In Conversation


This text is the product of two interviews, the first of which was conducted in August 2010, the second in February 2011. Both took place in Peter Selz’s modernist home—designed by Donald Olsen, a University of California, Berkeley colleague and student of Bauhaus legend Walter Gropius—tucked into the Berkeley Hills.

As Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art from 1958–1965, Selz oversaw many historic exhibitions, including the first major exhibitions of Rothko, Dubuffet, Rodin, Art Nouveau, etc. He was the founding director of the Berkeley Art Museum (1965–1973) and is Professor emeritus of Art History at U.C. Berkeley. Selz is in his early nineties and a major biography by Paul Karlstrom will be published by University of California Press later this year.

Portrait of Peter Selz. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Jarrett Earnest (Rail): To begin, let’s talk about the important exhibition you curated at the Museum of Modern Art called New Images of Man.

Peter Selz: Okay. In 1958 I decided to do the exhibition, which actually opened in 1959. I was interested in contemporary art, and while I admired the Abstract Expressionists enormously I realized there was something else going on. Earlier I had been in Chicago where I had been involved with two kinds of people: on the one hand there was the New Bauhaus Institute of Design, where I taught, and at the same time people like Leon Golub and the Chicago Imagists were very close friends. The latter thought that figurative painting was coming back in a very different way, so I was very much aware of that. I also had a Fulbright to Paris, and at the Ěcolé de Paris I saw people who were semi-abstract painters like Bazaine. I found them pretty boring. But then I saw what Dubuffet and Fautrier were doing, which impressed me enormously, especially Dubuffet. Later on of course I did a solo show of his work at MoMA (Jean Dubuffet 1962). And I saw what Giacometti was doing, and then when I was in England and I saw what the Brits were up to. People like Eduardo Paolozzi became close friends. All that together made me decide that this was really a very good thing to do. When I was hired at the Museum of Modern Art in 1958 they asked me what three exhibitions I would like to do.

Rail: Who was that?

Selz: That was Rene d’Harnoncourt, who was director along with Alfred Barr, but it was Rene d’Harnoncourt that really asked. The New Images show was the first exhibition that I suggested, although I didn’t have a name for it yet. The second was the Art Nouveau show (1960), the importance of which I think has been overlooked. The third I called Collage and the Object, which later on became the Art of Assemblage show, which was curated by Bill Seitz (1961). So those were the three shows I suggested, and they thought they were good ideas. For New Images I wanted to look at the human image from basically an existential point a view, which was very important. I included people like Dubuffet, Golub, Rico Lebrun, Karel Appel, Jan Müller, Diebenkorn, Giocometti—about 23 total. There were a few good reviews, Dore Ashton for instance wrote a positive review, but in general the response was very negative.

Rail: Why do you think that was?

Selz: Well, because Abstract Expressionism was totally it. That was the way art had to be. I had de Kooning and Pollock in the show, but I had their figurative paintings. So to suddenly do a show that was figurative was a no-no. Furthermore, almost half the show was sculpture, and sculpture in those days was not counted for much, like when Barney Newman said, “Sculpture is what you back into when you look at a painting.” But worst of all was that more than half the show was work by non-New Yorkers. Here it was, the “triumph of American painting:” I had all these Europeans, and worse than that I included artists from the hinterlands—two from Chicago and three from California. And that they didn’t like at all. So those were the basic reasons.

Rail: This is also the moment just before Pop Art popped, so to speak, and it seems that in some ways Pop was a response to the ethos of the exhibition, this existential humanism.

Selz: Exactly, that is why we hated Pop so much. Because it was a negative response. The artists in New Images were anti-establishment artists and then suddenly there was a movement which glorified the establishment, so much so that as far as I could tell it was the only movement in modern art that was financially successful from the very start. That should say it all.

Rail: That recalls your stance at the Pop Symposium at MoMA (1962). Can you talk about how that came about?

