DVD Review

by Jessica Bryce Young & r & & r & Who Gets To Call It Art? & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & hile a documentary about a curator seems dull, everyone loves a groupie story (witness the success of Almost Famous). In Henry Geldzahler, legendary 1960s curator and art-world gadfly, director Peter Rosen has found the ultimate art groupie, but he lets the rock stars do most of the talking in Who Gets To Call It Art? (After all, his subject died in 1994.) Frank Stella, Bob Rauschenberg, David Hockney, Francesco Clemente and many more reminisce digressively in this aimless document of a life spent cheerleading others. It's not for scholars -- but the luscious tumble of images will exhilarate even a casual modern-art fan.

Geldzahler was an uptown boy, the Harvard-and-Yale-educated son of a Belgian diamond merchant. An eye for beauty and the ability to turn a profit ran in his family. For his bar mitzvah, he was given $1,000; a year later, he spent $600 of it on a Stella painting. A canny investor as well as a connoisseur of art, Geldzahler was the perfect missionary for Pop Art.

He ingratiated himself with the artists by being a non-threatening presence -- not a competitor, but an emissary to the moneyed world of the collectors, and a genuine fan. His position as curator of 20th-century American art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art culminated in the notorious "New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970" exhibition.

"Whatever resonance art of the late 20th century has, it owes to Henry," declares Stella at the beginning of the film. The idea of treating these banal objects and minimal canvases as "real art" was distasteful to fusty Rembrandt idolaters. Pop Art shattered the fairy tale of the painter expressing his tortured soul; in its place were Claes Oldenburg's limp fabric sculptures of toothpaste tubes and Roy Lichtenstein's blown-up comic strip panels. But Henry bridged the gap with his enthusiasm and born-salesman's shrewdness, and a new generation of art stars emerged.

This is a talky film, which is why it's best enjoyed in a semi-reclined position. Excellent soundtrack choices from the Monks, Carla Bley, John Cage, Eric Dolphy, the Velvet Underground and more underscore what is, per the Palm Pictures aesthetic, top-notch moving wallpaper. Find the biggest, loudest TV/DVD player/stereo setup you can, have a few drinks, turn off the lights and let it wash over you.