Henry Geldzahler: Curator, influencer, cultural svengali

Henry Geldzahler was once described as ‘the most powerful and controversial art curator alive’. As an important David Hockney double portrait of the curator and his partner comes up for auction, we recall his radical impact on New York’s arts scene

It’s hard to think of many figures more influential on New York’s cultural scene in the second half of the 20th century than Henry Geldzahler. During an 18-year spell at the Metropolitan Museum of Art he was Curator of American Art and then Contemporary Art, before serving as Commissioner of Cultural Affairs for New York City between 1977 and 1982 under Mayor Edward I. Koch. According to The New Yorker  magazine’s longstanding art critic Calvin Tomkins, ‘If you were involved in any way in the [cultural] world, you met Henry.’ 

David Hockney first met Geldzahler on a trip to New York in the mid-Sixties, and the pair would become firm friends. In one of his greatest works — the double portrait Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott, which is being offered from The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection at Christie’s in London on 6 March — the British artist painted Geldzahler with his then partner in their 7th Avenue apartment.

‘There are lots of pictures of Henry,’ Hockney said recently. ‘He didn’t have many mirrors in his home. He knew what he looked like just by asking people to make portraits of him.’ Frank Stella, Alice Neel and the sculptor George Segal are among the other artists who have depicted Geldzahler, who was also the subject of a 90-minute film by Andy Warhol, Henry Geldzahler, in which he can be seen, close up, silently smoking a cigar. ‘Everyone thought of him as their friend,’ Stella said after Geldzahler’s death in 1994 aged 59. ‘The thing about Henry was that he lived among us.’

Read more about Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott (1969) by David Hockney

The son of a diamond broker, Henry Geldzahler was born in the Belgian city of Antwerp in 1935. The family fled to the United States in 1940, the year of the Nazi occupation of Belgium. Raised in New York, Geldzahler studied art history at Yale and then Harvard before joining the Met.

New York at the time had established itself as the unquestionable centre of the art world, wresting that status away from Paris thanks, above all, to the rise of the Abstract Expressionists. In the early 1960s, the city was the crucible for another major movement — Pop Art — and Geldzahler was at the absolute heart of it.

He admitted to ‘speaking to Andy Warhol every day on the phone, often for hours’, and perhaps a good way to think of him is as a kind of embedded curator. (Geldzahler even took part in Claus Oldenburg’s ‘Happenings’, for one of them lying on a rubber dinghy in a swimming pool dressed in a terry-cloth robe.)

Randall Bourscheidt, who appeared opposite Nico in Warhol’s 1966 film The Closet, remembers Geldzahler regularly turning up for lunch at The Factory. ‘He and Andy were good friends, and that was the unusual thing about Henry,’ he says. ‘He went out of his way to hang out with artists, 24/7. He immersed himself in the scene, which was really a novel thing to do at the time. Museum curators were meant to liaise with patrons, not artists.’

Henry Geldzahler photographed in New York in 1972. Photo Arnold NewmanGetty Images. Artwork © 2019 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.  Licensed by DACS, London
Henry Geldzahler photographed in New York in 1972. Photo: Arnold Newman/Getty Images. Artwork: © 2019 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London

This novel approach would bear fruit in 1969 with one of the landmark exhibitions of the entire 20th century, New York Sculpture & Painting: 1940-1970 at the Metropolitan Museum. Curated by Geldzahler, it was a giant affair featuring 408 works in 35 galleries, by 43 artists who in recent decades had made his city artistically great. They ranged from Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, Stella and David Smith to Jasper Johns, Mark Rothko, Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg.

‘My guiding principles in deciding which artists to include in the exhibition have been the extent to which their work has commanded critical attention or significantly deflected the course of recent art,’ Geldzahler explained in the press release announcing the show. ‘These “deflectors”, as they may be called, are those artists who have been crucial in redirecting the history of painting and sculpture in the past three decades.’

In the accompanying catalogue, Geldzahler wrote that ‘not even at the height of the High Renaissance, Impressionism or Cubism has anything like this number of artists seemed so crucial to the development of the art of their time. We are celebrating a fortunate era of plenitude.’

Convinced this show was truly special, he held it in the Met’s second-floor galleries, clearing out all the Old Master paintings by European artists that usually hung there. It proved a hit with visitors and critics alike, soon becoming known — widely and simply — as ‘Henry's Show’.

Henry Geldzahler (second right) shows visitors around New York Sculpture & Painting 1940-1970, the landmark exhibition he curated at the Metropolitan Museum in 1969. Photograph © Bruce Davidson  Magnum Photos. Image © 2019 The Metropolitan Museum of ArtArt ResourceScala, Florence. Artwork © Franz Kline, DACS 2019

Henry Geldzahler (second right) shows visitors around New York Sculpture & Painting: 1940-1970, the landmark exhibition he curated at the Metropolitan Museum in 1969. Photograph: © Bruce Davidson / Magnum Photos. Image © 2019 The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence. Artwork: © Franz Kline, DACS 2019

According to Stella (again speaking in 1994), the nickname was apt: ‘That was as important a show as there has ever been in New York, a high watermark, and Henry was solely responsible. I mean, there was support for it at the Met, but Henry carried it all out on his own.’

