Interviewsand Articles

 

Interview: Peter Selz: at the Berkeley Art Center, June 25 2011

by Richard Whittaker, Aug 10, 2011


 

 

As the evening of the Berkeley Art Center's Salute to Peter Selz, neared, a real buzz developed. The place had sold out at $50 a head. This was doubly satisfying; not only was a lot of energy afoot, but the art center was bringing in some much-needed money.  

Peter Selz is a national figure in the art world, but has made Berkeley his home since 1965. He founded the Berkeley Art Museum and taught at UCB for over thirty years. And as professor emeritus, he hardly slowed down. Every few months it seemed there would be a new exhibit curated by Selz somewhere in the Bay Area. His book An Art of Engagement was published in 2006. Its publication was accompanied by an extensive exhibit at the San Jose Museum of Art, which then traveled to Washington, D.C.
     
This evening's celebration was part of the program BAC director Suzanne Tan had put together to accompany Abstract Visions, the exhibit Selz had curated for the art center featuring work by Gary Edward Blum, Eva Bovenzi, Donna Brookman, Bruce Hasson, Kevan Jenson, Naomie Kremer, Keiko Nelson and Gloria Tanchelev-all Bay Area artists.
     
As I sat next to Peter, waiting for the last people to be seated, the excitement in the room was palpable--and something else, a lot of affection. Many of the Bay Area's artworld movers and shakers had shown up for this tribute. It was hard to believe that this man, still going strong, was 92 years old.
     
When everyone had settled down, Sheldon Green began by giving a synopsis of Selz's distinguished career. Then one of Peter's former students, long-time friend and painter Donna Brookman, shared some personal stories. And then it was our turn...
 
Peter Selz:  Before we start the interview I'd like to say how happy I am that so many of you came to this special evening and to the exhibition. It means a lot to me. I'm also especially happy that the person who started the Berkeley Art Center, Carl Worth, is with us tonight. Thank you very much. [applause]
 
Richard Whittaker:  Peter, how many of the people here do you know, would you say? 
 
PS:  I can't say how many exactly, but I know the majority of the people who are sitting here, the large majority, and some of them I have to say, I know very well.
[appreciative laughter] 
 
RW:  Although I haven't know you for that long, I can't help having such a strong impression of the depth of the connection you have here with these people, and I also have some awareness of what you've meant to Berkeley and the Bay Area having been her for what, 45 years? Something like that?
 
PS:  Just about that, yes.
 
RW:  There are so many different places that one could start in asking you to talk about things. I thought that since we have a show here of abstract art, it might be interesting to ask you a bit about that. If you would go back to, let's say, your study of German Expressionism and that early movement at the turn of the twentieth century with Kandinsky, Franz Marc, and all that was going on around this new form of art that was developing in those years and talk a little about that-if you would-and then we can ask you to speak about how that influence has continued for a hundred years. 
 
PS:  Well, when I wrote that book on German Expressionism, which was first done as my PhD dissertation. It was my first book. It ended up-there was the Blue Rider and the chief exponent of The Blue Rider was Wassily Kandinsky. German Expressionism really ended up with Kandinsky, who was, in a way, the first Abstract Expressionist, a term that only was used slightly later. 
     From that beginning, I became really interested, perhaps through Kandinsky- who's work I studied carefully-in abstract art in general. Of course I'd read a lot and looked at Maleviches and the Mondrians and everything else, and then many years later, I was part of the abstract expressionist movement. It was really very [unintelligible], but I admired the Abstract Expressionists enormously, people like De Kooning, and Mark Rothko-who I gave a retrospective to at MOMA. Pollock and all these people seemed to me have tremendous importance because of the way they involved the spectator in their response to their creations. 
   And since then I've looked at the continuation of abstraction and its many ups and downs. What I've found is that in the last ten or fifteen years, there's a whole new energy in abstract paintings. It's true in New York. It's true in Europe and it's absolutely true in the Bay Area. 
     This is now the centennial of abstraction. I was the co-curator of a big show at Barnsdall Park in Hollywood a few months ago, an international show of new abstract painters. I met four or five of them who are in this show and who I put in this tradition of Bay Area abstract art. I don't think that ten or fifteen years ago you could have done a show of Bay Area abstraction of the quality you see here. 
     There's this whole-and you can see it in this room here-this whole new engagement, this whole new energy of abstract painting. Some of the work here is related to nature, some of it is much more abstract and geometric in ways that are more removed. So you have this back and forth here echoing between the paintings that are very abstract and the paintings that are more related to nature. But there's tremendous energy now. 
 
