A day in the life

Henry Geldzahler

A legend in his own mind but also in the hearts of the artists whose works he championed, cherubic art historian and curator Henry Geldzahler was instrumental in raising consciousness about the vibrancy of contemporary American art. Born in Antwerp, Belgium his family emigrated to the U.S. in 1940 just before the WWII, and his reign began.

After graduating from Yale in 1957 and leaving Harvard University after that, Henry became the first curator of contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1960. Against all standards, Henry became good friends with many of the artists he was interested in, and socialized with them as part of the same art world. In return he appeared in and on many works of his new friends. Warhol for one loved interacting with Geldzahler as he was as peculiar as himself. He once said to Henry: Oh, you know so much. Teach me a fact a day and then I'll be as smart as you.

Warhol, Geldzahler, Hockney & Goodman

He took a temporary leave from the Metropolitan Museum 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. Works from artists in the likes of Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Larry Rivers, Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Claes Oldenburg, George Segal, Roy Lichtenstein and later Jean-Michel Basquiat were bought and the boys were launched instantly. He was a collector with a big heart and you might even say that he really did understand the artists and their struggles.

As an openly gay man,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. For instance, 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.


A passionate man who was a friend, confidante, and collaborator to many of the painters and sculptors he championed, Geldzahler assembled the "New York Painting and Sculpture" show himself, and while it caused no small amount of controversy at the time, it established a consensus that the pop movement and its leading figures were here to stay, and Geldzahler continued to be a mover and shaker in the world of contemporary art until his death.

On August 16, 1994, Geldzahler died of liver cancer at the age of 59. Many contemporaries describe Geldzahler's death as AIDS-related.