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By Phil Hall | February 2, 2006

One of the most important figures in the development and popular acceptance of post-World War II American art never picked up a brush, nor did he ever mold clay or weld iron into shapes. Instead, he used his enthusiasm for modern art with a once-in-a-lifetime career opportunity to establish American modern art as a force of intellect, emotion and humanity.

That individual was Henry Geldzahler, and during the 1960s and 1970s he was the first curator of contemporary art for New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Geldzahler’s 1970 exhibition “New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970″ was perhaps the single most important happening in the history of American art: the stodgy Met, which barely acknowledged any living artist, suddenly cleared its halls of 18th and 19th century works to host more than 400 paintings and sculptures by the most provocative living artists of the era.

Geldzahler’s impact on the arts is the subject of Peter Rosen’s documentary “Who Gets to Call it Art?” and there is no hyperbole in stating this is one of the greatest art documentaries ever made. Through an imaginative mixture of rare footage, audio recordings and contemporary interviews with the living legends of modern art, Rosen has created a cinematic portrait which is, in itself, a work of art.

Geldzahler’s arrival on the New York art scene in 1960 found a world which was still in something of an embryonic state. Abstract Expressionism was the ruling style, yet it failed to make an emotional connection with the public in general or the art-buying elite in particular. Pop art was beginning to bubble up, most notably via Andy Warhol’s embrace of everyday icons including Campbell’s Soup cans and Brillo boxes. Yet the art world wasn’t certain if pop art was a put-on or a natural evolution. Art critics, most notably Hilton Kramer, were hardly supportive of anything outside of the traditionalist norm.

Geldzahler, who came from a conservative Belgian family with a long history in the diamond industry, seemed like an unlikely catalyst. Yet his appreciation for modern art and his pleasantly determined personality brought him deep into its center. The good fortune of joining the staff of the Met after graduating from Harvard provided him the ultimate job: supporting contemporary art while becoming a fixture in the art world. Had he never joined the Met when he did, the art world would have turned out quite differently.

The main joy of “Who Gets to Call it Art?” involves rarely-seen movies, photographs, paintings, sketches and videotapes of Geldzahler in this orbit. With his cherubic stature and deadpan _expression, he stood out among the often scruffy and eccentric artists he championed. He was also a natural for appearances in droll avant-garde movies being made by some of the artists (most notably Warhol, who shot a seemingly endless film of Geldzahler smoking cigars). David Hockney notes Geldzahler never had mirrors in his home, so he always wanted some sort of record of what he looked like. Indeed, Hockney immortalized Geldzahler in the wonderfully enigmatic 1969 painting “Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott,” which is the poster art for this film’s U.S. release.

“Who Gets to Call it Art?” also focuses on the intense controversy generated by Geldzahler’s 1970 Met exhibition. While much of the brouhaha seems tame today, in its time it generated endless bickering and debate, ranging from the authority Geldzahler employed in setting up the exhibition (it was a rare Met show not produced by a committee) to the exclusion of many artists, particularly women including Louise Nevelson and Lee Krasner, to the idea of bringing modern art into the Met. The idea of having the Met give its seal of approval on modern art seemed like apostasy to many, particularly Hilton Kramer. It also didn’t say much about the self-appointed benefactors of modern painting and sculpture: New York is home to three museums of contemporary output – the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum – and all three are routinely trashed throughout the movie.

“Who Gets to Call it Art?” is blessed with original interviews featuring Frank Stella, Larry Poons, Francisco Clemente, John Chamberlain and filmmaker Jonas Mekas, and everyone offers wonderfully cogent observations on the convulsions within American art and Geldzahler’s role therein. Geldzahler’s voice is heard throughout in a recording of a lecture, which is punctuated by audience laughter at his dry commentary. Vintage footage featuring rather odd interviews with Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning and Warhol have also been located, and the real tonic is a hilarious TV commercial for Braniff Airlines pairing a surprisingly loquacious Warhol with (of all people) a silent yet scowling boxing champ Sonny Liston.

Rosen’s film notes Geldzahler was always open about his homosexuality, but curiously the film never goes in-depth to explore his private life. The audience never knows if he ever had serious romantic relationships, nor is it clued to the cause of his death in 1994, when he was shy of his 60th birthday.

But perhaps Geldzahler’s legacy is best acknowledged by keeping the man’s personal world out of view. Geldzahler always wanted to bring focus to the artists, not himself, and this thoroughly wonderful film is the perfect tribute to his important cultural achievements.

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