William C. Agee was annoyed that an abstract painter he admired, Sam Francis, was sometimes not given the weight he deserved because he worked in vivid colors rather than gloomy tones.
“We have never learned how to read the language of color,” Mr. Agee told The Press Enterprise of Riverdale, Calif., in 1999, when he curated a Francis retrospective at the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. “We look at a colorful canvas and we think, ‘Oh, that’s nicely decorative canvas’ or ‘Oh, that’s so pretty.’ But we don’t take it seriously.”
Sam Francis, who died of cancer in 1994, had “been subjected to the criticism that what he is doing is vacuous, emotionally thin,” Mr. Agee told the newspaper.
“And that is entirely unfair,” he said. “You look at the last paintings that he did, after he had been diagnosed with cancer and had just lost some close friends of his, and you see him using color like a primal matter, like lava pouring out of his soul.”
That anecdote demonstrates one reason Mr. Agee was among the most respected curators, scholars and teachers in the art world, especially with regard to American Modernism.
“He was willing to challenge received ideas about artists and their work, refreshing the scholarship on them,” Pamela N. Koob, who studied under Mr. Agee as a graduate student at Hunter College and became a curator herself, wrote in a memorial.
Mr. Agee died on Dec. 24 in Middletown, Conn. He was 86.
His wife, Elita (Taylor) Agee, said the cause was pneumonia.
Mr. Agee began attracting attention as a curator in the 1960s, especially with a 1968 exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art of sculptural boxes and other works by Donald Judd; it was the artist’s “first major solo museum exhibition,” according to the Judd Foundation. Walter Barker, writing in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, said that Mr. Agee “installed the show with a high degree of professionalism, and lighted it with sweep and dash.”
“He also put a catalog together that makes sense of Judd as the originator of an important concept in modern space design,” Mr. Barker added.
In 1970 Mr. Agee took his expertise to the West Coast, becoming director of exhibitions and collections at the Pasadena Art Museum in California and taking over as its director the next year. In 1974 he became director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, a job he held until 1982.
In his museum jobs, and afterward as an independent curator, Mr. Agee mounted or helped mount numerous important exhibitions and wrote or contributed to their accompanying catalogs.
But Mr. Agee was equally impactful as a teacher. He joined Hunter College as a professor of Modern American art in 1990 and stayed for almost a quarter-century before …….