Henry Geldzahler

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Henry Geldzahler
Born(1935-07-09)July 9, 1935
DiedAugust 16, 1994(1994-08-16) (aged 59)
Resting placeGreen River Cemetery
Alma materYale University
Harvard University
OccupationCurator, art historian, art critic

Henry Geldzahler (July 9, 1935 – August 16, 1994) was a Belgian-born American curator of contemporary art in the late 20th century, as well as a historian and critic of modern art. He is best known for his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and as New York City Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, and for his social role in the art world with a close relationship with contemporary artists.

Early life and career[edit]

Born in Antwerp, Belgium, Geldzahler's Jewish family emigrated to the United States in 1940.[1] He graduated from Yale University in 1957, where he was a member of Manuscript Society.[2]

In 1960, Geldzahler left graduate school at Harvard University to join the staff of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He became the Curator for American Art there, and later the first Curator for 20th Century Art. His time at the Met is most known for his landmark 1969 exhibition, New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970, which included his favorite contemporary work and became the talk of the town.[3][4] It was the Museum’s first exhibition of contemporary American art, and marked both the inauguration of the newly established department of Contemporary Arts and the 100th anniversary of the Museum.[5]

Unlike most curators at the time, he befriended many of the artists he was interested in, and socialized with them as part of the same art world. Artists he associated with included Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Larry Rivers, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, Richard Bernstein, David Hockney, Ching Ho Cheng, Larry Stanton, Burhan Dogancay, and later Jean-Michel Basquiat.[6] He took a temporary leave from the Met to become the first director of the visual-arts program of the National Endowment for the Arts, where he initiated a program of museum grants for the purchase of art made by living American artists. He appeared, as himself, in the 1974 David Hockney biopic, A Bigger Splash.

From 1977 until 1982, he was the Commissioner of Cultural Affairs for New York City, having been appointed by Mayor Edward I. Koch. As an openly gay man who was part of the Koch administration and the conservative Metropolitan Museum of Art, Geldzahler contributed significant time and effort into AIDS-related causes. After leaving his post for New York City, he continued to write on art, and acted as an independent curator, working at the alternative space P.S. 1 and the austere high modernist Dia Art Foundation.

Geldzhaler was the curator of the 1969 Metropolitan exhibition New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970.[7] In addition to authoring its catalog, Geldzhaler wrote American Painting in the 20th Century (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1965), Charles Bell: The Complete Works, 1970-1990 (Abrams, 1991), and Making It New: Essays, Interviews, and Talks (Harvest Books, 1996). He co-wrote Art in Transit: Subway Drawings by Keith Haring (1984), Andy Warhol: Portraits of the Seventies and Eighties (Thames and Hudson, 1993), and published many other works.


On August 16, 1994, Geldzahler died at his home in Southampton, New York of liver cancer at the age of 59.[3][8]

He is buried in Green River Cemetery in Springs, New York.[9]

In popular culture[edit]

  • Geldzahler is the subject of a documentary film called Who Gets to Call It Art? (2006) by Peter Rosen.
  • He is depicted in portraits by several of his artist friends, including a famous 1969 double portrait by David Hockney of Geldzahler with his then partner, painter Christopher Scott.[10]
  • Geldzahler is depicted in an Andy Warhol movie, Henry Geldzahler (1964), filmed silent and in black-and-white the first week of July 1964. The film consists of Geldzahler smoking a cigar and becoming increasingly uncomfortable for 97 minutes.[11]


  1. ^ "Geldzahler, Henry". arthistorians.info. Retrieved October 1, 2009.
  2. ^ Ed. Parks, Steven; Cooper, Henry S. F. Jr.; Wallace, Thomas C. (2002). Manuscript Society (1953-2002). New Haven, CT: Phoenix Press).
  3. ^ a b Goldberger, Paul (August 17, 1994). "Henry Geldzahler, 59, Critic, Public Official And Contemporary Art's Champion, Is Dead". The New York Times. p. 1. Retrieved October 1, 2009.
  4. ^ Goldberger, Paul (August 17, 1994). "Henry Geldzahler, 59, Critic, Public Official And Contemporary Art's Champion, Is Dead". The New York Times. p. 2. Retrieved October 1, 2009.
  5. ^ Finding aid for the George Trescher records related to The Metropolitan Museum of Art Centennial, 1949, 1960-1971 (bulk 1967-1970). The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved August 6, 2014.
  6. ^ Sante, Luc (February 8, 2017). "An Intimate Look at Jean-Michel Basquiat's Early Days". The Village Voice. Retrieved August 24, 2017.
  7. ^ Schjeldahl, Peter (2009). "Let It Bleed: "1969" at P.S. 1". The New Yorker. Condé Nast (23 November): 124–125. Retrieved May 29, 2011.
  8. ^ Hogrefe, Jeffery (April 26, 1999). "Schnabel in Reruns; Geldzahler Revisits the Met". Observer. observer.com. Retrieved June 21, 2018.
  9. ^ "A Who's Who in Art At Island Cemetery". The New York Times. nytimes.com. September 15, 1996. Retrieved June 21, 2018.
  10. ^ Melia, Paul (1995). David Hockney: Volume 1 of Critical Introductions To Art. Manchester University Press ND. p. 82. ISBN 0-7190-4405-7.
  11. ^ "Henry Geldzahler (1964)". warholstars.org. Retrieved October 1, 2009.


  • Tomkins, Calvin. "Profiles: Henry Geldzahler." New Yorker November 6, 1971: 58-60.
  • "Henry Geldzahler interview, 1970 Jan. 27" Sound recordings: 2 sound tape reels; 7 in. Transcript: 76 p. (microfilm reel 3197) Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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