One of the most prolific curators of the New York art scene during the second half of the 20the century, Henry Geldzahler established close relationships with artists, was in charge of the American and Contemporary art at the MET, and worked as a Commissioner of Cultural Affairs for New York City. This established figure changed the notion of the curatorial practice and served as an outstanding cultural agent.
During his lifetime, Geldzahler was considered a person of great interest in the art scene, and he became quickly recognized for his curiosity and immediacy. His career developed simultaneously with the rise of Pop Art as a dominating phenomenon of the 1960s, so it is not unusual at all that this notable curator was often depicted by the artists, so an array of photographs and paintings by Andy Warhol, Alice Neel, Frank Stella, and others stand as a solid proof for of his great influence.
Henry Geldzahler was of Jewish-Belgian descent; in 1940 his family emigrated to the United States after Belgium was occupied by the Nazis, where he graduated in 1957 from Yale University.
Three years later, Geldzahler started working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and in one point he became the Curator for American Art, and later the first Curator for 20th Century Art. In 1969, he curated the iconic exhibition New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970, which was the first show featuring contemporary American art at the MET; it marked both the constitution of the Department of Contemporary Arts and the 100th anniversary of the Museum. That event caused fierce reactions of the conservatives, while the public was delighted so much so that The New York Magazine described Geldzahler as the most powerful and controversial art curator alive.
In 1977, he was appointed the Commissioner of Cultural Affairs for New York City, by Mayor Edward I. Koch where he remained until 1982. His contributions to the NYC cultural life were extraordinary, since Geldzahler enabled grants for museums to purchase the work of living American artists, launched the Isamo Noguchi Museum, the renovation and extension of Carnegie Hall, and the Lila Acheson Wallace wing, devoted to modern and contemporary art, at the Metropolitan Museum.
Among his best known writings are Charles Bell: The Complete Works, 1970-1990 (published in 1991), and Making It New: Essays, Interviews, and Talks (Harvest Books, 1996), as well as co-written publications Art in Transit: Subway Drawings by Keith Haring (1984), and Andy Warhol: Portraits of the Seventies and Eighties (Thames and Hudson, 1993).
Geldzahler lived as an openly gay man who was part of the Koch administration and the conservative staff of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and was able to significantly contribute to AIDS-related causes. After leaving the commissioner position, he continued to work as an independent factor by producing different content in alternative spaces such as P.S. 1 and even the high modernist Dia:Art Foundation.
As it was already mentioned, Geldzahler became friends with a number of the artists, something that was not common at the times; Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning, Frank Stella, and later the younger artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring were the people he used to hang out with on various occasions. The great curator was well portrayed by Andy Warhol on a number of photographs and polaroids, as well as in his short, silent and in the black-and-white movie in 1964, featuring Geldzahler himself smoking a cigar.
One of the artists whom he befriended with was David Hockney, who made several portraits of Geldzahler and wrote about him in his 1974 biopic titled A Bigger Splash. The two men first met while the artist was on a trip to New York in the mid-Sixties, and instantly they became friends. Especially interesting is a Hockney’s double portrait of Henry Geldzahler and his partner Christopher Scott in their 7th Avenue apartment, which tells much about the love, trust and loyalty shared by the artist and the curator.
On the other hand, Geldzahler stated that he used to speak to Andy Warhol every day on the phone, and he even performed in Claus Oldenburg’s Happenings. The master of postwar Abstraction Frank Stella once said after he passed away in 1994: "The thing about Henry was that he lived among us".
It is apparent that Henry Geldzahler was a driving force behind the New York art scene for more than three decades. His practice was startling in many ways - he introduced an entirely different model of communication and cooperation with the artists, reshaped the curatorial interpretational tools, enriched the city’s cultural life and lived uncompromisingly as a queer man.
Geldzahler surely enhanced the art world and the notion of the cultural agent and made an indelible mark in American art history. A full account on Geldzahler’s cultural domains was captured by the 2006 documentary film titled Who Gets to Call It Art? by Peter Rosen.
Editors’ Tip: Making It New: Essays, Interviews, and Talks
This is Geldzahler's (longtime curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) written legacy, a collection of essays, interviews, and talks covering three turbulent decades in which he and the artists he championed defined what was new and important in contemporary art. Foreword by David Hockney.
Featured image: Andy Warhol - Photograph of Henry Geldzahler Lighting a Cigar, 1981.