Indian & South Asian Modern & Contemporary Art

The Robert & Ruth Marshak Collection

By Sotheby's

The Collectors' Biography

R obert Eugene Marshak (1916 - 1992) was a world-renowned theoretical physicist who, later in his career, served as the President of the City College of New York. The son of emigres who worked in New York City sweatshops, he received a Pulitzer Scholarship to attend Columbia University. He then moved to Cornell University where he received his Ph.D. at the early age of 22, for his study of white dwarf stars. His advisor was Hans Bethe, who later won a Nobel Prize. Robert took a position at the University of Rochester, and met Ruth Gup (1916 - 1996), a school teacher. They married in 1943.

Robert Marshak taking a picture of Kamala Kailasanathan singing. T. Rukmini on the violin, Madras, January 1963
Image courtesy: The Marshak Family Archives

Robert was one of many scientists recruited to join in research efforts to help win the Second World War. He and Ruth eventually moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico, for the Manhattan Project, the United States' program to develop the atomic bomb. He served as the Chief Deputy for theoretical physics under Hans Bethe, and he interacted with many physics luminaries, including J. Robert Oppenheimer, who became known as the father of the atomic bomb. "One of [Bob's] contributions was an explanation of how shock waves work under conditions of extremely high temperatures during a nuclear explosion, when most of the energy is in radiation. These waves are now called Marshak waves." (E.M. Henley and H. Lusting, Robert Eugene Marshak: A Biographical Memoir, National Academies Press, Washington D.C., 1999, p. 6). Robert witnessed the first explosion of the bomb, and like Oppenheimer, realized that the terror of these weapons must be contained. He joined in founding the Federation of American Scientists to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons, serving as the organization’s chair in 1947. At Los Alamos, Ruth taught primary school and worked in the housing office. She described her experiences in the lead chapter of Standing by and Making Do: Women of Wartime Los Alamos, a book whose contributors included wives of Manhattan Project physicists.

After the war, the Marshaks returned to Rochester, where they remained until 1970. Robert served as chairman of the Physics Department, and Ruth continued teaching, specializing in remedial reading. Robert’s work on subatomic particles at Rochester led to his election to the National Academy of Sciences.

One of the crowning achievements during Robert’s career was his organization of international conferences in the field of high-energy particle physics, starting in 1950. He believed that not only could the free exchange of ideas advance science, but that it could impact the cause of world peace. Since the first conferences were held in Rochester, the events continue to be known as the Rochester Conferences. To ensure that all nations could be represented, Robert worked with the U.S. State Department to prevent visa blocks for international experts, including those from the Soviet Union. This was a significant accomplishment due to the Cold War climate.

Ruth and Robert Marshak in Madras, January 1963. Image courtesy: The Marshak Family Archives

The establishment of the Rochester Conferences, along with his work at the Federation and his research and other leadership positions gave Robert an almost “prophet-like-status” in physics (Henley and Lustig, ibid., p. 10). He was invited to lecture worldwide, traveling extensively in Europe, the Middle East, Russia, India, Pakistan and Japan. Ruth was an energetic partner in these endeavors, helping host conferences and joining him on many of his trips abroad.

During his lecturing tours, Robert recruited outstanding graduate students from Japan, Pakistan, and India, many of whom went on to become leaders in the physics community. One such student was E.C.G. Sudarshan, whom Robert recruited from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai. Together with Sudarshan, Robert developed the V - A weak interaction theory, an explanation for the fourth force of nature, which led to a nomination (unsuccessful) for a Nobel Prize.

In 1970, during the Viet Nam War era, Robert's social conscience led to a shift in direction. The couple moved to New York where Robert became President of the City College of New York, a large public university. During his tenure at CCNY, his initiatives included establishing a major performing arts center and an innovative biomedical program, both designed to help underserved populations. After a turbulent decade, Robert and Ruth moved to Virginia Tech, where Robert became University Distinguished Professor of Physics. For part of this time, he served as President of the American Physical Society. Robert passed away just a day after completing his last book, Conceptual Foundations of Modern Particle Physics. Ruth passed away three years later.

Robert Marshak and Homi J. Bhabha: A Meeting of Like Minds

During his many travels, Robert had the opportunity to befriend many famous physicists, including Hideki Yukawa (the first Japanese Nobel laureate), Abdus Salam (the first Pakistani Nobel Laureate), and T.D. Lee (the first Chinese Nobel Laureate). He first visited India in 1953 at the invitation of Homi Jehangir Bhabha, often considered to be the father of the Indian nuclear program. Robert also met political leaders, including the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru. Robert and Ruth spent six weeks in 1963 at Bhabha's Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai. During this time, Robert and Ruth also traveled to Madras, where they participated in the First Anniversary Symposium of the Matscience research center founded by Alladi Ramakrishnan, a student of Homi Bhabha.

