November 1, 2005

Pop Goes the Doc

David D'Arcy presents his take on a documentary making the rounds on the festival circuit. You may or may not agree, but hopefully, you'll find it provocative. As a casual reader when it comes to art, weaned primarily on the books of Calvin Tomkins when it comes to the American artists of the mid-20th century, I certainly have. It's a long shot, but if you can find David D'Arcy's excellent review of Jed Perl's New Art City in the Art Newspaper, do. Meantime, Jan Herman has an update on what he calls the "D'Arcy affair," a tangle with NPR that will have gone on a year now come December.

I did not go to the Hamptons International Film Festival, which ended last week, but I did go to the launch party in Manhattan about six weeks ago. It was there that I got a tape of Who Gets To Call It Art?, which played at the festival.

Geldzahler and Co Peter Rosen's film walks us through the rise of Pop Art and the rise of one of its champions, the curator and bon vivant Henry Geldzahler (1935 - 1994). The cast, presented as the troops of a liberation movement, includes the Pop Art crowd: Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, David Hockney, the sculptor John Chamberlain and the journalist Calvin Tomkins. Pop Art's penetration into the mainstream is viewed as a triumph. The artists and Geldzahler are portrayed as its heroes.

After its current parade through film festivals, the documentary opens at Film Forum in New York on February 1, 2006.

It makes sense for a film like this to have made its New York debut at the Hamptons. After all, artists as early as the 1940s (perhaps earlier) were fleeing squalid expensive Manhattan for fresh air and open spaces where you could wake up with a hangover and not risk getting run over by a bus. Jackson Pollock painted there, drank there, and died there in a car wreck in 1956. Willem De Kooning also fled the bars and walkup studios of Greenwich Village in the late 1950s, and died on the East End of Long Island in 1997.

These days there are plenty of Warhols out in the Hamptons - hanging like trophies in collectors' houses. Those collectors, who don't seem to mind that their trophies were mass-produced, are likely to be very wealthy. To buy a Warhol these days, you have to be.

Once an escape for artists whose works could barely be sold, the Hamptons are now a place where those once-unsellable artists decorate the walls. The works of artists who mocked the victory of commercial banality are now the status symbols for those who have risen to the top of the commercial ladder. Go figure.

Who Gets to Call It Art? begins with Abstract Expressionists exploding and fizzling (bear in mind that this is more interpretation that fact). We soon see the young Henry Geldzahler, the son of diamond merchants, finding his way into the small circle that was the art world in those days. Few people cared about art back then, and even fewer people cared enough to buy it. John Chamberlain (known for his sculptures of bent crushed metal) recalled that the audience for art was mostly artists, who scorned the world north of 14th Street. "Who gives a rat's ass what the public thinks. It's their job to catch up," he said. It's a wry observation, given the way so many of today's artists seem to be producing to meet market demand.

The conventional wisdom, now offered assuredly in retrospect, was that art need some lightening from the somber, moody Ab-Ex, and Warhol and company were there to make that happen with a blithe indifference to anything that smacked of art history. It didn't catch on right away, but eventually it worked. People bought it.

You begin to get a sense of who does "get to call it art." It's the people who buy and sell it.

The Philosophy of Andy Warhol Much of the documentary's march toward recognition and beyond for Pop Art is extremely familiar territory for anyone who follows the art world. The interpretive twist extolling Warhol and Pop Art sets it apart. Geldzahler emerges as the canny, campy fixer who helps elevate Warhol to stardom by introducing his soup cans and brillo boxes to a skeptical public. Not all the critics fell for it - far from it - but Warhol and Geldzahler proved to be critic-proof. In this film, they still are. If the critics saw the soup cans as half-empty (or just empty, as Hilton Kramer does), this documentary sees them as half-full.

Neither Warhol nor Geldzahler is around to speak for himself, but Rosen (respected for documentaries on classical music) has plenty of archival footage to tell his story. Led by these brothers in glibness, the Pop crowd wouldn't have had its impact if the media hadn't been rolling the cameras. Warhol's boilerplate deadpan to reporters' questions still gets you laughing. Making art "gives me something to do," he says.

Geldzahler's real triumph was New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970, the exhibition that brought living artists to the Met in 1970. Easy to underestimate - now, at a time when contemporary art has become an appendage of the interior decoration industry - it brought living artists to a museum that rarely showed them, like it or not. And it wasn't just Pop Art, but the art of the 40s and 50s - everyone from Gorky and Pollock to the Warhol crowd. Like every curator, Geldzahler was attacked for those whom he hadn't included.

