Biography of Henry Geldzahler
Henry Geldzahler (July 9, 1935 – August 16, 1994) was a curator of contemporary art in the late 20th century, as well as a modern art art historian and art critic. 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.
Born in Antwerp, Belgium, Geldzahler's Jewish family emigrated to the United States in 1940. He graduated from Yale University in 1957, where he was a member of Manuscript Society.
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.
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, David Hockney, Larry Stanton, and later Jean-Michel Basquiat. Geldzahler is also noted for his recognition of the first Chinese contemporary artist in America, Ching Ho Cheng.
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.
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. In addition to authoring its catalog, Geldzhaler has also written 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); and co written Art in Transit: Subway Drawings by Keith Haring (1984) Andy Warhol: Portraits of the Seventies and Eighties (Thames and Hudson, 1993), and many other works.