George Alexander Kubler (1912-1996), People in the News: In Memoriam

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(original citation) Thomas F. Reese, "George Alexander Kubler (1912-1996). People in the News. In Memoriam,"  CAA News.
On October 3, 1996, the world lost a unique and brilliant guide who, in a scholarly career of sixty years, led many of us beyond the frontiers of knowledge into new, uncharted areas. George Kubler was born in 1912, as he liked to say, "in Hollywood." He lived in Los Angeles until age eight, when his father died, and in France and Switzerland until age twelve, when his mother died.  He then lived with his paternal grandmother in Switzerland, who died the following year.  But before her death, she provided for him financially and appointed a guardian, who arranged for him to attend boarding school in Hudson, Ohio.

In 1929, Kubler entered Yale College, where he remained throughout his life. As Kubler later told me, his was a career that developed in time when institutions nurtured, created, and sustained scholars, instead of employing them. At Yale College he wrote experimental fiction, clamored for rigorous academic standards, and traveled on vacations to the Carribean, Mexico, and New Mexico, taking also a study-year in Munich in 1932-33.

When he returned to Yale in 1933, he attended Henri Focillon's lectures and decided on his lifelong vocation.  His was a "good entrance" because Focillon was busy persuading Yale's president to establish a new program in the history of art and he molded its future faculty from the graduate students whom he enrolled in art-historical studies through the interdisciplinary program, History, the Arts and Letters.  Kubler was invited to join Focillon's équipe , entering graduate school in 1934. In that same year he decided to write his dissertation on the religious architecture of New Mexico.  As late as 1936, Yale still had no official department of the history of art, so he applied to study at the newly formed Institute of Fine Arts. The seminars of Walter Cook, Karl Lehmann, Erwin Panofsky, and Herbert Spinden had lasting impact on his interests.  When a major in the History of Art was established at Yale in 1938, Kubler returned to teach there until his retirement in 1983.

In New Haven, traditions, community, and family provided a steady and supportive environment for a child who had been orphaned at twelve. He created places of comfort with his family in their roomy house on Humphrey Street and with his students in his seminar room and office on Yale's High Street bridge. His routines ran like clockwork--a time for thought, a time for students, a time for writing, and a time for his wife Betty and four children--Alexandra, Cornelia, Edward and Elena. But it was the creative time in teaching and writing that he valued highly and the family supported.

I certainly understood the importance of this time at home in listening to stories that Cornelia Kavanagh told about her father at his Yale Memorial service:  "I walked down the hall to my father's study and knocked on the door.  Silence. He was writing. I knocked again." No matter what deadlines he had, however, he made time for students, family, and occasional social events.

We all created awe-filled images of this prodigious scholar at work, and they in turn mediated our awe and made our time with him so much more special. Indeed, student narratives of the dreamy,  slightly out-of-touch professor were the tropes around which fond "Kubler stories" turned.  We appreciated his generosity and warmth, even though we imagined that he might have preferred to be pondering more important ideas than the ones we brought to him. But those of us who came to know Kubler well knew that he was always fully present and happy to share himself with us.  We remember his humility and his great, joyful smile and sweet voice that greeted us whenever we came into his presence.

And how we loved the Kubler stories. Behind that tall and craggy frame dwelled, I always felt, a brilliant and slightly idiosyncratic boy who loved to entertain.  But it was never erudition he put on stage. That was for the pen or for academic occasions. He had a unique sense of humor nourished by his fascination for language. He loved aphorisms, epigrams, metaphors, neologisms, and highly imaged words and concepts, and his play with words and word concepts was an intensely pictorial operation. It was no doubt the root of his fascination with the pictorial and ideographic languages of Ancient America. He had a magician's glee, as he performed, ending always with a proud grin as he waited for his audiences to "get it."

George Kubler was also a man with relentless energy and rigorous goals.  His close friend Ted Thomas recounted with incredulity the "twenty-year plan" that Kubler set for himself after graduate school and achieved. Triennial leaves from Yale enabled him to pursue research and writing, and he rewarded his institution with twenty books and over one hundred scholarly articles.