RW:  I have this impression that one of the main things that was going on early in the 20th century among Kandinsky, Franz Marc and those people was that there was a great hope, I gather-the hope that a new form of art was being developed that could actually make some kind of connection, make something visible for others that needed to be shown, something that hadn't been possible before. Do you think that was true? 
 
PS:  That is very true. The early abstract painters, especially Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian, really thought that the art would change the world. Mondrian was a utopian. His paintings he felt, in a way, would relate to a whole new kind of organized relationship in society. There was a sense of utopia in the early part of the century, which we certainly don't have now-by no means. But in those days these people really felt this, that this kind of work would lead to a renewal of society because the work was so energetic and so new. Nobody had really done work without a subject before. 
     Now this doesn't happen anymore, none of these works here relate to that. Nevertheless, there is still, in all these paintings a feeling of those relationships between the artist and his work, and the response expected from the viewer. 
 
RW:   That's what I was going to ask about next. Do you see any thread from those early hopes, any kind of resonance or echo that's emerging again?
 
PS:  Absolutely. I'm glad you asked that. Because I see so much art right now that's gimmicky, that's meaningless and which doesn't have that sense of continuity. In the whole history of art, whether it's Greek art or medieval art or Renaissance art, there is the continuity of master to student, and on and on-and if you don't have this continuity-I mean all these artists, all this art here relates very much to what went before. Looking at Jensen's paintings here, he was a student of Harold Parrish and so on and so forth. So much of the stuff I see today lacks this sense of continuity. 
     There may be a continuity going back to Duchamp in much of the stuff you see today, but it doesn't have the quality, the irony, the wit that Duchamp had. It's just derivative. We have to have this kind of continuity, if there's going to be great art whether it's in literature, music or whatever it is. 
 
RW:  There's the idea of progress that was very popular in the 20th century, up to a certain point, that we're going to make progress inevitably. On the other hand is that an idea that really fits art, this idea of progress? 
 
PS:  I hope many of you have seen the Werner Herzog movie of the cave paintings at Chauvet. If you've seen that movie, you know damn well, there's no progress in art! [laughter and clapping from the audience]. There's nothing that has been done since then that's any better that that! There is continuity, but the idea of progress in art is nonsense!  
     Harold Greenberg had this idea that there was a progress in art, this Kantian, Hegelian idea of progress-that we would move on and on, and it would lead to painting that is nothing but a color plane, a flat color plane. There may be progress in the physical and biological sciences, and I think there is, but in art and music and literature and in painting, there is no such thing as progress. There is continuity. [applause]
 
RW:  It occurs to me that another way of looking at it would be that there is a similar task that needs to be done over and over again, a very difficult task, and that is, through this creative process, to arrive at something we would call art, something that's very difficult to arrive at. What makes a great painting? 
 
PS:  [sotto voce] What makes a great painting? [audience laughter] I don't know what makes a great painting. I think a great painting is a work that communicates deep feelings, that communicates-and the viewer has an experience that he could not possibly have without looking at this painting. If you look at a Matisse painting, Le Bonheur de Vivre, one of his greatest paintings-it's in the Barnes Collection-and you feel this tremendous joy of life that you could not feel without looking at this painting, or if you look at, say a contemporary painting by Mark Rothko, you feel, you have a sense of the tragedy of life. And the same with Picasso's art at the De Young, you have a feeling of the great tragedy of life. So it's these deep moments that art at its best communicates, a feeling of joy, a feeling of sadness, a feeling of drama, this kind of engagement, this kind of dialog between the artist communicating, and evoking something of this moment in the viewer.
 
RW:   That's beautiful. I bet you have some interesting stories to tell as a curator. For instance, you once described to me a little bit about an experience with the show you did with Mark Rothko and, from a curatorial point of view you made some unusual decisions. 
 
