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Friday, March 3, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"Who Gets to Call It Art?": The art world was his playground

Seattle Times art critic

Happenings in the art world rarely make front-page news, and you seldom find artists on the talk-show circuit. So what is it that turns a reclusive painter or sculptor into a hot commodity whose work commands millions?

According to Peter Rosen's insider documentary "Who Gets to Call It Art?" the answer used to be simple:

Henry Geldzahler.

Rosen's film is an 80-minute romp through the crackling New York art world of the 1960s and '70s, with commentary from some of the mega-

personalities who stoked the flames. With its snappy, even hectic editing and great archival footage, "Who Gets to Call It Art?" is loads of fun to watch. So it's a shame Rosen only uses the film to polish Geldzahler's already ample legend as a curator and powerbroker. "Who Gets to Call It Art?" ends up an intriguing bit of hagiography that avoids the opportunity to create a deeper, more genuine image of the complex, narcissistic and authoritative man who, at a seminal period in American painting and sculpture, steered art history.

Movie review 3 stars


"Who Gets to Call It Art?," a documentary by Peter Rosen. 80 minutes. Not rated. 7:15 and 9 p.m. today, through Thursday, at Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave., Seattle; $8, $6 for seniors, $5 for members (206-267-5380 or www.nwfilmforum.org).

Baby-faced and perennially sucking a cigar, Geldzahler was the son of a Park Avenue diamond broker. He was charming, Harvard educated and utterly audacious. "It was impossible not to meet Henry," recalls New Yorker magazine arts writer Calvin Tompkins. "If you were in any way involved in the art world, you met Henry."

For first-hand recollections of Geldzahler, who died at 59 in 1994, Rosen's crew visited the studios of a number of artists whose careers took off with help from the flamboyant curator. The bunch of guys (and, yes, they were mostly men) who orbited or observed Geldzahler's substantial force field included artists John Chamberlain, Francesco Clemente, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Mark di Suvero, Larry Poons, Jaspar Johns and Frank Stella. The film is worth it just to hear from such an insightful, witty, weird and irascible bunch. (I love it when Chamberlain blurts: "Artists aren't really acceptable ... to the public. What will the public think? Who gives a rat's ass? It's their job to catch up.")

Geldzahler's self-confidence was daunting. He was hired as contemporary art curator at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, not by sucking up to management, but by putting it down. Geldzahler was a grad student volunteering at the Met when a supervisor asked him if he would like a job there. Geldzahler told him he would rather work at the Whitney Museum, because that institution, at least, showed what was happening in American art. He dismissed the imposing Met as an encyclopedia that was missing a volume, and said it should be embarrassed. Soon afterward, Met management offered Geldzahler a job as curator and asked if $5,000 a year would be an acceptable salary. He told them he would ask his father.

That was 1960. And Geldzahler got busy right away, making artists famous. He spotted Warhol as a major star, but it wasn't a totally disinterested judgment. Geldzahler had "no trouble coming out of the closet," according to one observer, and his personal and professional lives were inextricable. Geldzahler and Warhol saw each other constantly, with Geldzahler beginning and ending every day with a phone call to Andy.

In 1963, Warhol focused a movie camera on his friend and dubbed the resulting film "Henry Geldzahler." It was basically 90 minutes of Geldzahler smoking a cigar. Loads of other artists scrambled to paint or draw Geldzahler's portrait, too, out of ambition or a sense of obligation. As Geldzahler's good friend, painter David Hockney, put it: "Henry liked to pose. That's why there's a lot of drawings of him. Henry didn't have many mirrors in his house. He knew what he looked like by asking people to make portraits of him."

Through whatever personal wizardry and aesthetic brilliance Geldzahler commanded, his career skyrocketed. In 1966 he was appointed U.S. commissioner for art at the Venice Biennale. He was the first director of visual arts at the National Endowment for the Arts, holding the purse strings for grants that no doubt went out to many of his protégés. The Met promoted him to director of its new contemporary art department and in 1969 Geldzahler mounted the huge, groundbreaking exhibition "New York Painting: 1940-1970," which established him as grand master of the contemporary scene.

"New York Painting: 1940-1970" wasn't just an art show, it was, as Tompkins recalled, "A triumph of American art. Enormously exciting." The show was a sensation that got everyone talking. But not everyone was smitten. The Metropolitan Museum had devolved to "Henry's playground, Henry's playpen," according to one irritated New York Times critic, Tompkins recalled. Rosen's film mentions the controversy but he doesn't interview any dissenters, to see how their views have weathered the years. In fact, if Geldzahler had made the film himself, it could scarcely be more flattering. That's its downfall.

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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