In truth, a number of conservative New Yorkers, many of them inside his own museum, objected that the Metropolitan — celebrating its centenary that year — was an august institution meant for work by historic greats; that this was a storming of the citadel; and that New York had numerous other venues to show contemporary pieces. In an interview in 1993, Geldzahler recalled the The New York Times  art critic Hilton Kramer ‘attacking the show on even more occasions than his paper covered the Vietnam War’.

As Calvin Tomkins remembers it, however, such figures were in the minority. New York Sculpture & Painting: 1940-1970  represented an ‘enormously exciting moment’, he says, ‘a triumph of American art’.

Geldzahler was just 34 at the time, a dynamic, charismatic, young man who swiftly became the subject of much publicity. New York  magazine dubbed him ‘the most powerful and controversial art curator alive’.

In the 1970s, he supplemented his duties at the Met with a role at the National Endowment for the Arts (a US government agency supporting cultural activity nationwide). As its visual arts director, his initiatives included the introduction of grants for museums to buy the work of living, American artists.

‘Even the most radical new art is continuous with and dependent upon tradition’ — Henry Geldzahler

In 1977, he left the Metropolitan Museum completely, becoming head of New York City’s culture department. There, he reconnected with Randall Bourscheidt, who served as his deputy and remembers him as ‘an inspiring boss’ but also a maddening one. 

‘He placed great confidence in his team, entrusting us to make his many plans a reality,’ Bourscheidt explains, ‘but let’s just say he wasn’t at his desk much. Henry felt his job was to be out and about, meeting cultural players across the city. There’s no doubt, however, that, in his five years as commissioner, New York benefited greatly.’

Among his successes was overseeing a doubling of the city’s cultural budget (to $42 million), making it the highest of any city or state in the US. He also proved adept at negotiating with private corporations and foundations to give generously to cultural causes — and this at a time when New York was still recovering from a fiscal crisis in 1975 that had left it almost bankrupt.

Geldzahler’s credits include the opening of both Socrates Sculpture Park and the Isamo Noguchi Museum, as well as the Lila Acheson Wallace wing, devoted to modern and contemporary art, at the Metropolitan Museum; the renovation and extension of Carnegie Hall; and the ratification of long-term, financial support for institutions such as New York State Theater at Lincoln Center.

Then, one morning in October 1982, Geldzahler walked into Mayor Koch’s office, with a bunch of flowers in one hand and his resignation letter in the other. Five years in city politics was enough, he felt. He was to spend the rest of his life working as an independent writer and curator — and while not the constant fixture at galleries and studios he had been in the Sixties, he still gave support to a wave of new artists including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Francesco Clemente.

Geldzahler always appreciated that art was a continuum, that it doesn’t — in his words — ‘get sliced into decades like salami’. He wrote in the catalogue for New York Sculpture & Painting: 1940-1970  that ‘even the most radical new art is continuous with and dependent upon tradition’. And in that sense, showing contemporary pieces in the Metropolitan wasn’t, for him, an act of provocation but of logic.

‘People took notice of what Henry said and did — over a prolonged period of time’ — Vincent Fremont

According to Vincent Fremont, who managed Warhol’s Factory studio for many years, what most stood out about Geldzahler was ‘his warm and ready wit. You really had to be quick to keep up with him’.

An oft-told story comes from during his heyday at the Met, when Geldzahler took a phone call from the switchboard. ‘This simply has to stop,’ an irate operator told him. ‘Two of every three calls to this museum are for you.’

‘My dear,’ Geldzahler replied, ‘can I help it if I’m the only curator here whose artists are still alive?’

Some have suggested he also influenced artists’ work. Warhol himself once said, ‘Henry gave me all of my ideas.’ That, of course, was an exaggeration, but Geldzahler did take credit for inspiring the Pop Art star's ‘Flowers’ paintings following a taxi ride in 1965, during which he showed Warhol a two-page magazine advert featuring colourful blooms.

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It’s surely better to see Geldzahler as a Diaghilev-like impresario than as a creative force, however. ‘Or, to use a 21st-century term, as an influencer,’ suggests Fremont. ‘People took notice of what Henry said and did — over a prolonged period of time.’ In the case of his 1969 exhibition alone, he established a canon of post-war American art that we still observe to this day.

On Thursday 7 February, Randall Bourscheidt and Vincent Fremont joined Peter Brant and Gary Tinterow for a panel discussion about Henry Geldzahler at Christie’s New York, 20 Rockefeller Plaza. Chaired by Marc Porter, Chairman of Christie’s Americas, highlights from the event can be watched in the short film, above.