Geldzahler, Henry

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Geldzahler, Henry

(b. 9 July 1935 in Antwerp, Belgium; d. 16 August 1994 in Southampton, New York), art historian, museum curator, and public official whose combination of erudition, personal charm, and flair for showmanship helped ensure the preeminence of New York School artists in the 1960s and 1970s.

Geldzahler was the younger of two sons of Joseph and Charlotte (Gutwirth) Geldzahler, members of Polish Jewish families long resident in the Low Countries. His father was a wealthy diamond broker. Because his mother was a naturalized American, the family was able to escape Belgium and settle in New York shortly before the Nazi invasion in 1940. Geldzahler attended public school prior to going to Horace Mann, a prestigious private high school in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. By the time he entered Yale College, he knew he wanted to be an art museum curator. He later recalled that when he was fifteen, he had seen an Arshile Gorky exhibition at the Whitney Museum and came home “completely knocked out, and that’s when I first realized that art could be that moving or upsetting.” An art history major at Yale, Geldzahler visited New York museums and galleries on weekends and worked one summer as a volunteer in the Department of European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He spent his junior year in Paris, studying at the École du Louvre and the Sorbonne.

Geldzahler received his B.A. degree, magna cum laude, in 1957, and then went to Harvard to work toward a doctorate. He left Harvard, however, in 1960, without having completed his dissertation (on Henri Matisse’s sculpture), when James Rorimer, then director of the Metropolitan, offered him a job as a curatorial assistant responsible for twentieth-century art in the Department of American Painting and Sculpture. For the next two years Geldzahler spent most of his time visiting studios and galleries, seeking out examples of the latest trends for possible acquisition by the museum. Thoroughly grounded as he was in art scholarship, he was often able to defend his proposed purchases, demonstrating to conservative museum officials how works by avant-garde artists actually derived from those of older, established masters. But the fact that the young assistant had become personally involved with some of the artists whose work he was promoting—indeed, had been featured in a “Happening” staged by Claes Oldenburg and a film by Andy Warhol—did not always sit well with the trustees.

On leave from the Metropolitan Museum in 1966 and 1967, Geldzahler served as a program director for the National Endowment for the Arts, awarding grants to artists of his own choosing and recommending disbursements to museums to enable their purchase of works by living American painters and sculptors. Concurrently, he was appointed U.S. commissioner for the 1966 Venice Biennale, charged with selecting artists to be shown in the U.S. pavilion. Instead of the pop artists he had hitherto championed (like Warhol, who once claimed Geldzahler had given him all his ideas), he chose the color-field painters Helen Frankenthaler, Ellsworth Kelly, and Jules Olitski—and one pop painter, the more conservative Roy Lichtenstein. Incensed by the politics and questionable aesthetic judgments involved in the granting of Biennale prizes, Geldzahler raised so strong an objection that two years later the prize system was abolished.

When he returned to the Metropolitan Museum, Geldzahler became curator of the newly established Department of Contemporary Arts (renamed the Department of Twentieth Century Art in 1970), which included drawings, prints, and the decorative arts in addition to paintings and sculptures. In 1970 came the high point of his curatorial career when he put on the monumental—and controversial—exhibition New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940–1970 (otherwise often referred to as “Henry’s show”), designed to celebrate the museum’s centennial. For this show, which opened in the fall of 1969 and made use of thirty-five galleries, the curator selected 408 works by forty-three artists whose style had been established by 1965: abstract expressionists and their predecessors, color-field and hard-edge painters, minimalists and pop artists. As he stated in his introductory essay in the exhibition catalog, his guiding principle in selection had been “the extent to which [an artist’s] work has commanded critical attention or significantly deflected the course of recent art.” Much admired by some critics as stimulating and handsomely presented, more conservative commentators reviled the show as merely an arbitrary assemblage designed to further the reputation of Geldzahler’s protégés. The exhibition was also criticized for its exclusion of women artists and black artists. On the whole, however, it was a huge popular success.

In 1977 Geldzahler resigned from the Metropolitan for a variety of reasons: friction with museum executives as a result of some of his curatorial decisions; and his own growing disenchantment with late 1970s trends such as conceptual art, which he felt “didn’t do the same for me that the earlier art had: It’s the materiality of art… the way it’s made, that I like.” In 1977 New York mayor Edward I. Koch appointed him commissioner of cultural affairs. He took office in January 1978 and for the next five years he raised funds from the city council, the federal government, and private sources for the visual and performing arts. By the time he resigned, he had doubled the Cultural Affairs Department budget.

Thereafter, Geldzahler worked as an independent curator. From 1983 to 1986 he was distinguished guest curator of the Institute for Art and Urban Resources at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, the studio-gallery complex in Long Island City, Queens. After 1987 he was curator for the Dia Art Foundation gallery in Bridgehampton, Long Island, mounting shows of two of his favorites, Warhol and Keith Haring. A book titled Andy Warhol: Portraits of the Seventies and Eighties (written with Robert Rosenblum) was published in 1993. Geldzahler never married.

At the age of fifty-nine Geldzahler died of cancer at his home in Southampton just before the publication of a collection of his essays and art criticism, Making It New: Essays, Interviews, and Talks. He is buried in Green River Cemetery in Springs, Long Island. A memorial service was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the fall of 1994.

The painter David Hockney, one of several artists who over the years painted affectionate portraits of their friend Henry Geldzahler, paid tribute to him in an introduction to Making It New —commenting on his wide range of interests, passionate love of art, and great eye. (Geldzahler himself maintained that his way of looking at art had been formed by the critic Clement Greenberg and the painter Frank Stella.) Geldzahler had been at the center of the city’s art world—part impresario, part guru—often quoted and photographed in the press. Masked by his flamboyant persona were the energy and efficiency, political savvy, and business acumen he brought to bear on furthering the cause of art and artists.

In addition to the titles mentioned above, Henry Geldzahler put together American Painting in the Twentieth Century (1965), a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition catalog. New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940–1970, with his introductory essay on how the exhibition was assembled, was published by the museum with a 1969 date. Making It New: Essays, Interviews, and Talks (1994) includes his capsule history of the New York School. Calvin Tomkins’s thirty-one-page profile, “Moving with the Flow,” New Yorker 47 (6 Nov. 1971), is the most extensive biography of Geldzahler through the time of his Metropolitan exhibition. The record is continued in Current Biography (1978). Additional biographical information is found in interviews with the photographer Francesco Scavullo, Scavullo on Men (1977), and with the art critic Ingrid Sischy, “Making It New,” Interview 24 (Apr. 1994), the latter was reprinted in Geldzahler’s Making It New. Other articles about him are Robert Gerber, “Where Henry Hangs His Hat,” House and Garden 164 (July 1992); and Julia Szabo, “Regarding Henry,” New York 28 (16 Jan. 1995). Obituaries are in the New York Times (17 Aug. 1994) and ART news 93 (Oct. 1994).

Eleanor F. Wedge