Bernice Rose, an art historian and curator whose groundbreaking exhibitions placed traditional drawing on an equal footing with painting and sculpture, challenging notions of it as their poor cousin, died Sunday at her Manhattan home. She was 87.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, said Roberta Alpert, a family friend.
As Curator of Drawings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Ms. Rose organizes exhibitions that show how drawings are much more than preliminary works executed primarily on paper. In a catalog that accompanied “Drawing Now: 1955-1975,” her landmark 1976 exhibition at MoMA, she wrote that drawing had become “a major and independent medium with distinctive possibilities of expression all its own.” .
When the exhibition opened, John Russell, then the chief art critic of The New York Times, called it “one of the best and most useful exhibitions ever mounted at the Museum of Modern Art.”
Also on view were odd works by artists not known for painting, such as Bruce Nauman’s My Last Name Extended Vertically 24 Times, a nearly 7-foot-tall study for one of his neon sculptures, along with a wall painting by Sol Lewitt and one made of pencil and wire by Richard Tuttle.
There was also a 6-by-8-foot etched glass work created by earth artist Michael Heiser.
“I sent it to the museum in a standard commercial crate that was made for maximum protection,” Mr. Heiser said by phone. “When it arrived at MoMA, the art dealers took it outside and put it on the ground in the courtyard, where it broke.”
Undeterred, Mrs. Rose ordered a replacement glass; Mr. Heiser then flew from his home in the Nevada desert to New York and proceeded to make another one, which, he said, actually turned out better. “Bernice mounted it in a wall, which was very impressive,” he said. “She was completely unfazed.”
Bernice Harriet Behrend was born on October 7, 1935 in Miami Beach to Rose and Bert Behrend. Her father sold electrical engineering. When she was about 6 years old, her parents moved the family to Brooklyn, where Bernice grew up.
She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from Hunter College, where she studied painting with painter Robert Motherwell, and received her Master’s in Art History from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. In 1956 she married Herbert Rose, a lawyer who served as legal advisor to many prominent Jewish organizations. He died in 2010.
Mrs. Rose left no immediate survivors.
A feisty woman who could stand in front of a drawing and discuss its merits in detail, Ms. Rose began her 28-year career at MoMA as a secretary in the painting and sculpture department and rose to senior curator in the drawings department. She organized many exhibitions, such as Cézanne’s Treasure: The Basel Sketchbooks, Surrealism and Jackson Pollock: Painting in Painting.
She is the author of several publications, including Allegories of Modernism: Contemporary Drawing (1992), and has overseen a number of critical acquisitions for the museum.
“Among the many extraordinary drawings acquired by Bernice are not only an extraordinary work on paper by Yves Klein, done with an open flame rather than a brush, but also MoMA’s first major wall drawing by Sol Lewitt,” Christophe Cherix, chief curator of the Museum of Drawings and Prints, said in an email. Ms. Rose, he added, “has largely shaped our current understanding of media.”
“She understood early on that for a generation of artists that emerged in the 1960s, the art of painting knew no boundaries,” Mr. Cherix said.
Ms. Rose left MoMA in 1993 to become director of special exhibitions at the Pace Gallery in New York, where among the exhibitions she organized were Henry Moore’s drawings of the 1930s and 1940s and “ Picasso, Marriage and Early Film in Cubism’.
By 2007, the Menil Collection in Houston named her the inaugural Chief Curator of its Drawing Institute. In 2018, the institute opened to the public a new 30,000-square-foot building on the 30-acre Menil campus dedicated to the preservation and study of modern and contemporary drawing.
While there, she organized several monographic exhibitions focusing on drawings by artists such as Tony Smith, Claes Oldenburg and Cy Twombly. Although Ms. Rose retired from Menil in 2014, she never stopped working. She was editor-in-chief emeritus of the Jasper Johns Catalog Raisonné of Drawing, published in 2018, as well as an advisor to Houston collector Louisa Stude Sarofim.
“Bernice has shown generations of curators and collectors that drawing is a discipline, a way of thinking and an activity or practice unbounded by convention or materials,” Rebecca Rabinow, director of the Menil Collection, said in an email. “Her redefinition of what a drawing is continues to shape intellectual thought around the world.”