Kynaston McShine, an audacious museum curator who organized some of the most influential contemporary art exhibitions of the late 20th century, died on Jan. 8 in Manhattan. He was 82. His death, at the Mary Manning Walsh Home, was announced by the Museum of Modern Art, where he worked for over 40 years until 2008. No cause was given.
Mr. McShine cut a distinctive swath through the art world. A West Indian, he held a highly visible curatorial position when the ranks of art museum curators in the United States were almost entirely white. Known for his wit and elegance, he spoke with an upper-crust British accent, was fiercely private and rarely gave interviews. He could be brusque and imperious one moment, charming and conspiratorial the next. Especially in the 1980s and ’90s, Mr. McShine exercised a great deal of influence on what the Modern acquired in the way of postwar and more recent art, and applied a keen eye to its installation in the permanent-collection galleries.
He organized two exhibitions that have become part of art history. The first was “Primary Structures: Younger American and British Sculptors,” a show of new abstract sculpture at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan in 1966, during a hiatus from the Modern. [It was one of the first museum exhibitions devoted to the movement that was becoming known as Minimalism, which the show’s success accelerated.] It cast a wide net, encompassing 44 artists using stripped-down forms and industrial materials in diverse ways, but at its core were the handful of leaders of the trend. “Primary Structures” achieved such historic status that in 2014, as its 50th anniversary approached, the Jewish Museum revisited it with an exhibition centered on a beautiful scale model of the museum’s galleries as they existed in 1966, complete with miniature sculptures.
In 1970 he made a second, bigger splash with “Information,” an international survey of about 130 artists, filmmakers and collectives that explored the tangled strains of mixed-media, participatory and ephemeral works gathered under the umbrella of Conceptual art. “Information” was predicated on the idea that people were living in a new age, in which communication technologies connected them as never before and deluged them with images. Showing works that were overtly critical of the government and the war in Vietnam as well as of museums themselves, the exhibition set out to disturb the artistic and political status quo. The disruptive spirit of the show was apparent in its catalog, which was printed on cheap stock using a typewriter font and gave each artist at least one full page to use as desired. The astounding range of creativity, irreverence and abstruseness that resulted was bracketed between endpapers with wide-angled views of masses of humanity: The first showed the 1963 March on Washington, the last the 1969 Woodstock festival.
Kynaston Leigh Gerard McShine was born on Feb. 20, 1935, in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, the oldest of two boys of Austen Hutton McShine and the former Leonora Pujadas. His father was a bank president; his mother founded Trinidad’s League of Women Voters and was its first president. His large, close and comfortably well-off family had produced doctors, lawyers and a judge or two among its branches. Children in the extended family had nannies, and those not sent to boarding school in England — Mr. McShine and his brother were not — attended the prestigious Queen’s Royal College, the second-oldest secondary school in Trinidad and Tobago, sharing classrooms with the islands’ white elite. Mr. McShine was one of the first in his family to attend college in the United States rather than England, earning a bachelor of arts degree from Dartmouth College in 1958.
Mr. McShine never publicly explained how his interest in modern and contemporary art began, but at Dartmouth one of his best friends was a son of Celeste G. Bartos, the philanthropist and collector and a Museum of Modern Art trustee. Mr. McShine recounted that when he visited the family in Manhattan he would sleep on a Mies van der Rohe daybed beneath a painting by Joan Miró. In 1959, after a year of graduate work in English literature at the University of Michigan, he got a job in the Modern’s department of public information. From there he went to the museum’s department of circulating exhibitions. Organizing a traveling exhibition of the work of the Abstract Expressionist painter Robert Motherwell, he said, “blew my mind.”
Mr. McShine rose from associate curator to curator to senior curator to acting chief curator in painting and sculpture before becoming the museum’s chief curator at large, a position he held for five years before his retirement in 2008. In an email this week, Ann Temkin, who had worked at the Modern as Mr. McShine’s curatorial assistant in the late 1980s and then took over as chief curator of painting and sculpture in 2008, said: “Kynaston’s sensitivity was deep and his opinions were strong. At the museum, he championed the poetic, the unexpected and the individual as opposed to the academic, the predictable and the institutional. His lasting contribution to the life of the museum, and to the lives of countless artists and colleagues, is immense.” Mr. McShine had homes in Manhattan and on the East End of Long Island, in Springs. He leaves no immediate survivors.