His research agendas were broad, extending temporally from American antiquity to the enlightenment, and geographically across all cultural areas that played a role in the formation of the vast unstudied artistic landscapes that spanned three continents. Early on, Kubler concentrated on large-scale projects in unexplored territories with enormous populations of artifacts that remained to be ordered and where art was frugal and frequently anonymous. Case studies like the Religious Architecture of New Mexico (1940) and Mexican Architecture of the Sixteenth Century (1948) helped him shape three major historical syntheses that he completed before 1960: Arquitectura de los siglos XVII y XVIII (1957), Art and Architecture in Spain and Portugal and their American Dominions, 1500-1800, with Martin Soria (1959), and The Art and Architecture of Ancient America (1962).

Throughout his life, Kubler remained committed to advancing the geographical and methodological frontiers of knowledge. Kubler, however,  never followed the isotherms of normal scholarly practice.  He preferred unusual terrain, where he could map new subjects and forge methodological paradigms appropriate to the material at hand. He loved subjects and areas not yet claimed and governed by disciplinary strictures. His standard practice was to begin every new study with historiographical surveys that assessed the utility of different paradigms, both past and present, in terms of their adequacy to yield results in the present. He chose paradigms not for their fashionable currency, but for their novelty and potential yield in experimental theaters of action. Furthermore, his distrust of structuralist paradigms, which sought unified patterns of form or meaning, led him not to centers, but to spheres of interaction across borders and boundaries, whether of media, time, society, or ethnicity.

If Kubler really had an early "twenty-year plan," there was always space for improvisation. Indeed, he was easily seduced by opportunities to make interesting detours, often suggested by friends who had a good idea or wished to collaborate. He wrote "Toward Absolute Time: Guano Archaeology" (1948) with scientist G. Evelyn Hutchinson during the war years. A request that yielded "The Quechua in the Colonial World" (1946) came from Yale anthropologist Wendell Bennett. He and the historian Charles Gibson worked onThe Tovar Calendar  (1951), Kubler told me, in part as a therapeutic endeavor after the war.

The writing of the elegant treatise The Shape of  Time  (1960)-- one of the most influential books of its day--completed a period in Kubler's scholarly life. Written as he was recuperating from a serious illness, the book was a synthesis of syntheses--his reflections on the craft of representing time in the writing of the three pioneering surveys. Most read the book as setting an agenda for art historical studies. I believe that it closed a period of his scholarly development, and that it freed him to explore new terrains and to revisit problems and formulations that he had developed earlier and dismissed. Before 1960, Kubler had explored the relationships of social sciences like economics, demographics, linguistics, and anthropology to the study of art and artifacts. After 1960 he expanded iconography through linguistics and semiology, epigraphy through configurational analysis, textual analysis through Lévi-Strauss's notion of bricolage , myth and ritual through history, formal analysis through computer mapping, epistemology through quantum physics, aesthetics through biography--and the list could go on.

Kubler was never territorial or proprietary about ideas, which is probably why he was so critical of those who tried to stake out boundaries. Janet Berlo recently told of Kubler's response to a story about a colleague who complained that someone else had published his ideas: "There are so many ideas; he should just follow-up on another one!" Berlo continued, "And for George, there were so many ideas; and he gave them freely to his students." But Kubler also knew the value of the role of the policeman, "patrolling the beat against mythmakers."  He was also a firm advisor, assuming that others had his extraordinary focus and self-discipline. As I pleaded for more time to conduct field research for my dissertation, he counseled, "One never completes research, one merely stops when the clock runs out and it is time to write. More time might produce more research, but will it really produce anything new?"

Kubler was at work on a study of evolution, vision, and the brain as he slipped into the disorientation of Alzheimer's disease, which made it impossible for him to finish this assessment of the relations among images, visual thought, and evolution. Indeed, it was evolutionary theory that he had criticized unrelentlessly inThe Shape of Time , especially as scholars applied it to questions of historical development and representation.

I have yet to review his research files to discern what he put to paper, but Kubler spoke to me of this work as an arduous study that he was not sure he could finish. Our conversations about the work suggested to me that he hoped to present neurological evidence that might support his hypothesis and his belief that art and artifacts--and the problems of form and meaning embodied in their creation--might play a principal role in evolution, and, moreover, that the vital centers in the brain involved in the representation and reception of visual images might lie at the very core of humankind's ability to learn, think, and evolve. Had he pursued this hypothesis, he might have concluded--as he suggested throughout his own scholarly evolution--that works of art provide critical points of entry into distinct historical moments of human time.  

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