From left to right: Dr. Homi Bhabha, Dr. Robert Marshak, and Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer converse at the fifth International Conference on High Energy Physics (ICHEP or Rochester Conference), Rochester, New York, 1955
Image courtesy: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Marshak Collection

Speaking of his first, 1953, visit, Robert reminisced, “Homi Bhabha … had been persuaded by Prime Minister Nehru of India to accept the dual responsibility of being the director of the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research and chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission, headquartered in Bombay. Apparently, Bhabha kept a watchful eye of the proceedings of the Rochester conferences …. Bhabha invited [Maurice] Lévy [a renowned theoretical physicist] and me to lecture at the Tata Institute .… The jet plane was still some years off so I met Maurice in Paris en route to India and our plane then made several refueling stops in Cairo, Dharaan, and Basra before reaching hot and humid Bombay. The drive from the Bombay Airport to the Taj Mahal Hotel, fronting directly on the Arabian Sea, was the beginning of a month-long culture shock for Lévy and myself in India. The Tata Institute was then located on the grounds of the former British Yacht Club, with the wine cellars converted to experimental labs and the street level entertainment rooms, with much open space and a glut of pigeons, providing office space for the theorists. Bhabha was a severe taskmaster and requested Lévy and me to lecture during the religious holidays (of which there were many in India during August), except for the Parsi holiday which he observed; this gave us a long weekend respite to visit the three most famous caves in India: Elephanta, Ellora, and Ajanta, about which Nehru exalts in his autobiography.” (R. Marshak, “The Pain and Joy of a Major Scientific Discovery,” in Sudarshan, E.C.G., ed., A Gift of Prophecy: Essays in the Celebration of the Life of Robert Eugene Marshak, World Scientific Publishing, New Jersey, 1994, p. 315-316)

Robert, Ruth, and Indian Art

As a teenage undergraduate, Robert took advantage of New York’s many museums and free cultural activities. In fact, his first published article, in Columbia University’s student magazine, was a critique of dancer Martha Graham. Notably, his biographers (Henley and Lusting, ibid., p. 4) state that "Bob Marshak maintained a love for and a commitment to the arts and humanities throughout his life." Ruth was equally enthusiastic about art and culture. Consequently, during their travels, Robert and Ruth collected objets d'art when possible. They did not have a large budget, but they did have good taste, and they listened to recommendations of their hosts.

Robert and Ruth Marshak in India, circa 1960s, Image courtesy: The Marshak Family Archives

Homi Bhabha and Robert Marshak bonded over shared interests, not only in physics research, but in the arts and in their vision of a world based on cooperation and peace. Bhabha was an important patron and the prime supporter of young Indian artists of the time, such as M.F. Husain, K. H. Ara, Adi Davierwalla, and V. S. Gaitonde. As a result, the Tata Institute purchased many pieces by these artists, and the TIFR Collection he built remains one of the largest institutional collections of these Bombay artists.

It was during their 1963 visit that the Marshaks first saw and learned about contemporary Indian art, likely from Bhabha. At TIFR they were able to enjoy seeing the works of Gaitonde and Davierwalla, which at the time were still affordable for a limited budget. Both artists were promoted by Bhabha and feature extensively in the TIFR Collection. Davierwalla “[was] bought and commissioned voraciously by Bhabha and the TIFR, the Atomic Energy Establishment, and his own personal collection.” (M. Chatterjee & T. Lal, The TIFR Collection, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, 2010, p. 157). Notably, the Marshaks’ Gaitonde painting resembles some at the Tata Institute, and Bhabha himself owned a Davierwalla work titled Dryad (1960) that closely resembles the piece purchased by the Marshaks.

Robert Marshak taking a picture of Kamala Kailasanathan singing. T. Rukmini on the violin, Madras, January 1963
Image courtesy: The Marshak Family Archives

The pieces from the Marshaks' collection recall an important era during which interactions among scientists across international boundaries could lead to great advancements in knowledge, and to meetings of minds not only in science, but in the arts. They also represent the vision of Homi Bhabha in promoting modern Indian art through the TIFR collection, an otherwise inaccessible treasure that has come to be greatly respected in recent years.

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