Farewell to Art Historian and Curator Peter Selz

Art News, Art History

June 24, 2019

The period after World War II was tough more or less for all European societies, and the withdrawal of normal life took a couple of years, although the burden of the atrocities was great. However, on the other side of the planet in America, which at the time was an important social, cultural, and after all military partner to the Allied forces, the exiled artists and various other cultural and scientific agents found a new and accepting environment where they were able to develop their practices in an unhindered manner.

One of the most prolific curators of post-war art scene and person responsible for a new kind of interpretation of visual arts, in general, was a German-born American Peter Selz. This particular figure changed the course of the institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Berkeley Art Museum in California by moving further the status of curatorial practice, proposing certain artists and inserting them into the art history cannons.

Salz was an influential cultural agent for many years, and last week he passed away at the age of 100. In his memory, we will be focused on his bewildering activity and his constant interest in the shifting nature of art.

Installation view of the exhibition New Images of Man
Installation view of the exhibition New Images of Man. September 30, 1959–November 29, 1959. Photographic Archive. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. IN651.1. Photograph by Soichi Sunami.

Peter Selz at The MoMA

Peter Selz was born in Munich in 1923. In 1936, his family managed to leave Germany before the horrific Crystal Night. After arriving the States, he continued with his schooling, attended the Columbia University and became mentored by Alfred Stieglitz, to whom he was related as well.

After serving in the US army in WW II, Selz received an A.M. from the University of Chicago in 1949, as well as several Fulbright scholarships for professional development at the University of Paris and École du Louvre and the Musées Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire. Simultaneously, he was appointed professor at the University of Chicago and was the chair member of the education department at the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. In 1955 he moved to the Pomona College to chair the art department and run the school's art gallery.

In 1958, Selz became the curator of the department of painting and sculpture exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where he remained until 1964. Already in 1959, he presented the advantages of his craft with the exhibition titled New Images of Man. This survey was focused on the representations of corporeality in North American and European context of the time. On display were the works of Francis Bacon, Jean Dubuffet, Eduardo Paolozzi, Alberto Giacometti, and Willem de Kooning (just his figurative works), to name the few. Although Selz was criticized for producing a retrograde show which was out of sync with its time (Abstraction was a dominating tendency then), his approach affirmed the artists who were not based in New York and made several interesting points best expressed by the curator himself in the exhibition's press statement:

The revelations and complexities of mid-20th-century life have called forth a profound feeling of solitude and anxiety. The imagery of man which has evolved from this reveals sometimes a new dignity, sometimes despair, but always the uniqueness of man as he confronts his fate.

Despite the bad reviews, Selz firmly believed his agenda is right and continued working by producing important exhibitions such as the first US retrospective of Auguste Rodin, a Mark Rothko show, a Giacometti retrospective, and an extensive survey of Futurist art.

Selz was apparently open for radical proposals, and so he supported the installment of Jean Tinguely’s Homage to New York (1960). Despite the fact the museum’s management found it to be too much, this important kinetic installation/sculpture consisting of scrapped metal parts collected from a junkyard was made to destroy itself.

Peter Salz on Why People Should Live With Art

The Berkeley Art Museum Experience

The University of California’s Berkeley Art Museum welcomed Selz in 1965 as its new director who managed to build a respectable institution and launch the Mario Ciampi–designed building and the Pacific Film Archive until his leave in 1973.

To be more precise, during his leadership the museum became a significant hub for the development of the Californian art scene. The exhibition called Funk from 1967 curated by Salz, which gathered an array of Bay Area artists whose work was characterized by cartoonish forms and vernacular imagery (such as Peter Voulkos, Joan Brown, Robert Arneson, and Bruce Conner).

During his mandate, the prolific figure also released the first grand US survey of Kinetic art called New Directions in Kinetic Sculpture, as well as a retrospective of René Magritte. His involvement as a project director in the last phase of land art intervention (spreading across the hills and coast of Northern California) Running Fence (1972–76) by Christo and Jeanne-Claude suggest to which extent Selz was committed to various expressions and practices.

  Editors’ Tip: Art of Engagement: Visual Politics in California and Beyond

Art of Engagement takes the first comprehensive look at the key role of California's art and artists in politics and culture since 1945. Tracing the remarkably fertile confluence of political agitation and passionately engaged art, Peter Selz leads readers on a journey that begins with the Nazi death camps and moves through the Bay Area's Free Speech Movement of 1964, the birth of Beat and hippie countercultures, the Chicano labor movement in the San Joaquin Valley, the beginning of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, and some of the most radical manifestations of the women's movement, gay liberation, Red Power, and environmental activism.

The Cultural Significance of The Activity of Peter Selz

Aside from different publications written by Selz, as well as numerous interviews, an important book which articulates the entirety his domains was written by Paul J. Karlstrom in 2012. Under the title Peter Selz: Sketches of a Life in Art it provides a thorough insight in Selz’s work both as a historian and curator and underlines the significance of his activity in a broader context of American culture an art.

It is apparent that, throughout his entire career, Selz searched for new challenges regardless of the latest tendencies proposed by the art world. This devoted cultural advocate bravely admitted himself to each task, especially while governing institutions which is a demanding activity that requires an array of skills.

Featured image: Portrait of Peter Selz. Image courtesy of Berkley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.