Friday, February 17, 2006

From Perch to Pop Art: Part Two

Two New Docs at the Northwest Film Forum

Who Gets to Call It Art?
(Peter Rosen, USA, 2006, 35mm, 80 min.)


The answer is: Henry Geldzahler. There are those who document their times and those who participate in them. Curator Geldzahler (1935-1994) did both. Peter Rosen's lively portrait is sketchy on biographical detail, but vivid in depicting Geldzahler's passion--the promotion of modern art--and the dazzling practitioners he championed, like Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenberg, and Roy Lichtenstein.

Geldzahler, an impish chap with ever-present cigar clamped in mouth, is best known for the massive 1969 exhibit, "New York Art and Sculpture, 1940-1970," he mounted for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. However, Rosen avoids the obvious documentary approach--constructing his narrative around one defining event. Geldzahler's entire life was about encouraging the cause of modern art, so why not look at all the ways in which he pursued his goal? This keeps things moving along at a brisk clip and prevents the last act from coming across as anti-climactic.

On the other hand, by speeding through Geldzahler's childhood, Rosen never makes it clear why this product of a conservative, upper class upbringing--Belgian diamond merchants--would throw his lot in with some of the 20th century's most eccentric individuals (like Robert Rauschenberg, who comes across as the wildest of a wild era's wild cards). However, as many commentators note, he had complete confidence in himself. All feel it was justified, but then Rosen only spoke to the artists Geldzahler embraced, like Larry Poons and Frank Stella (in the story of his life, let's hope John Turturro get to take the lead). What about those he did not? They don't get to have their say, but then they may not have wanted one.

Louise Nevelson and Helen Frankenthaler aside--Geldzahler didn't have a lot of love for the ladies--he got the word out about the art he loved, but how did this non-artist become a work of art himself? Easy: he didn't hobnob with the critics and fellow curators of his day, but with the artists themselves. He was particularly close to Andy Warhol and David Hockney, and both would create pieces that revolved around him. They weren't alone. Not only did George Segal make a plaster mold of the guy, but Geldzahler participated in some of Oldenberg's hippie dippy "happenings." Didn't this represent a conflict of interest? Rosen doesn't say, but he implies that this chumminess fed some of the resentment engendered by the Met show.

The director concludes by looking at Geldzahler's lower-profile post-Met career, which continued as it had begun. In the 1980s, he moved on to newer artists, like Francesco Clemente, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Keith Haring. He may have gotten older, but his mind remained as open as ever. Who Gets to Call It Art? is an entertaining look at an important period in America's aesthetic life. As biography, it falls short (and the first act is a little baggy), but as a snapshot of a colorful scene, it gets the job done. Granted, Rosen doesn't look at the politics of the 1960s and 1970s, but I'm getting tired of the usual line-up of images: JFK, MLK, Woodstock, etc. Instead, he takes an insular look at an insular world, filled with the art, the artists, and even the music of the times--from the Monks to Meredith Monk.


Co-presented by the Henry Art Gallery, Who Gets to Call it Art? plays Mar. 3 - 9, Fri. -- Thurs, at 7:15 and 9pm. Henry curator Elizabeth Brown will introduce the first screening. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. For more information: General info: 206-329-2629. Show times: 206-267-5380.

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