Selz: The Pop Symposium came about because people at MoMA said, “There is all this Pop Art; why don’t you do a Pop Art show?” Bill Seitz and I, who were very much a partnership in those days, talked about it and decided we didn’t want to do a Pop Art show. So we said, “Let’s investigate it—lets do a symposium instead!”

Rail: With a remarkable lineup: Dore Ashton, Leo Steinberg, Stanley Kunitz, Hilton Kramer.

Selz: Geldzahler, too. Yes, it was a good group.

Rail: Have your feelings on Pop changed? How do you feel about it now?

Selz: Well, in those days I looked at it as a critic. Now I look at it as a historian. And historically it was an extremely important movement in 20th century art which had a tremendous effect on the art that followed, and I recognize it as such. And I certainly recognize that Warhol was a much better artist than I thought at the time. The “Disasters,” for example, are impressive. As far as the others are concerned—Roy Lichtenstein I find totally boring. He had nothing to say. Someone once asked me for my definition of art in one sentence. I thought about it for a long time and I came up with: “A metaphor for significant visual experience.” And Pop is neither a metaphor, nor is it significant. It’s pedestrian.[Laughing] It’s low art.

Rail: To return to New Images for a moment, I was interested that Paul Tillich, the existentialist theologian, wrote the introductory note for the catalogue, and I wanted to know what brought that about?

Selz: I had been reading Tillich for many years. Once I had a fascinating discussion in which I invited Tillich and Alfonso Ossorio to East Hampton for dinner. Ossorio was not only a very good painter but a man steeped in knowledge and philosophy. I realized that he was speaking from a Catholic point of view and Tillich from a Protestant, which was very interesting to me. Anyhow, I had known about Tillich and thought that his attitude toward art was compelling. He made remarks like, “‘Guernica’ is the most important Protestant painting of the century.” He came from Germany the same time I did, and was someone I respected enormously, so I approached him and he was very pleased to do it. He had never written anything for a place like the Museum of Modern Art, and everyone there was also very pleased.

Rail: Not only does New Images of Man seem like a particularly interesting exhibition in light of the contemporary moment, but it occupies an interesting place in the mid-20th century phenomenon of the grand humanist narratives, like those of architectural historian Sigfried Giedion. Were you reading him?

Selz: Certainly Giedion was our Bible at the New Bauhaus Institute of Design. But another thing is that I was deeply interested in all that was going on. For instance, I was very much interested in abstract painting, too. There was a show I was involved with at Pomona College, where I taught in the mid 1950s, of what I was calling Abstract Classicism. While I was at Pomona I was responsible for Rico Lebrun, who was later commissioned to paint a major mural in the building where José Clemente Orozco’s “Prometheus” (1930) was for New Images. I also worked on a show of people like John McLaughlin, Frederick Hammersley, and Karl Benjamin, who were geometric abstract painters. I couldn’t finish that show because I left for the Museum of Modern Art, and my friend Jules Langsner took it over and came up with the term “hard edged painting,” which was coined in my living room in Pomona. The artists didn’t like it, so I called it Abstract Classicism, but the other one stuck. I was always interested in these different aspects of modern art: the Bauhaus Type and the Expressionist type.

Rail: How did you end up at the Museum of Modern Art? How did they offer you the job?

Selz: Well, I was head of the art history department at Pomona college as well as director of their art gallery and was very happy. I was putting together an exhibition of European painting for an exhibition at Pomona and I wanted to borrow some things from the Museum of Modern Art. My book on German Expressionism (German Expressionist Painting,­ 1957) had just been published with excellent reviews. I met with Alfred Barr, who had just finished a show at MoMA of German painting and he said, “Our show would have been much better if you had done it.” To which I said, “Yes, it would have.” I think because I had gotten my Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and had taught at the New Bauhaus Institute of Design, which along with its sister school, Black Mountain, was the most progressive art school at the time, and also because I was at Pomona, an interesting liberal arts school in California which appealed to them greatly. Also that I had come from Germany with those much older European intellectuals. Much to my surprise Barr asked me to stay a few extra days to meet Rene d’Harnoncourt and some board members, upon which time they offered me the job. It was a wonderful and remarkable opportunity.

