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November 26, 2008

DVD Journal: "Who Gets to Call It Art?"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Geldzahler, painted by Alice Neal

Peter Rosen's 2006 documentary "Who Gets to Call It Art?" tells the story of NYC artworld taste-maker / power-broker / connoisseur Henry Geldzahler. A buddy of Warhol and Hockney -- and, yes, since you may have been wondering, most definitely Ivy, Jewish, and gay -- Geldzahler was curator of contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum in the 1960s, and he played a major role in getting a ponderous NYC art establishment to embrace the whimsies and playfulness of Pop Art. A happy networker and politically very astute, Geldzahler was an outsized version of a not-uncommon NYC type: the gayguy who lives for his taste and his friends, and whose personality is as much a work of art as any actual artist's creation.

The film? Well, it's more of an art-thing in its own right than I generally like docs to be. But -- if you don't mind the pretentiousness and can forgive some huge gaps in information and exposition -- it's there to be enjoyed as a fact-based evocation of an epic time in American art.

All that said ... The inbred-ness of the NYC artworld, eh? What I mainly came away from the DVD musing about was this: Isn't it funny how someone like Geldzahler could make a huge reputation for himself as a savvy, open, daring and refined bad boy by getting the artworld to accept Pop Art? What's so impressive about that? To me, getting the fine arts world to accept a new kind of fine art is like getting the French cooking world to accept a new kind of cream sauce, or the fashion world to embrace a new trend in necklaces. It's some kind of achievement, I guess. But perhaps the people who find it a hyper-impressive one are also people who take life inside the Charmed Circle a little too seriously.

Meanwhile (and please heed a grumpiness alert here) it isn't at all uncommon for civilians -- people like, say, the inhabitants of this blog and many of its visitors -- to gab happily and un-self-consciously about book jackets, suburbia, cars, movies, fine art, ads, magazine design, skateboard photography, and thongs. It's all visual culture, folks. As for which culture-things from our era will last: Well, Time will tell, and will then probably change its mind. And -- since we won't be there to enjoy its verdict anyway -- why over-stress the question?

No disrespect meant to Geldzahler, who was certainly an impressive phenomenon of some kind. Still: Who really deserves the rep as the more open-minded, free-thinking, visually-aware-and-responsive creature: the guy whose twinkling eyes and mind inflicted a little snuggly mischief on the inner circles of the self-declared art world? Or the interested and enthusiastic civilian whose brains and senses are open to a far wider visual-culture field?

Here's Paul Goldberger's good obit of Henry Geldzahler, who died in 1994 at 59 years old.

Fast-Forwarding Score: A tenth of the movie. The artiness did become a little thick for me at times.



posted by Michael at November 26, 2008


Not a great fan of Alice Neel but she really did herself proud in this portrait of Geldzahler.

Hasn't it always been the case that a great networker with social charm, often openly homosexual or closeted, has been pivotal in championing a new artist or movement in the art world? Picasso and to a lesser extent Braque had their Geldzahler in Appolinaire (sp?). I think there was a similar ubiquitous figure networking for Monet & Co.

Resenting such types seems, well, meager and mean spirited to me. Maybe a promoter of art with a wider scope didn't emerge to challenge Geldzahler because no one had the stomach for the networking and politicking that task required. Or maybe there wasn't much larger art around at the time. God knows Hilton Kramer ranted and raved against the limp wristed takeover, but was never able to mount a challenge that "took."

Posted by: ricpic on November 28, 2008 7:42 AM

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