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Peter Selz

Peter Selz: Sketches of a Life in Art

WITH Ann Heath Karlstrom
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Pages: 321
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    Peter Selz
    Book Description:

    This absorbing biography, often conveyed through Peter Selz’s own words, traces the journey of a Jewish-German immigrant from Hitler’s Munich to the United States and on to an important career as a pioneer historian of modern art. Paul J. Karlstrom illuminates key historical and cultural events of the twentieth-century as he describes Selz’s extraordinary career—from Chicago’s Institute of Design (New Bauhaus), to New York’s Museum of Modern Art during the transformative 1960s, and as founding director of the University Art Museum at UC Berkeley. Karlstrom sheds light on the controversial viewpoints that at times isolated Selz from his colleagues but nonetheless affirmed his conviction that significant art was always an expression of deep human experience. The book also links Selz’s long life story—featuring close relationships with such major art figures as Mark Rothko, Dore Ashton, Willem de Kooning, Sam Francis, and Christo—with his personal commitment to political engagement.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94986-7
    Subjects: Architecture and Architectural History
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface: SETTING THE SCENE (pp. vii-xiv)
  4. ONE Childhood: MUNICH, ART, AND HITLER (pp. 1-11)

    Peter Selz remembers clearly his first encounters with the art world, events that provided framework and meaning for the rest of his life. His maternal grandfather, Julius Drey, owned an art and antiques gallery in Munich, and early on he introduced his receptive grandson to the wonders of visual-arts high culture (Figs. 2 and 3). Peter was entirely captivated, his world taken over and his sense of who he was permanently formed. It was a world that he was determined to make his own.

    Born at home on March 27, 1919, Peter was the younger son of Eugen Selz and...

  5. TWO New York: STIEGLITZ, RHEINGOLD, AND 57TH STREET (pp. 12-26)

    Aboard theEuropa, Peter saw Americans who had been in Berlin for the Olympic Games. “They didn’t look so good to me because . . . they thought how nice everything was in Germany.” Although he did not go so far as to accuse them of admiring Adolf Hitler, in fact Peter had low expectations for his destination country.¹ To him, even the Statue of Liberty was a letdown—somehow tacky, something of a cliché.

    It did not take long, however, before Peter was won over. Perhaps it is not going too far to say that he was seduced by...

  6. THREE Chicago to Pomona: NEW BAUHAUS AND EARLY CAREER (pp. 27-47)

    Upon his discharge from the army in 1946, Peter set out to identify which university was the best in the country. With the support of the GI Bill he could aim high, and he decided that the top honor went to the University of Chicago. “Chicago had a program more like a European university; you could go straight to the end, sort of catching up [along the way]. . . . It was a wonderful school, the best university, there’s no question about it.”¹ Since Peter had completed only one year of undergraduate work at Columbia, this was an important...

  7. FOUR Back in New York: INSIDE MoMA (pp. 48-71)

    Peter’s personal relationship to the Museum of Modern Art reaches back to the 1930s; he recalls visiting it regularly and wishing he could get a job there selling postcards. He could not then have imagined the realization of that youthful dream, but the day after the 1958 dedication of the new gallery at Pomona, he went directly to New York—“I could postpone it no longer”¹—to begin his new job as curator of modern painting and sculpture exhibitions at MoMA.

    A year earlier the former curator, Andrew Ritchie, had departed to become director of the Yale Art Gallery, which...


    When asked to identify his most important exhibitions at MoMA, Peter Selz selected six:New Images of Man, Mark Rothko, Jean Tinguely’sHomage to New York, The Work of Jean Dubuffet, Max Beckmann, andAlberto Giacometti.¹ In each case they represent a different and revealing aspect of his thinking about modernist art.

    Before he left Pomona for New York, Peter was asked by director René d’Harnoncourt to propose three shows he would like to mount as curator of modern painting and sculpture exhibitions. His list represented interests he had nurtured since the Chicago days and that still inform his perspective...

  9. Illustrations (pp. None)
  10. SIX POP Goes the Art World: DEPARTURE FROM NEW YORK (pp. 97-117)

    Covering a 1960 appearance by Peter Selz at the Detroit Institute of Arts, local art editor Louise Bruner gave an account of the evening that suggests both the casual informality of such events in the early 1960s and the speaker’s awareness of his role in the art world: “After a few introductory remarks about the forthcoming Futurist show he is organizing, which will come to Detroit, Dr. Selz lit a cigarette, leaned on the podium, took a sip from his highball and answered questions from the audience. The first, from me: ‘Does the Museum of Modern Art create taste because...

  11. SEVEN Berkeley: POLITICS, FUNK, SEX, AND FINANCES (pp. 118-148)

    Selz arrived in Berkeley in 1965 as something of a star. Everyone in the art community knew that he came from the Museum of Modern Art, and with those credentials and a record of including Californians in important exhibitions such asNew Images of Man, a great deal was expected of him. There is every indication that he relished both the challenge and the attention that came with the high expectations. His goal was to “bring new light to the art of the past and be on the cutting edge of the new.”¹

    In the early 1960s, California was barely...

  12. EIGHT Students, Colleagues, and Controversy (pp. 149-177)

    In fall of 1972 Peter Selz closed the door on the director’s office at University Art Museum and without a backward glance strolled across Bancroft Street, through Sather Gate, and onto the University of California campus. Crossing Sproul Plaza, he found his way to his new office and the second part of his Berkeley career, as a full-time art history faculty member. This academic “safety net,” which had been part of the terms of his accepting the museum directorship, was an arrangement that rankled some of his colleagues, and his welcome to the Berkeley academic club was lukewarm at best....

  13. NINE A Career in Retirement: RETURNING TO EARLY THEMES AND PASSIONS (pp. 178-205)

    Peter Selz’s personal life took a new turn shortly before his retirement when, on 18 December 1983, he married his fifth wife, Carole Schemmerling.¹ Throughout Peter’s long journey, women have played a central role. His interest in women is practically legendary, and over the years he has had many relationships—some supportive, others combative; some brief and forgettable, others enduring and profound. What they have in common is not the nature of the connection—whether personal, professional, or familial—but a pattern of dependency that has in part defined Peter’s life and career. During the retirement years, Carole, more than...

  14. TEN A Conclusion: LOOKING AT KENTRIDGE AND WARHOL (pp. 206-210)

    Throughout his long journey in the subjective, unpredictable, and contradictory world of contemporary art, Peter Selz has steered a focused, if not always steady, course. The study and interpretation of art is almost the opposite of science. Reputations wax and wane—as do the conceptual frameworks employed to identify and measure relative importance. Art is much closer to fashion, especially in a market-driven environment, than most historians or even critics find desirable. Understanding of it is neither absolute nor immutable, and therein may lie part of its attraction. Mystery and enigma are at the heart of the aesthetic experience.


  15. Notes (pp. 211-250)
  16. Selected Bibliography and Exhibition History (pp. 251-260)
  17. Acknowledgments (pp. 261-264)
  18. Index (pp. 265-286)
  19. Back Matter (pp. 287-287)