Rail: You were also one of the first people who was dealing with modern art in a political or social context. That seems very much the result of you leaving Germany in 1936.

Selz: Having grown up in Munich in the 1930s, I was naturally interested in politics. I saw art in its social and political context from the very beginning, so when I wrote German Expressionist Painting, which was based on my dissertation, I felt that it had to be placed in its context, unlike the Greenbergian orthodoxy that prevailed at the time, in which art was only self-referential. The other thing I did early on—the first chapter in my book is about art theory of the period. In a way maybe I was ahead of my time [laughing] but nobody can ever be ahead of their time.

Rail: Part of what is interesting in looking at the vast number of exhibitions you have done is that you could draw from it a working definition of art’s importance as a social phenomenon.

Selz: I think so. You know the first major artist’s monograph I wrote for Sam Francis, because I was looking at the way his work intersected with the world. Moving from California to Paris to Japan, there was this whole international aspect. It isn’t that I was just looking at figurative art, or political art, but many things. I didn’t even write a book on political art until a few years ago (The Art of Engagement: Visual Politics in California and Beyond, with Susan Landauer, 2006).

Rail: You mentioned earlier that you didn’t think people recognized how important the Art Nouveau exhibition was. Can you tell me a bit about that?

Selz: I was always interested in looking at the origins of modern art, and certainly Art Nouveau was important for that. You have to consider that at that point, Art Nouveau was totally on the periphery—nobody liked it. I thought the exhibition would be a wonderful thing to do. It was also the first time that all the different departments of the museum worked together. I was in Painting and Sculpture; I had someone else from the Print Department—Architecture and Design were central. We all worked together to do the first exhibition of hundreds to follow.

Rail: Earlier you spoke to me about the way the Rothkos are hung in the Abstract Expressionists’ New York exhibition at MoMA now.

Selz: When I did the Rothko show, which was a show I wanted to do more than anything else, MoMA had an attitude that the curators don’t consult the artist. I broke with that totally and consulted Rothko because I realized that he really knew a great deal about his art. The selection for the show was made jointly.

When it came to the hanging of the show, he pointed out the way his paintings were hung in a small room in the Phillips Collection in Washington. I had seen that show several times so I knew he was right. We used partitions to make rather small spaces and hung the paintings as low as we could. He wanted to hang the paintings right to the floor, which you couldn’t do because the fear of cleaning people swashing water on them, but we hung them as low as possible with little light. This created a quiet, intimate space and achieved a kind of confrontation between the person and the painting, which was usually more or less the height of an average person, and this was very important.

However, right now at MoMA they look like little postage stamps in these huge bright spaces; it’s terrible.

Rail: How do you feel about the exhibition otherwise?

Selz: Well, I thought certain groupings were strange, but mostly I wished it had brought out the involvement of many of those American abstractionists with Surrealism before total abstraction. Gorky, Pollock, Guston, and others all were doing surrealist work and it would have been interesting to me to have that foregrounded as the beginning of Ab Ex.

The retrospective I did just before the Rothko show was one of Jean Dubuffet, and there the artist’s voice was a very different one. I had an idea of what I wanted to show and I went to Paris to talk with him and he said, “Here, Monsieur Selz,” and gave me a list of the paintings he wanted to include in the show. I looked at this list, and in my mediocre French I said, “Monsieur Dubuffet, this list is all of paintings in your collection? “Oh yes” I told him. “They are the paintings you haven’t been able to sell, these are not the best paintings.” I gave him my own list and he agreed “This is a better list!” Sometimes you go along with the artist, some times you don’t; it just depends.

Rail: Another infamous MoMA piece you were responsible for was Jean Tinguely’s “Homage to New York” (1960), the self-destructing sculpture. How did that come about?