PS:  Well, with the curator, it's interesting what happens. Let me talk about two shows at the Museum of Modern Art in the early 60s. One was showing Dubuffet and the other showing Rothko. So how do you select the work? In the case of Dubuffet I went to Paris. When I went to his studio, he gave me a list and said, "These are the paintings I'd like you to show at my retrospective at MOMA."  
     I looked at this list and said, Mr. Dubuffet, these are mostly paintings that you own. And he said, Yes. So I said, These are the paintings you haven't been able to sell. [laughter] And I said, I'd like to make my own list. And then a few days later I gave him my list, with many paintings in public and private collections by that time-especially in Chicago. And he said, Yes, this is a better list. Sometimes you don't work with the artist. 
     On the other hand, a year later, I did the Rothko show and Mark had ideas of how he wanted his paintings to be shown. Not in a big room, but in small, very intimate spaces with very little light, low down and close to the floor so there would be this intimate relationship between his man-sized paintings and the person looking at them. I knew this, indeed, was much the better way to do it. 
     This was very unorthodox. Nobody in the Museum of Modern Art, until that time, involved artists in the selection or exhibiting or mounting of their show. The artist was not allowed. But this really, really worked. 
     And on the opposite end, recently they had a big show of their abstract expressionism collection at MOMA. They had one large room with Rothkos in them, and where the Rothkos are hung, there's bright light on the walls-and it didn't work. That's not how they are meant to be seen. 
     So this is very, very important. It's how you relate. Sometimes you let the artist have a big voice and sometimes you don't. Whatever seems the best way to go about it. 
 
RW:  You have such a distinguished career as a scholar of art history and also as a curator. It occurs to me that on the scholarly side, there's perhaps a kind of abstract process one has to go through doing the research, while on the curatorial side, there can be a much more personal kind of process. I wonder if you have any reflections on how those two might have been either at odds or have helped each other, the scholarly and the personal.
 
PS:  Well, everybody has a different way of going about it. Some art critics, curators feel the best thing to do is to have as little connection with the artist as possible and just look at work as it is. 
     My feeling is very different. I like to talk with the artists. When I started working on German Expressionism there were artists I didn't know, and working with documents, primary sources and all that, it was fine. It's not as much fun. It's much more enjoyable to work with living artists. 
     The work with living artists is give and take. Sometimes the artist tells you things that are ridiculous! [audience laughter]-and that make no sense at all. When they tell you things that make no sense, you have to discriminate. 
     But I find working with artists, which I've done a lot in the last thirty years, not only very enjoyable-and our life should be enjoyable and the work should be enjoyable-and also extremely useful. And that's the way I work. 
 
RW:  That's the way I work, too.
 
PS:  I know all these artists here. Many of them I've written about before the show. 
 
RW:  I'm sure you've found yourself in all kinds of situations because of your role. You mentioned an interesting experience you had at the dedication of the Villancourt Fountain in San Francisco.
 
PS:  Okay. I suggested he ask me this question. [audience laughter]. It's a good question. When the Villancourt Fountain was built and there was going to be an inauguration, they invited three people to speak: the artist, Mr. Villancourt, Thomas Hoving, the director of the Metropolitan Museum who came here for that purpose and myself. Well, we went to the Justin Herman Plaza and there was a big to do. The city band was playing. Alan Temko, who didn't like Villancourt at all, had people distributing leaflets against the fountain [laughter]. And Villancourt himself, who was supposed the speaker, was standing in the fountain with his boots on with a spray can, spraying "Quebec Libre" all over the fountain! Just spraying it all over. [Selz laughs] An unbelievable thing! 
     And there we were, Hoving and I. We started up the stairs where we were going to speak and on the way up, I slipped and fell and stepped with one leg into the water. I got back up and we continued and now I'm walking up the stairs with one leg totally wet. We got up there and Hoving spoke first. He spoke about what fountains meant in Renaissance Rome [laughter]-and then in baroque Rome-and then throughout history, about the fountain in the city. 
    Well, obviously I was going to say the same thing! And standing there, my leg wet and down below Villancourt still spraying "Quebec Libre" [Selz laughs] there was nothing left to say! 
 
From audience:  What did you say? 
 
PS:  What did I say? Well, I said, "Mr. Hoving, as expected, expressed it much better than I could." [audience laughs]
 
RW:  Okay, just a couple more questions before we open it up, because I'm sure there's a great many anecdotes and moments to share.
 
