewing exhibitions. Over the years, I have worked at university galleries, contemporary art centers, and large museums.  And just when I thought I would likely stay forever in the bohemian Camelot of New Orleans, where I worked as Curator of Visual Arts at the Contemporary Arts Center from 2000-2006, Mother Katrina changed the composition.  So now I find myself having entered the house again to embark on yet another fruitful journey—this time at the San Antonio Museum of Art, where I will develop the contemporary collections and rev up contemporary art programming.  Already, I am meeting interesting and talented artists, and I feel amazingly at home.

In hindsight, I don’t know whether I have been following a creative vortex, or whether it has been following me.  In any case, I’m grateful just to be in partnership with the ever-changing and always unpredictable landscape of the visual arts.


Agnes Mongan, Director of the Fogg
Art Museum, Harvard University.
Photo: Rick Stafford.











Jackson Pollock, "Number One," 1948.