Selz: I knew of his work through many of my friends in Paris, and people like Dore Ashton knew him. I heard that he wanted to do this sculpture that destroys itself at the MoMA. The museum was very uncomfortable and kept saying no, which may have been the correct attitude for the collections manager, but I was the curator of painting and sculpture and I thought it was a good idea. So we did it in the courtyard, and there was a big plastic tent by Bucky Fuller left over from an exhibition we had just done of his work that we used because it was a very rainy day. There is no equivalent to an American junkyard to Europeans and Tinguely was fascinated by this. He went to these junkyards and gathered parts to make this sculpture, which was then painted all white, transforming it into a strange thing. And at the proper time it started shaking and spinning, eventually catching fire, which none of us had been told. The fire department was on hand so they extinguished it. It was actually a machine that had an assisted suicide. Later that night there was a big party at Tinguely’s dealer’s house, and everyone was there. I was totally ostracized—Alfred Barr and Rene d’Harnoncourt wouldn’t speak to me because they were so mad about the fire. You see, they had a reason to be sensitive about fires because the year before I got to MoMA they did have a fire that singed a Monet, so it was a real fear. However, soon they all realized that it was a good thing for the MoMA to do and it was all fine.

Rail: One of the things I admire most about you, and that I see when you are working on a show or just looking at art, is the extreme sense of pleasure you have in looking.

Selz: Yes. It’s true. Pleasure is an important thing. As a little child in Munich my grandfather, who was an art dealer, would take me every Sunday to Alte Pinakothek to look at art. And I loved it. I loved looking at everything! Just delighted in old masters. This whole idea of Greenberg’s—which later defined Modern Art for many people—that each stage of art is better or more pure than the last is nonsense.

Art can be no better now than Goya or the cave paintings. I still get a huge amount of pleasure looking at art and I am in my nineties now. I love looking at art from all times and artists that are working today.

Rail: Your career sort of grew up with modern art. What do you feel your role is as a curator or historian?

Selz: I was always interested in things that I thought were excellent but that other people didn’t really pay attention to. Nobody—in Germany or in America—paid any attention to German Expressionism when I wrote my dissertation on it in about 1980. In West Germany they were too much against figurative art so they pushed mediocre German abstract painters that painted in the style of what was going on in Paris and New York. In East Germany they were pushing Socialist Realism. So then I went on from there looking at things that other people weren’t. The book that Cambridge University Press published of my essays was called Beyond the Mainstream, and I think my whole career really, present activities included, has consisted of looking at art that I think is excellent—whether German Expressionism then or Morris Graves now—that deserves to be seen and is on the periphery.

Now this doesn’t mean that at times I wasn’t prompted to write about or do exhibitions of artists who were recognized, like for instance the Mark Rothko exhibition I organized, or the Sam Francis book I did, but most of the time I thought about doing things other people didn’t want to do.

Rail: How did moving from MoMA to Berkeley change that? It seems like one of the most wonderful things you did was help contextualize what was happening in California within the larger art world.

Selz: I enjoyed doing that and seeing the interesting things that were going on there, like the work that became the California Funk Art show (1967). Although one show I really wanted to do when I was still at MoMA was Kinetic Sculpture; this turned out to be the first major international show I did at Berkeley. There were 60,000 people in this temporary building. They loved to see this art move. And there I had Tinguely who I brought together with people like George Rickey, Len Lye from New Zealand, Takis from Greece, a bunch of people from Germany. It was a marvelous and exciting exhibition, and it was so successful that I decided to do a group show of new things happening in the world. So a year after the kinetic sculpture show I did the Funk show, which was in many ways the opposite, and which has become much more talked about than the Kinetic show at this point. Kinetic I thought was really important but Funk I did for fun.

I did a major show of another sort at Berkeley, which came about when one day it occurred to me: We have these huge spaces where we can show these huge paintings by Ferdinand Hodler. That was really important: to introduce this great symbolist painter of the turn of the century to America. It was a beautiful show. It went to the Guggenheim, where it didn’t look quite as good but they installed it very well, and then it ended up at Harvard. It was expensive but we managed to get the Swiss government to pay, which was nice.

