Henry Geldzahler


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American administrator and writer, born in Antwerp, the son of a diamond broker. His mother held American citizenship and the family settled in New York in 1940 after fleeing Belgium because of the Second World War. Geldzahler studied art history at Yale, graduating in 1957, then moved to Harvard to do a PhD on Matisse's sculpture. In 1960 he left Harvard, leaving his thesis unfinished, to become curatorial assistant in contemporary art in the department of American painting and sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum, New York. To the dismay of some of the museum's trustees, he was more of an active participant in the contemporary art scene than a scholarly observer. He took part in Happenings, was portrayed by David Hockney, Alice Neel, Larry Rivers, and other artists, and was the subject of an Andy Warhol film, Henry Geldzahler (1964), showing him smoking a cigar for 90 minutes. In 1967 he was appointed curator of the Metropolitan's new department of contemporary art (later department of 20th-century art), and in 1969 he organized a huge exhibition ‘New York Painting and Sculpture 1940–70’ as part of the museum's centenary celebrations. The exhibition attracted a great deal of hostile criticism, on account of Geldzahler's characteristically personal choice of artists. Other controversies followed, and in 1977 Geldzahler resigned to become commissioner of cultural affairs for New York City, a post he compared to being ‘commissioner for wheat in Kansas’ and held until 1983. His writings include a book on Warhol's portraits (1993, co-author with Robert Rosenblum) and Making it New: Essays, Interviews and Talks, posthumously published in 1994.

Subjects: Art.

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