Geldzahler could not fix all the forces that he helped set into motion, especially the rising price of art, at least the rise in price of the Pop artists. (Let's not forget that then, as now, most artists could not support themselves by selling their work.) The documentary shows some rarely-seen footage of the famous 1973 Scull auction, a sale at which art bought by a taxi-fleet mogul, Robert Scull, was sold publicly in Manhattan, and the results revealed that the price paid for contemporary art had soared, and suggested that those prices would continue to rise. At the sale, when the rest of the art world gloated, artists sulked, and then exploded. Robert Rauschenberg, after watching two works bought for less than $5000 bring $175,000, confronted Scull, asking, "I worked my ass off so that you could make a profit." Scull struck right back, "Yeah, and now you'll be selling better, too."

Scull turned out to be far more insightful than anyone expected, yet the artists' innocence here is more surprising. Artists who seized on commercial logos and banal mass-produced "icons" as an alternative to moody abstraction were indignant that the images they ridiculed for commodification were being commodified again, by the collectors and merchants buying and selling them. Had Brillo objected to Warhol's use of its boxes, artists would have smirked with delight. When dealers and auctioneers sold and resold the boxes for whatever the market would bear, the satirists wailed, and no one listened.

Geldzahler was disheartened. He left the Met, took a job as the Commissioner of Cultural Affairs for the City of New York, and then moved to the Hamptons. The documentary shows him ending his life as a champion of a new set of fashionable artists - Keith Haring, Francesco Clemente and Jean Michel Basquiat.

It would appear, from Peter Rosen's film at least, that the zeitgeist-savvy Geldzahler simply went from one fashion trend to another. Geldzahler's friends and former colleagues say that perception misrepresents the curator's important influence. Those who have seen the film object to it. Geldzahler wasn't a Warhol acolyte, or anyone's acolyte, they say. We now await a more measured consideration of the man. That probably won't come in a documentary film, since this one already exists.

The film's problem is not what it tries to do, but what it fails to do, or chooses not to do. It's not a history of Pop Art, so we don't see that Warhol continued to thrive after Pop went out of fashion, thanks to portraits that he and his advisers commissioned from the power elite and the glam-ocracy. He understood how fashion works best, by playing to the vanity of the wealthy. Warhol's advisers recommended that he paint portraits of the rich and famous. He did, and they paid lavishly for the works.

The film is also not a biography of Henry Geldzahler. In following him fom one droll moment to another, it often reduces the portly man to a Pop image, kind of like an art Hitchcock cameo, painted over and over again by his artist friends, but still only viewed on the comical surface.

Who Gets To Call It Art? is an ungainly vessel, ideal for the Public Broadcasting System in its overture/journey/appreciation structure, and in its rehashing of the conventional wisdom on its era. Yet it still has moments at which interviewees speak with lucidity. On Pop art, the critic Clement Greenberg says, "It's nice, it's minor, and the very best of the Pop doesn't succeed at being more than minor." That's all that needs to be said.

Another artist speaks of the commercial revolution that he and others witnessed: "If you can sell art to people who don't like art, you've got a bonanza, like popular music."

Toward the documentary's close, Francesco Clemente, a painter of a later career whom Geldzahler and the glossy mags championed, discusses the curator's eagerness and passion in a judicious way. You won't remember much of what Clemente says, although he does mention that Geldzahler was able to find "the second life... that we all seek" in supporting a new generation of artists. Yet you will remember what Clemente wore while he was saying it - an elegantly tailored grey suit and vest, the kind of staid dandy-ish costume associated with dealers and collectors in the 1920s. In a suit that cost more than what Pop Art paintings sold for in the early 1960s, he couldn't be more different in attire or demeanor than James Rosenquist or Frank Stella, who appear in work clothes. What is art now, if not fashion?

There's a final chapter to this story, not mentioned in the film, that no one can blame Henry Geldzahler for. The Pop artists have won the battle of the market that they began winning in the early 1960s. Warhols are setting auction records all the time. James Rosenquist's 80-foot-wide painting of a warplane, F-111, which the Guggenheim and MoMA were vying for, was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art for its reopening last year. And MoMA didn't stop there. Earlier this year it bought Rebus, a 1955 Rauschenberg combine painting, for $30 million. With prices like this for Pop Art, the Met's purchase of a Duccio Madonna (ca. 1300) for a reported $46 million looks a like a steal.

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Posted by dwhudson at November 1, 2005 3:03 PM