Who Was Henry Geldzahler?

Is Hockney's double portrait the ultimate totem of the wild 60s art world?

A portion of Dennis Hopper’s 1963 photo depicting, (l to r) Andy Warhol, Henry Geldzahler, David Hockney.

One of the challenges facing Christie’s this Summer was how to proceed with the sale of the Barney Ebsworth collection when the auction house had agreed to try to sell David Hockney’s A Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) from the artist’s celebrated series of double portraits. The complication came in the form of one of the artist’s other double portraits, Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott, which was among Ebsworth’s holdings. 

The consignor of the Pool with Two Figures was determined to get a price never before achieved for a Hockney nor a living artist which pretty much determined that it would have to be sold in New York in November. No one believed the two paintings could be sold in the same week. 

The Pool with Two Figures was a high-risk sale. It worked out. But had the painting sold poorly or been withdrawn, it might have affected the value of the Geldzahler portrait. Now that the Pool with Two Figures has set a record price, the question remains what is the right value for the Geldzahler portrait. 

Christie’s announced late last week that the painting had a third-party guarantee and would be auctioned with an estimate in the region of £30m. At current exchange rates, That’s $37.5m only $9m more than one of the artist’s later landscapes. Part of the problem may be a lack of understanding about Henry Geldzahler’s importance to the history of American culture and as the emblematic figure of a particular moment in New York cultural history.

Double Portraits

The seven double portraits portray a range of couples who were friends and relatives of the artist. The designer Ossie Clark and his wife Celia Birtwell are shown in a work entitled Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy—Percy being the couple’s cat. The writer Christopher Isherwood and his partner Don Bachardy appear in another. The artist’s parents fill a third. Fred and Marcia Weisman are depicted in a painting entitled American Collectors. The Clarks and the artist’s parents are in the Tate along with George Lawson and Wayne Sleep. The Portrait of an Artist and Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott round out the series.

Now that the auction market has set a ceiling on the price of a Hockney, the remaining question is how high anyone is willing to bid to close the gap between the $90m (£70m) spent on the Pool with Two Figures and the rest of the Hockney market which topped out at $28.4m for Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Monica from 1990.

The formal properties of the Geldzahler portrait don’t necessarily lend themselves to ranking the work among Hockney’s most sought after. Lacking a landscape or an aquamarine pool, it is anything but a California picture. Painted in 1969, it has the advantage of being from the painter’s more valuable 60s period works. It does share a compositional approach with Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy. Both images are centered around a window providing perspective. The Clarks’ window is a shuttered floor-to-ceiling portal to a balcony and its stone balustrade with a tree from the couple’s garden poking into view in front of the distant image of another line of Georgian row houses. Geldzahler’s window, by contrast, is a typical New York view of an airshaft looking out to distant office buildings. 

Henry’s Show

In many of the double portraits, the couples are presented symmetrically. Others, like the Geldzahler, betray the lopsided dynamics of a relationship. In the Geldzahler portrait, Henry sits at the apex of a sofa beneath the apartment window like a potentate seated upon a throne. The painting comes from a moment in Geldzahler’s career when he was working on his capstone achievement, the massive 408-work, 35-gallery show of New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-70 that he mounted as part of the the Metropolitan Museum’s centennial celebration.

The show, which was controversial, was less important for its effect on the world’s understanding of the New York School and the city’s central role in the apotheosis of Contemporary art in the mid-20th century than it was for marking the end of an era when New York was the center of the art world. 

Geldzahler was best known for becoming a central fixture in New York’s cultural life. As one critic of the show pointed out, Geldzahler’s show came not from “an experience of art … so much as an experience of the art world, of dealers and galleries and museums and collectors and magazines and critics.” That world, according to Calvin Tomkins who famously profiled Geldzahler in the New Yorker a few years later on November 6, 1971, “did not really come into being until the nineteen sixties” and had ceased to exist by 1971 when Tomkins wrote—but, really, even before the time when Hockney’s portrait was painted. 

Tomkins profile was something of an elegy for the art world of the sixties. Tomkins offers this description of the art world Geldzahler has become a talisman of by quoting museum director Alan Solomon who was also part of that moment. “[A]rtists felt free to question every previous assumption of the purpose and function of art and this ‘anything goes’ philosophy was actively encouraged not only by artists’ dealers and by half a dozen new and very active collectors but by a new and avidly enthusiastic public as well.”

“Nothing ever freaked Geldzahler out”

Geldzahler the child of a Belgian immigrant family was a brilliant bon vivant. He had been a sparkling personality and wit at Yale in the 1950s. In graduate at Harvard, he was a cult figure who caught the attention of the Met’s director James Rorimer. Rorimer hired him to be a curator but, more than anything, a pair of eyes and ears connecting the fusty Metropolitan to that magical moment of New York in the sixties. After being tapped by Rorimer, Geldzahler arrived back in New York with his boundless curiosity. Within six months, helped along by introductions from dealer Ivan Karp who was then working for Leo Castelli, Geldzahler made himself the hub of that New York art world then breaking out of Abstract Expressionism and into Pop art.

“Nothing ever freaked Geldzahler out,” Tomkins wrote. “He rode the gathering wave of Pop like a cork, bobbing happily from studio to studio (even or eight studios a day, on average), attending all the openings and all the parties, going out every night of the week unless the party happened to be at his apartment.” By 1963, Geldzahler was not only known to everyone in the art world, he had become a darling of journalists. His public profile a constant source of irritation back at the Met.

Although he was close to Andy Warhol for six years, speaking multiple times a day and claimed to have suggested the first work in the Death and Disaster series, he eventually moved on to promoting Color Field painters and later abstract painters. He chose those artists to represent the US when he organized the Venice Biennale pavilion in 1966. Even by the time of the centennail show, Geldzahler had already settled into a conservative role at the Met where Contemporary art would remain an afterthought compared to the encyclopedic museum’s great depth of collecting. Indeed, when Tom Hoving agreed with legendary Pop art collector Robert Scull to exhibit James Rosenquist’s F-111 at the Met in 1968, Geldzahler publicly claimed not to have been consulted and nearly lost his job over the gaffe.

Gelzahler eventually moved on to serve as New York City’s Commissioner of Cultural Affairs for several years before dying of liver cancer at the age of 59 in the early 1990s. But his moment remained that epoch-making era of New York’s art world in the 1960s which attracted collectors like Harry Abrams, David Geffen and Barney Ebsworth.

The sale of Pool with Two Figures has done half of the marketing work for Christie’s. Taking the a third-party guarantee lowers the bar a little but also takes some of the pressure off the Contemporary art team. Now they can only trade up by playing up the fiftieth anniversary of the Met’s show and hoping that today’s global art market has nostalgia and appreciation for that moment when New York was the center global culture.

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