PROVINCETOWN, MASS. — AS far as New York in the 1960s was concerned, the contemporary art world was embodied by Manhattan's uptown museums, its emerging midtown gallery scene, and its downtown taverns and lofts where most of the artists hung out. The curator-in-residence throughout that world was Henry Geldzahler.
Appointed assistant curator of contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1969 at the age of 25, Mr. Geldzahler helped cement the mid-century hierarchy of American visual arts, specifically Pop Art. Speaking recently to a group of young artists at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass., Geldzahler acknowledged that the 1960s were a somewhat blinkered time.
"It was just after the Marshall Plan, the American dream was being exploited rather too radically. We were on top of the world through the movies and through our consumer culture," Geldzahler recalls. "My focus and the focus at that time was about beauty. The work was of stunning originality, great color harmony or aesthetics, about making statements of great ambition that cohered with our optimistic, postwar view of the world."
In his little handout booklet called "Looking at Pictures," Geldzahler elaborates about the period. "If you think of the history of art in terms of game theory, then it's extremely exciting to be in a place where the old game is exhausted. The ground rules were changing. Just when it looked like abstract art was going to go on forever, Frank Stella was laying down new rules, and Helen Frankenthaler was putting color down in a new way, and Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were opening other horizons. If I 'd come in three or four years earlier, I'd have identified myself with the older generation and I would have been as shocked by the new as anybody else. As it was, I came in with no prejudices, as a tabula rasa, a blackboard ready to be written on."
Mirroring the increasing media coverage of the art world, its antics and its emerging stars, Geldzahler, therefore, became the decade's "celebrity" curator. Social, gregarious, delighting in artists' company, he regularly moved within the artists' and dealers' social circles, starred in Andy Warhol films, and turned up in a Life magazine photograph of a "happening," in which he was shown floating on a rubber raft at the Continental Baths, smoking a cigar in his bathrobe.
He certainly didn't fit the image of a staid curator from the Met, even though he was educated in art history at Yale and Harvard.
An early proponent of Pop Art, Geldzahler took a solitary stand and defended it in a prestigious symposium, which shocked his colleagues at the Metropolitan. If they fretted about his lapses of propriety, though, he still got his own department of 20th-century art at the museum; he was appointed the American commissioner for the 1966 Venice Biennale, and he was asked to organize a monumental (and naturally controversial) exhibition of 20th-century art in celebration of the Metropolitan's centennial in 19 69. In true American style, Geldzahler was the colorful impresario of an art world that had already imprinted the workings of media, public relations, and show business.
Many of Geldzahler's chosen ones, however, have had staying power. He championed Warhol, Stella, Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, and Jasper Johns; more recently, Neo-Expressionists and graffiti artists of the early 1980s - Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Geldzahler left the Metropolitan in 1977, when he was appointed cultural affairs commissioner of New York City by Mayor Edward Koch, opting for bureaucracy over the period's Photo-Realism, conceptual, and earth art.
Today, Geldzahler maintains a peripheral position as curator of the Dia Foundation in Bridgehampton, N.Y., on Long Island. In addition to giving lectures, he contributes to Interview, the magazine Warhol founded, writing about his favorites of the current art stars. What matters overall is not his high-profile achievements of the past, he says, but art's continuum.
"The '60s, the '90s - it's a tunnel we're in," he says. "It doesn't get sliced into decades like salami, it's ragged. Each decade becomes known for the art that it spawns, rather than the art that's made in it.... If Atlas didn't shrug every 50 years and half the art fallen off, I'd still be cataloging Babylonian cylinder seals."
Geldzahler entered the continuum himself when he visited an Arshile Gorky exhibition at the Whitney Museum at age 15. One look at the paintings and he became physically ill. He went back and it happened again. His first year at Yale, he merged the visceral impact art had on him with the intellectual.
"I realized so many types of information - economics, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, religion - could be funneled through art, the nexus of it all. We may lose the original context, but the work of art remains as something physical to relate to."
Geldzahler continues to seek that early, cataclysmic encounter combined with those threads of historical lineage, but his tastes, which in the 1960s and '70s honed in on the materially beautiful object (paintings by Hans Hofmann are his frequent example), have now expanded to sculpture and painting with more gripping content. Often, he says, these works "re-ify" for him some previously subconscious knowledge.
"Taste and need are very related and can change over the course of a life." He concedes that art historical theories are subject to life's courses, too.
The linear progression of art movements devised by 1960s and '70s critic Clement Greenberg, for instance, ignored seminal artists who emerged in the '70s like Joseph Beuys and Eva Hesse, to say nothing of today's riot of multicultural, political, and socially critical works. A close friend of Greenberg, Geldzahler says the linear theory "was very useful to me at the time ... and it was limited. It's not a question of being right at one time and wrong at another, but of admitting that things evolve, our i dea of beauty changes.... The thrill is to keep yourself vulnerable so you can continue to learn. Except for the individual artists themselves, there is no fixed position."