At the height of his distinguished career as an art historian and curator, Peter Selz — who celebrated his 99th birthday in March — was dubbed ‘Mr Modern Art’ by The New York Times.
In 1936, on the eve of the Second World War, a teenage Selz and his family fled Germany for the United States. By 1958 he had become the Museum of Modern Art’s youngest chief curator of painting and sculpture. According to his daughter Gabrielle — whose memoir, Unstill Life: A Daughter’s Memoir of Art and Love in the Age of Abstraction, describes ‘a whirlwind childhood spent among art and artists’ — the family home became a popular hangout for the some of the most celebrated artist of the era, from Mark Rothko to Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Jean Tinguely.
In 1959 Selz mounted his first exhibition at MoMA, the influential New Images of Man, which — alongside what Selz described as ‘effigies of the disquiet man’ by Appel, de Kooning, Giacometti, Bacon and Pollock — included seven works by Jean Dubuffet. Selz had first met Dubuffet when he was a doctoral student in Paris almost a decade earlier, and the pair had become friends.
‘Selz loved Dubuffet’s approach to art, and Dubuffet appreciated the curator's connoisseurship,’ explains Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Art specialist Alma Davidsohn of the relationship between the two men.
‘In 1962 Selz returned to Paris to meet again with Dubuffet,’ Davidsohn continues, ‘this time to discuss putting on what would be Dubuffet’s first ever major New York retrospective.’
The retrospective opened at MoMA on 21 February 1962 and contained nearly 200 works spanning the entirety of the artist’s career. Selz hailed the then 61-year-old Frenchman as ‘the most articulate and lucid artist writing on art since Delacroix and Van Gogh’. The earliest works in the exhibition dated from when Dubuffet was just 20 years old; other pictures had been painted only months before the show’s opening.
Davidsohn reveals that it was also in 1962, after the success of the exhibition, that Dubuffet presented Selz with Personnage des Légendes, inscribing a dedication to him on the front of the work in white paint. ‘Not only does the picture represent an important shift in Dubuffet’s style,’ notes the specialist, ‘but it highlights the close
friendship between the artist and the curator.’
Personnage des Légendes has hung on the walls of Selz’s home ever since. ‘In her memoir, Selz’s daughter Gabrielle recalls how she was mesmerised by the colourful abstract
figure,’ says Davidsohn. ‘For her it was the highlight of
her father’s collection, and a testament to his close relationships
with some of the most important names in 20th-century art
On 5 October, Personnage des Légendes will be offered
in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Day Auction at Christie’s
in London, as a highlight of Love and Abstraction: Works from the Collection of Peter Selz.