The Tribulations of an Art Historian
Peter Selz: Sketches of a Life in Art
By Paul J. Karlstrom
Reviewed by Robert C. Morgan
Paul Karlstrom’s biography on Peter Selz is a noble undertaking to be sure. More than a biography, it functions as a kind of parable. On one level, the story involves the life of a noteworthy German-born curator, who escaped the rise of Nazism in Munich, to come alone by boat to America in 1936 at the age of seventeen. Before embarking on a formidable career as a highly regarded art historian, he received a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and began teaching in Chicago at the University of Illinois and then briefly at the Institute of Design. In 1955, Selz was lured to Pomona College in southern California where his aesthetic expertise and curatorial talent soon became evident. Within a span of five years, he was invited by Alfred Barr to join the curatorial ranks at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The early career of Selz, from the time of his arrival in New York in the mid 1930s until his rise to fame in the mid-1960s was remarkable. In addition to his infectious charm, gleaming intelligence, and political leftism, one might detect another parallel reading given to his biography as well. What makes this book a parable has much to do with the tension between Selz’s aesthetic humanism and bohemian life-style in contrast to the kind of Puritan elitist-style art world to which he has over the years been unremittingly exposed. There are times when Karlstrom finds in Selz a symbolic harbinger of the profound underlying political struggles within American art museums and academic institutions that emerged in relation to the commercial future of contemporary art that began to appear in the early 1960s after Abstract Expressionism. The result of these struggles not only impacted the career of Selz, but largely informed certain art world trends that he found difficult to accept – first and foremost, Pop Art, and secondly, Color Field painting.
Largely based on the direction of MoMA to move in these directions. He found himself an outsider, still clinging to the existentialism of Giacometti and Rothko, among other artists whom he highly respected as being the authentic voices of the time. Upon reading this Karlstrom’s biography, one senses the origin of many of the problems inherent in the art world today – the disgruntlement and equivocations that have existed for most of the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. One might describe this more accurately as an on-going seismic collision between formalist aesthetics and “cutting-edge” experimentation. Curiously, Selz found himself more or less outside of this spectrum. His interest was more about trying to preserve the significance of works he believed displayed profound emotions, works that were generally outside the commercial spectrum of emerging art. Even so, Karlstrom has been careful not to overly defend Selz’s diligent position as a reasoned outsider amid the throngs of competitors who often made his life difficult. Instead, the biographer elucidates the pros and cons within the various situations based on what others have said in conversations and interviews about the subject at hand.
Karlstrom’s research is generally good, in some cases, superb – as in dealing with the many twists and turns that Selz discovered upon being hired as Director of the Berkeley Art Museum in 1965. Selz was not prepared for the kind of academic in-fighting and bureaucratic mind-set that accompanied the work of directing a museum owned and operated by a major state university. While Selz acquired an important collection of paintings by Hans Hofmann, proved instrumental in founding the Pacific Film Archive, oversaw much of the planning for the new building, and introduced the work of Ferdinand Hodler (among other artists), who had never previously been shown in an American museums, he encountered constant difficulties with trustees, benefactors, administrators, curators, and art history faculty that at times appeared insurmountable. Thus, after seven years of intense confrontations, controversies, and constant bickering, he stepped down from his museum directorship and joined the art history faculty, where – as reported to Karlstrom – “Selz was seen as enthusiastic but not deeply interested in analysis.” In fact, this quality of enthusiasm appealed to many students at the time who were tired of the growing emphasis on theory and consensual agreement among the majority of art historians on the Berkeley campus.
The concluding chapter dealing with Selz’s “career in retirement” offers something less in terms of the first-rate research found in the preceding chapters. This may be due to the amount of material available and the hours of time it takes in order to clarify some of the references. As the art world becomes increasingly bureaucratic with so many interests to guard and defend, it makes research on contemporary art all the more cumbersome. Also, the fact – and this is by no means limited to Karlstrom – the tendency is to assume that everything important can be searched and found by Google or some other search engine is not true. There are archives that may be less accessible, but are also important in the continuing field of art history. For example, small publications, which went in and out of print in a relatively short period of time, may never have been uploaded, largely because there was no one interested in doing it; hence, the funding for this purpose was never allocated. Elsewhere, Karlstrom is more successful is in his characterization of Selz’s long-term colleagues, such as Dore Ashton and Wayne Anderson, who have proven both instrumental and supportive of his ideas and approach to art. He also gives proper attention to the many important exhibitions and publications of Selz, particularly as they reveal the remarkable breadth of Selz’s involvement in the field, primarily--but not only-- in expressionist painting among early modern (German) and contemporary artists and the kind of political motivations and affinities that may be interpreted from their work. Karlstrom further makes clear Selz’s ability to venture outside what is predictable. Typical examples would include his interest in the “hard edge” classicism attributed to the painter John McLaughlin, the conceptual drawings of Agnes Denes, the Dada-inspired drawings, assemblages, and films of Bruce Conner, the ironic graffiti portraits of Enrique Chagoya, and the large-scale installations by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, such as “The Running Fence” (1972-76), in which Selz was deeply involved.
Finally, Karlstrom cites many allusions to Selz’s critical position as an art historian not only with regard to the implicit politics involved in promoting contemporary art, but also the implications that such an environment may have on the field of art history, many of which are decidedly problematic. What makes this book an essential read for anyone seriously involved in the field are the conflicts, wrangles, and difficulties encountered by someone who is not merely an operative within the field, but a person who holds substantial and passionate views regarding the conflict between significant art and the vapid, trend-setting enterprise that surrounds it on all sides. The fact that the art world has become a readymade haven for investors constitutes an errant scenario that continues to evolve -- a scenario that Peter Selz has heroically resisted throughout his career.
Peter Selz: Sketches of a Life in Art by Paul J. Karlstrom (with Ann Heath Karlstrom), The University of California Press, 2012; 321 Pages, 27 b & w photographs; cloth $34.95
Robert C. Morgan is an internationally renowned art critic, curator, artist, writer, art historian, poet, and lecturer. He holds an MFA in Sculpture from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (1975), and a Ph.D. in contemporary art history from the School of Education, New York University (1978). Dr. Morgan lives in New York, where he lectures at the School of Visual Arts and is Adjunct Professor in the graduate fine arts department at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He is Professor Emeritus in Art History from the Rochester Institute of Technology.
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