Despite its confrontational, rabble-rousing title, “Who Gets to Call It Art?”, Peter Rosen’s docu about late Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Henry Geldzahler unfolds as parallel tributes to the cherubic iconoclast and to the movements he championed. Many credit Geldzahler’s huge 400-piece exhibition, “New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970,” with establishing the cultural bona fides of post-WWII American art. Lively, intelligent collage, both richly complex and immediately accessible — thanks to the openness of Geldzahler himself and to the passion with which a Rosenquist and Hockney is moved to speak of him — seems a natural for arthouse release.
Geldzahler was nobody’s idea of a museum curator, and particularly not one in as traditionalist an institution as New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. A rotund, antic muse, Geldzahler was just as likely to appear as an actor in an Andy Warhol movie or as the subject of a David Hockney portrait or as a component part, cum bathrobe and trademark cigar and floating on a rubber raft, of a Claes Oldenberg “happening” staged in a swimming pool.
A unusual curator who lived among the artists, spending all his time in galleries and studios, Geldzahler possessed a rare eye for beauty and an even rarer willingness to discover it in out-of-the-way places. His energetic optimism coincided well with the exuberant wit and daring of the Pop Art movements that succeeded the angst-ridden interiority of Abstract Expressionism.
A cornucopia of archival and contemporary footage, featuring a veritable “Who’s Who” of painters and sculptors, from Jasper Johns to Frank Stella to John Chamberlain to James Rosenquist to Francesco Clemente, traces Geldzahler’s intersections with the changing New York art scene. At the same time, like Zelig in Woody Allen’s faux documentary footage, the image of Henry keeps appearing inside the art itself, in photographs by Avedon and Mapplethorpe, as a sculpted plaster likeness by George Segal, and as a phantom figure in countless paintings by Hockney, Clemente, et. al.
For helmer Rosen, Geldzahler represents the perfect jumping-off point for a discussion of shifting aesthetic theory and practice. Rosen effortlessly charts the tremendous changes in the art world in the tumultuous ’60s as the zeitgeist moved from a small, marginal, poverty-embracing group of introverts to self-promoting, visionary interpreters of mass media to cynical purveyors of investments for big business.
The films’ centerpiece is the triumphal takeover by brash upstart Americans of many 18th and 19th century galleries at the Met, the erstwhile bastion of timeless European art.
“Henry’s Show,” as the controversial exhibition came to be known (he alone, committee-less, personally handpicked each piece), definitively established New York City as center of the art universe. But the groundbreaking exhibition also planted the seeds for that very commodification that Warhol, Oldenberg or Lichtenstein so blithely mocked.
Tech credits are excellent, Rosen using all sorts of painterly techniques to enhance pic’s heterogeneous mix of film elements.