While a documentary about a curator seems dull — we're used to idolizing artists, not arts administrators — everyone loves a groupie story (witness the success of Almost Famous and the fact that anyone's heard of Pamela Des Barres). In Henry Geldzahler, legendary 1960s curator and art-world gadfly, director Peter Rosen has found the ultimate art groupie, but he lets the rock stars do most of the talking in Who Gets To Call It Art?; after all, his subject died in 1994. Frank Stella, Bob Rauschenberg, David Hockney, Francesco Clemente and many more reminisce digressively in this aimless document of a life spent cheerleading others. It's not for scholars — but the luscious tumble of images will exhilarate even a casual modern-art fan.
Geldzahler was an uptown boy, the Harvard-and-Yale-educated son of a Belgian diamond merchant. An eye for beauty and the ability to turn a profit on their instincts ran in his family. For his bar mitzvah, he was given $1,000; a year later, he spent $600 of it on a large Stella painting. (Incidentally, a Stella of that period fetched $1.2 million at a Sotheby's auction last week.) A canny investor as well as a connoisseur of art, Geldzahler was the perfect missionary for Pop Art — which not only didn't resist commodification but embodied it, existing "simply to reconcile us to a world of commodities, banalities and vulgarities," as Geldzahler said in 1962.
He ingratiated himself with the artists — most of whom had only each other for an audience in those days — by being a non-threatening presence; not a competitor, but an emissary to the moneyed world of the collectors, and a genuine fan. His position as curator of 20th-century American art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art culminated in the notorious New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970 exhibition, familiarly known as "Henry's Show." This 422-piece exhibition in the august galleries of the Met brought American postwar painting onto the scene with a crash. The uptown and downtown worlds merged at that opening in a way they never had before. They've never separated since.
"Whatever resonance art of the late 20th century has, it owes to Henry," declares Stella at the beginning of the film. The idea of treating these banal objects and minimal canvases as "real art" was distasteful to fusty Rembrandt idolaters and fans of the surly Abstract Expressionists alike. Pop Art shattered the fairy tale of the painter expressing his tortured soul; in its place were Claes Oldenburg's limp fabric sculptures of toothpaste tubes and Roy Lichtenstein's blown-up comic strip panels. But Henry bridged the gap with his enthusiasm and born-salesman's shrewdness, and a new generation of art stars emerged.
Early in the film, sculptor John Chamberlain asks rhetorically, "D'you ever notice that there's no artists on talk shows?," yet this doc consists almost entirely of commentary by Henry's contemporaries. What we get is a great collection of tales, mostly very affectionate, but some no doubt self-serving. The speakers are identified spottily if at all; the chronology skips around through the decades. There's no context, no objective historical detail, just a lot of old white men talking. (Though many of these artists are or were quietly gay, as was Henry, the parade of white-male uniformity — alleviated only by those eternal sidekicks Helen Frankenthaler and Jean-Michel Basquiat — sadly reinforces the patriarchal, Euro-centric power structure of the art world.)
All of which is why this DVD is best enjoyed in a semi-reclined position. Excellent soundtrack choices from The Monks, Carla Bley, John Cage, Eric Dolphy, the Velvet Underground and more underscore what is, per the Palm Pictures aesthetic, top-notch moving wallpaper. Find the biggest, loudest TV/DVD player/stereo setup you can, have a few drinks, turn off the lights and let it wash over you.
Who Gets To Call It Art?