Funny how once you’ve been in New York a few years, you might attend some party peppered with worthies, drink and jabber nonstop, then leave feeling like nothing very remarkable or exciting has transpired. Such is the experience of Peter Rosen’s
Who Gets to Call It Art?, a well-stocked but underweight documentary about the life of legendary curator Henry Geldzahler, whose career spanned the rise and fall of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Minimalism, tail-ending in a stint as head of New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs. A TV-style compilation of big-name talking heads and occasionally fascinating footage, the film convokes an impressive cast of interviewees—David Hockney, Frank Stella, and Ellsworth Kelly among them—yet seems too dazzled by their luminance to squeeze a substantial analysis of Geldzahler from their pithy testimonials. Rosen opts instead for a moving-picture textbook chapter on the transition from AbEx to Pop, and poor Geldzahler, crowded out of his own documentary by the showboating Warhol clips, emerges with a barely sketched biography. Defaulting to the Austin Powers theory of history, the film uses the curator as macguffin in the service of rehashing how the ’60s were the craziest happening ever—I mean wild, baby, just wild!— until the suits arrived and harshed everyone’s vibe.
“The true school for the young artist,” Geldzahler writes in the introduction to the catalog for his landmark Met exhibition “New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940–1970,” “is the ferment and activity of the center, its multiplicity of styles and its complex traditions.” Rosen’s narrative appears to have been influenced by this very essay, chronicling art’s evolution within these same dates as a Manhattan-centered phenomenon in which commercial galleries served as academies, auction houses as magnifiers, and institutional museums as kingmakers. Scion to Belgian diamond dealers, Geldzahler entered this world following an education at Yale and Harvard. Rosen suggests that this background gave Geldzahler a keen eye for exquisite objects and a critical faculty for explicating difficult work; the former claim is possible, the latter unquestionable, but the more obvious fact that a child of the subsidized classes could consider an elite life-role as his birthright goes unspoken. Nor does the film get around to tackling the compelling
curatorial question posed by its title—a conundrum thinkers from Lucy Lippard to Arthur Danto have spent careers pondering. Therein lies a major fault: The idea of art presented in the film appears frozen in a pre-revolutionary 1960. It is a world in which collector-unfriendly conceptualism, video art, and avant-garde film never happened; thus one interviewee scoffs at Warhol’s movies (which include a 100-minute Geldzahler portrait) as “boring,” and Rosen fails to credit films by Jonas Mekas on-screen, as he does with James Rosenquist’s paintings. Surely a figure as crucial as Geldzahler deserves more incisive treatment. Who Gets to Call It Art? may serve up a swinging party, but as Parker Tyler opined when surveying the same era, “a thing may be groovy, but far from great.”