Peter Selz — prolific curator, art historian, and an instrumental figure in the scholarship on modern art — hardly bears introduction. Last year, the University of California Press published his biography, Paul J. Karlstrom’s Peter Selz: Sketches of a Life in Art, to general acclaim in the academic and popular press. Currently a resident of Berkeley, California, where he is an emeritus professor in the history of art at the University of California, Selz returned to New York last month to curate a show by Yisrael “Kenny” Feldsott at Studio Vendome, a comfortably sized gallery on the ground floor of Philip Johnson’s “Urban Glass House” residential tower on Spring Street.
The show, entitled Cries, Chants, Shouts and Whispers: Songs of the Forgotten, features Feldsott’s primitivist, politically anguished paintings. In our wide-ranging discussion, Selz spoke to his interest in Feldsott’s painterly preoccupation with humanity’s “continued brutality,” and more broadly about his life, his position on so-called political art, and how the art world has become “a world of acceptance.”
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Mostafa Heddaya: How did you first encounter Kenny Feldsott’s work?
Peter Selz: I saw him in a San Francisco gallery. I had never heard of him. The gallery was in Pacific Heights, the Paul Mahder Gallery. I was simply astonished … You don’t see work like this everyday.
MH: You also teach at UC Berkeley, correct? What is it like transitioning from curatorial work to academic work?
PS: I’ve always done both. I’ve always gone back and forth and back and forth. For many years Berkeley had the largest university museum in the country. But it was new when I started. But I did it at the same time: I curated shows then and taught in the history of art department. So I’ve always gone back and forth. Before that I was at the Museum of Modern Art, and before that I was teaching at Pomona College. [Prior to that] I was teaching at the Institute of Design, the “New Bauhaus,” in Chicago. That was my first teaching job. And I did that after I finished my doctorate at the University of Chicago.
MH: I’m curious what your approach was to curating this show, since you’ve inaugurated spaces before, like at UC Berkeley, and Studio Vendome is a new gallery. How is curating a show for a newer space different from curating for an established one?
PS: That really wouldn’t be all that different. When you curate a show, first you have to decide what you’re going to curate. This artist or group of artists who’s in the show. That’s the main decision. At MoMA, for instance, my first show was called New Images of Man. It became an important show … I think one of the first artist solo shows I did in New York was the Mark Rothko show. He had never had a museum show; he was not all that well known at the time. This was 1961, I think. So you decide on what artist or artists you want to do a show. A relatively well-known artist or a hardly known artist, because you see the work as real, real quality and should be shown. And then the curating simply consists of selecting the best work. It doesn’t really matter if the show could have been at an established space. It could have been a museum show. And we did have that show, a larger version [of the Feldsott show] in a more established gallery in San Francisco. Before it came here. That gallery actually had three floors.
MH: What specifically about Feldsott’s work is most interesting to you?
PS: It’s his combination of rawness. And the subjects he chooses are raw and brutal. So he has this raw brutality, which he then executes with the expertise of a really excellent painter. You know, he’s been painting for 40 years. So it’s this combination of his primitive rawness, in a way, and his consummate skill. So it comes across as powerful work. I would say it’s an engagement of politics and a commitment to art.
MH: In your book German Expressionist Painting, you quote Kokoschka: “Expressionism does not live in an ivory tower.” What does it mean for art to be engaged or political?
PS: Well, everything you do is political. In the case of Feldsott, the brutality, the continued brutality of the human race. But much of my work has been not at all political. My last book — I’ve done about 20 books — my last book was called Art of Engagement. That was the first time I wrote a book on political art … What you think about [political art]?
MH: I think my interest in political art is related to the question of whether a mere aesthetic awareness can be political, or if we must envision an artistic practice oriented around action to produce truly political art. And I’m curious what you think about how the events of the the latter half of the 20th century, particularly the 1960s and 70s, might have redefined political art as a sort of a political act in and of itself.
PS: Well, there’s a lot of this kind of “punk art” or whatever that comes back. But I really don’t know very much about that. It’s really not what I’ve been engaged in. I’m not that much involved in political action. I think that the person who is primarily involved in political action can’t really be a great artist. Being a sculptor or a painter is indeed a full-time job. And the artist can be engaged in political problems — but if you want to really engage in political action, that’s a different road. I don’t think that Feldsott is engaged in political action. Although the trip he took across the country was very much an action trip … He made all these stops. And that, in a way, was political.
MH: Since you organized the great “Symposium on Pop Art” at MoMA in 1962, I am interested to know whether you believe that there’s enough critical dialogue, especially at large institutions, on contemporary art practice?
PS: My feeling about Pop art was it really undermined most art movements until that time. It was really the first modern art movement that I can think of — the Cubists, and the Expressionists, and the Futurists, and the Surrealists, and the Abstract Expressionists, all these movements questioned the establishment. And Pop art I think was the first movement which embraced the establishment. Instead of saying, “Look at this miserable consumer society we live in,” it was, “Look how nice the consumer society is.” And it was also, as far as I know, the first art movement in which the artists made money as soon as they began to show their work. People would buy Rosenquists, Lichtensteins, and Warhols. It was an acceptance of the bourgeoisie. That’s one reason I didn’t care for it. It was a politics of acceptance.
MH: At the time, in 1962, you used the platform that you had to organize a critical dialogue on this subject. But do you think the institutions of art today are equipped to engage in this kind of studied refusal?
PS: Not any more. Very little. The art world has changed enormously. The art world has become the world of acceptance, it’s become part of the larger consumer society. I dont see very many places that really question authority at this point. And when I see an artist like this [Feldsott], he certainly does, he does engage this.
MH: What institutions do you think remain engaged, if any? Are there any that remain in your esteem? I know that you’re involved with the Neue Gallery.
PS: Yes but … they do, you know, a Kandinsky show… Mr. Lauder certainly does not question authority [laughs]. They may show art that was at its time very revolutionary in fact, but it’s now total acceptance. You know when I did the Jean Tinguely self-destroying machine at the Museum of Modern Art in 1960, that was a question. It really questioned the authority of art itself. Now it’s totally accepted. Now they can do a Tinguely show. But that kind of rebellion doesn’t exist now. Everything’s been co-opted by something. [Editor’s note: For more on Selz’s involvement with the Tinguely show, see page 25 of this archival MoMA interview.]
MH: Do you think the incorporation of oppositional artists into the museum has co-opted this culture?
PS: I think so. I really don’t see much opposition art at this point. Certainly not in this country.
MH: Do you believe that that oppositional culture exists elsewhere in the world?
PS: Probably. I don’t see things like that. Years ago there were the Vienna Action Group, people like this. I don’t see anything like that happening now. And also, everything has become so global … the culture has become one of global art. I’ve always from the very beginning said that I look at art in the context of the political world. I always took a great separation from the people — let’s say like Clement Greenberg, who looked at art only as formal statement. He would say he’s not interested in the political aspect. He’s not interested in the life of the artist. The work of the art by itself as a formal statement. But I think this is nonsense. The artist worked in a political framework. From the very beginning, when I wrote the German Expressionist book, I looked at their movement in terms of the whole economic, political environment in which it was created. I was early, early on — I looked at art in that kind of context. But many of my colleagues were involved in more formalist attitudes.
Yisrael K. Feldsott: Cries, Chants, Shouts and Whispers: Songs of the Forgotten continues at Studio Vendome (330 Spring Street, Soho, Manhattan) through November 23.