William C. Agee, an art historian and curator whose leadership of the Pasadena Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston demonstrated a forward-thinking, risk-taking sensibility, died on December 24, 2022, at 86. A representative for the MFA Houston confirmed his death.
When Agee became director of exhibitions and collections at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1970, he was just 34, making him one of the youngest museum leaders in the U.S. at the time. He would go on to become director of the museum, and would continue to build that California institution’s reputation as a hotbed for cutting-edge modern and contemporary art.
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Among the presentations he mounted at the museum was a 1974 survey of Kazimir Malevich that featured loans from the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Few shows like it had been devoted to the Russian Suprematist in the U.S. The only problem was he had trouble getting people to actually see it.
“It was a great, great show, and met with a resounding yawn,” Agee recalled in a 1989 oral history recorded by the University of California Los Angeles. “I’ve never been so disappointed in all my life.”
Agee realized he had bitten off more than he could chew. “It was the end of the go-go ‘60s when all things were possible,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “If you asked about money, the response was, ‘What’s that? Don’t worry; we’ll raise it.’ So there were rude surprises.”
The Pasadena Art Museum had built up a following for shows such as Walter Hopps’s 1963 Marcel Duchamp retrospective—the first of its kind in the U.S.—and had by the time of the Malevich show run into trouble. The museum had amassed more than $1.5 million in debt by then, and the possibility of merging with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was even floated. In the end, the museum ended up being bought out by private collector Norton Simon; its reputation never recovered.
Had Agee been able to realize his ambitious projects, his would have only seemed more prophetic. After Eva Hesse’s death, he’d planned a retrospective for the Post-Minimalist sculptor, only to find that he was unable to get together the funds needed to mount it.
Agee left the Pasadena Art Museum in 1974, just before Simon took charge there, and went on to lead the MFA Houston for eight years. By the time he left in 1982 to pursue other research and writing projects, he’d organized an exhibition of Paul Cézanne’s late works and a retrospective for Patrick Henry Bruce, an American modernist whose place in art history had been uncertain before Agee began publishing writing about him.
Isaac Arnold, then the head of the MFA Houston’s board, told the New York Times that Agee had been “more of a curator than an administrator.”
William C. Agee was born on September 26, 1936, in New York. While attending the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, he visited the Addison Gallery of American Art, which spurred in him an interest in art history. He would go to pursue the discipline at Princeton University and Yale University, where he received a B.A. and an M.A., respectively.
During the ’60s, he served as an associate curator at both the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. At the Whitney, Agee organized the first museum survey devoted to the Minimalist artist Donald Judd, which opened in 1968.
After he exited the institutional world in the early ’80s, Agee focused his efforts on researching American art. He was a research fellow at the Archives of American Art, and he organized major shows focused on Sam Francis, Arthur Dove, Stuart Davis, and others.
There were unrealized projects along the way. With Walter Hopps, during the early 2000s, Agee had been working on a survey of Abstract Expressionism, which, if mounted, would have likely been the defining exhibition about the movement. But the show never came to pass because Hopps died during its making in 2005.
From 1988 until his retirement in 2014, Agee was a professor in Hunter College’s art history department. His writings appeared in the New Criterion, and he published books such as 2016’s Modern Art in America 1908-68.