Sunday, September 30, 2007

Who was Henry Geldzahler?

I can't tell you how many times I've gone to galleries and art museums and heard people exclaim their wonder that the stuff on the walls was considered art. Obviously we are talking about something incredibly subjective when we discuss the quality of any specific piece of work. There was a time a few centuries ago when representational art was the dominant style worldwide. Within the last 100 years things have changed quite a bit. Perhaps one can trace the development from the invention of photography- I'm not an art historian, so I can't say so with any authority. What I can say for sure is that the art world certainly has the ability to confuse most conventional viewers nowadays.

If you are looking for someone to blame for the confusion, you might want to consider Henry Geldzahler. He'd be an appropriate candidate to confront if he wasn't already dead. He wasn't an artist, but rather a big-time New York City curator during the second half of the Twentieth Century. Born in Belgium to a conservative Jewish family, he developed a brash and jovial persona and sought to employ it in the service of high culture. As a relatively young man he was asked to work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Geldzahler had been shadowing several famous art dealers (including Ivan Carp) while he was a student at Harvard University. At first he turned down the opportunity to curate at what he perceived to be one of the stodgiest institutions in Manhattan. He later reconsidered, pledging to bring in an element of contemporary art that had never been seen before at the Met.

Geldzahler had many connections in the New York art scene. As depicted in Peter Rosen's Who Gets to Call it Art? , not only was he involved in the hip gay community, but he actually lived and played among the young artists doing the most vital work of the period. The generation that lived in NYC after WWII (the one dominated by Abstract Expressionism) had been largely antisocial and very small. Everyone in the art scene could fit into a single gallery space during a Tuesday night opening. But as a new breed of artist emerged in the 60's, the scene began to expand and take on a dynamic attitude. Geldzahler became friends with Frank Stella, David Hockney and Andy Warhol. He appeared in a Claus Oldenburg "Happening", and at every reception for every show he could attend. Most importantly (and uncharacteristically for a curator of that time period) he continued to visit artist's studios and engaged them on their level.

As Pop art became to coalesce into a formal movement, it became apparent that Geldzahler was gifted with an incredibly discerning eye. His crowning moment on the island was "New York Painting and Scuplture: 1940-1970", the most revolutionary exhibit ever displayed at the Metropolitan. In 18 prime gallery spaces within the museum, Geldzahler put together a collection of over 400 pieces from 43 artists that he personally liked. This was unprecedented at the time, and drew harsh criticism from critics and member patrons alike- shows on that scale had invariably been juried by committee. But this became appropriately known as "Henry's Show", and in retrospect it was hugely successful. It included a roster of art star luminaries that would soon form the pantheon of late 20th Century Art- Warhol, Lichtenstein, Johns, Stella, Rosenquist, Rauschenberg, Kelly, Rothko, etc. The list was exhaustive.

While it was inevitable that Geldzahler would run into some criticism over who he left out of the show, the level of invective was indeed stunning. To his credit, the master curator simply replied that he simply included what he'd seen and wanted to see again. In doing so he forever changed the legacy of American Art. "His artists" are now accepted as the most important of his times. Even during the years before Geldzahler's untimely death, he continued to discover vital art that would form the center of the next wave of NYC art stars. He spent time with Francisco Clemente, Keith Haring, and Jean Michael Basquiat. He passed away (cancer) in 1994 at the age of 59.

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Blogger STANLEY said...

2:33 AM  

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