Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Who Gets to Call It Art?

I went to see a movie yesterday at the New York Historical Society about the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art's first (?) contemporary art curator Henry Geldzahler. Geldzahler who was the son of rich Dutch parents attended Yale as an undergraduate and was doing graduate work at Harvard in art history when the Met chose him to run their division on contemporary art in about 1960. It is probably both a sign of Geldzahler's innate talent and how little the Met valued contemporary art at the time that they chose such an inexperienced curator to manage their tiny but growing collection of recent painting and sculpture. As the movie shows, the Met made a good choice.

To be honest, I can't quite tell you what Geldzahler's special talent was, but I think his ultimate success was the result of two things: 1) A complete passion for art, and especially contemporary art; and 2) As David Hockney suggests in the film, an eye for art that was nearly flawless. If he thought it was good, it more than likely would be seen as good by the art establishment. Now whether this was a true coinciding of tastes, or a case of a curator at the Met having the power to shape how that establishment viewed art, I'm not sure. Probably a little of both.

At any rate, Geldzaher early on championed Pollock, de Kooning, Stella, Rothko, and then the likes of Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Claes Oldenburg, and many, many others. All of his work supporting and promoting these many contemporary artists culminated in a gargantuan show that he put together in 1969 recognizing artists whose work first appeared between 1940-1969. There were well over 400 works in all, and to make this show possible, the Met had to temporarily empty many of their galleries of classic works to make way for the contemporary ones. Many people believe that it was Geldzahler's boldness in putting together such an ambitious show that finally put the stamp of approval on contemporary art. Geldzahler's influence, though he died in 1994 of liver cancer, continues to be felt in an art world where contemporary artists consistently attract big crowds at galleries and fetch huge sums at auctions.

After the movie, one of the contemporary artists that Geldzahler supported early on spoke to the 100 people gathered at the New York Historical Society where the film was shown. He spoke irreverently and only half-coherently about that time, but there was something about his tone and his desire to offend as much as inform that I found especially endearing. If this wasn't enough, the crowd helped to make this a true New York moment by repeatedly interrupting him, shouting him down, and challenging him to speak more understandably. He had a habit of wandering away from the microphone and wading into the audience, which made it hard for some people to hear. A number of people recalled the show that Geldzahler put together and often questioned Poons' memory of it all. In the end, Poons insisted, whatever was accomplished at that heady time had little to do with anything that was thought out or planned. Everyone did what they had to do. Painters painted, sculptors sculpted, curators bought and displayed and somehow it all came together in a beautiful and illuminating way in 1969. He does not expect to see anything like that happen again in his lifetime. But the memories remain and the painters continue to paint and the sculptors continue to sculpt, and that is always what has mattered most, at least as far as Mr. Poons is concerned.

More on Mr. Poons here, including some great images, here from a recent interview with Poons on the occasion of a 2009 show.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post...
    A recent book, On Being Certain by Robert A Burton, sheds some light on the disagreements that you describe between Poons and the audience about the '69 show. The subtitle of the book, "Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not", is it in a nutshell. Burton writes about the difference between the 'feeling of knowing' and 'knowing' and how the feeling is often more powerful. The greatest conflicts in this realm occur in those areas that ignite the hottest passions, art, for example.
    Not too many places on earth where the discussion you describe could take place.