We were doing a double European sculpture show, and two weeks after it opened, it was the time of the Cambodian invasion. Some students wanted to make posters in the museum in protest against the Vietnam war. They thought, “How are we going to convince Selz to let us use that space?” So they made a petition. When they presented it to me I said, “I think that is a great idea!” We moved all these sculptures into the back and turned the space over to the students to make posters. I was always involved with political things at the same time.

Rail: What is your favorite thing about being a curator or historian?

Selz: My favorite thing about being a curator is finding new things to show, and I love installing shows. When I did my first show at MoMA, I had never installed a show before. The museum’s idea was that instead of having professional designers install the show, the curator who knows the work best installs the show. So I had to learn to do that.

For being an art historian, the best part, as we said earlier, is relating art to its historic, social, and political context.

Rail: A simple question towards closing: what do you think is the best and worst thing about contemporary art and its future. [Laughter.]

Selz: I don’t know what is best and worst; I think contemporary art has basically become totally global. I think that the Funk show, for example, was a regional thing that does not—and cannot—really exist anymore. At all the art fairs it all looks the same, no matter where it is being done. So I don’t know if it is the best or the worst but it is certainly what is going on. Basically, I think a lot of what is going on is not very interesting. When I first saw video art I felt that it was mostly done by people who couldn’t make it as filmmakers. That is still true with some exceptions. The same is true about performance art—people who couldn’t make it on a regular stage.

On the other hand, Happenings were much more interesting then what later on became performance art. So what is going on in general? I don’t feel a great deal that is exciting, although I am still involved in doing shows. I think it is very rare that you find a major artist.

Rail: What do you mean by major artist?

Selz: Like when I was young there was de Kooning and Dubuffet and Giacometti and Pollock—these are major artists. I am very happy that SFMOMA has done two shows in the last three years of what I think are major artists: Kentridge and Kiefer—those are major artists. There are really very few. And then you see them spend over a million dollars on crap like Matthew Barney. That doesn’t even appeal to the public. At least the Tut show brings in people. Those two are on the same level of quality and interest.

Rail: Why do you think there are so many fewer major artists?

Selz: Maybe I should ask you that question because I don’t know. I think it has probably become so totally commercialized that it has become very difficult for an artist to create art. To swim in this kind of an art world is extremely difficult. When Albers was teaching at Yale he was teaching this rigid geometric style and people could go there and either do it or revolt against it. There was a leading style—there is not such a thing now. Everything is possible. Let me put it this way: if you talk about “quality” these days, you are put down for being “an elitist.” Art is very hierarchical. Art is an elitist profession; otherwise you would be a house painter. If you go away from being a house painter and become a fine art painter, that is an elitist step. Rothko felt very much that he was a member of the elite, and I think this is one of the problems now. It has become much too democratic. So these guys don’t know what to do. I see these MFA shows and they are all very clever.

They work with computers and say, “Look what I can do with my computer,” and they show you things that are quite amazing, but the computer has done it. This doesn’t mean that you can’t make good art with a computer, but it hasn’t happened yet. I think people like Kiefer and Kentridge are breaking out of this, but there are not many people like that.

Rail: You have worked with so many of the great artists of the 20th century; who has remained for you the most important?

Selz: Max Beckmann.

Rail: How has Beckmann changed for you, having lived with his work for so long?

Selz: For so many years Abstract Expressionism was king and it wasn’t so easy to look at somebody like Beckmann. How he has changed for me? He has just become richer and richer. Every two years another book is published on different aspects of his work—it is just so enigmatic. I read these things and think, “He has seen things in that triptych that never occurred to me.” Always new things, different things, in the detail of this or that triptych. The richness of his imagination, the fact that you never quite know in some of them what this or that figure means. And the quality of the painting—the sense of color too. I mean, right after World War I he made a painting, “The Night,” that has all the cruelty of the war. It ranks with “Guernica” and it was made 15 years before. The other one is Rothko, because I see more and more in him all the time.

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Jarrett Earnest

JARRETT EARNEST is an artist and scholar currently living in Brooklyn.