PS:   This is fun! [audience laughs warmly]
 
RW:  So here's a question. And I bet you have some thoughts about this. There are many new forms of creative expression happening now, let's take graffiti and all that. What do you think about graffiti? 
 
PS:  Well, I think graffiti is very creative. I think graffiti is an expression of dissent. People complain about the New York subway, that there's so much graffiti and so on. I think this is really-graffiti is not great art, at all. It's really a strong expression of dissent. 
    But you know, things get co-opted. Right now at the Contemporary in LA, they have this big graffiti show. So dissent gets co-opted by the establishment. Then the graffiti being shown in museums loses all its energy; they become works of art, which is the last thing these guys wanted to do. 
     I love graffiti, but I have very strong objections to the show, which is one of the most popular shows that has been in Los Angeles in a long time. 
 
RW:  I'm not surprised that you like it. And I share that because, as it's easy to recognize, there's real energy there. You also see the influence of how people copy styles, but in any case, that has to be one of the most difficult challenges for any art form-and that is to find its way to some kind of real energy that touches people. 
 
PS:  Right. Yes. 
 
RW:  So just one more question. How do you see-what's your take on the situation with the artworld at this moment?
 
PS:  Well, it's very difficult because for many years there were leading movements, Cubism, Realism, Expressionism, Abstract expressionism. Now that doesn't exist anymore. For many years there were art centers, Paris, New York, [unintelligible]. There is no art center now. There are no leading movements. Everything goes. It's topsy turvy. 
     And all kinds of new media is being done. Some of the work in new media is terrific. I look at video art and most of the video art is being made by people couldn't make good films. However, there are wonderful people making video art, like Kentridge and Bill Viola. I mean there is some wonderful work being done in video.  
     And as far as conceptual art is concerned, in the 60s, when it was first being done, I looked at Kosuth and Klein and Weiner and several of them, and I found them absolutely fascinating! And now there's not much there anymore. 
     But still, there's very, very good art being done and right in this room. 
     Every year I look at the MFA show. I like the one in Berkeley, and this year's MFA show is better than the last three years. I think, like in any other period, very, very fine art is being done. 
   Two days ago I saw the Picasso show at the de Young and I can't imagine anybody  like this emerging again. This doesn't happen again and again, but some very good art is being made today.
 
RW:  Maybe this would be a good time for people to share some of their connections with Peter-stories, anecdotes. 
 
Phil Linhares:  Peter, I'd like to ask you about the Funk Show. It's one of your great, early, and most influential exhibitions at Berkeley. Can you treat us with any anecdotes about the Funk Show? 
 
PS:  When I came to Berkeley I saw something very special, some totally different art than what I'd seen in New York. There was Pop Art in New York, but Funk is totally different from Pop Art. Pop Art glorifies the Establishment. Funk art was an art of dissent, an art putting down the establishment, an art that was really vulgar, an art that was, at the same time, very witty. 
     I think it was, as far as I can tell, one of the last regional movements. It was pretty regional-the Bay Area, UC Davis, and there were these marvelous artists, with Wiley and Arneson, Roy de Forest and others doing work that was a total, which was droll, was anti-establishment. It was, "We can't sell anything anyhow, so we don't give a damn! We just make these things. And it was just a wonderful thing to see at that point. 
     So I really, really enjoyed putting that show together. Earlier I'd done an international show of kinetic sculpture, which I thought was a very important show, a historic show. And then the Funk Show. I didn't think it was a very important show, just fun to do. And then it became a history of Funk. 
 
Question: There are so many exhibitions in people's houses, in new art centers, in big art centers. It seems to me, however, that with most contemporary styles of painting, that billboards would be the most expressive and impressive venue for that art. Has that ever been considered?
 
PS:  Billboards? When my wife, Carol, and I were touring around overseas many years ago, people were saying, "On these roads here you see no billboards, but someday we'll have billboards like you have in America! [laughter] I think art is a little more intimate. But I don't know. The real experience of the work of art is an intimate experience. 
      I really object to people walking around in museums with a little wire plugged into their ears being told what to see, how one should see it, when to see it. [clapping, laughter] 
     I think one should see art on your own time with your own eyes, and it should be much more intimate than you could have with a billboard. It's a one-to-one relationship between the viewer and the work.
 
RW:  You've just reminded me of a story. I was at a winery, which I won't name. They have quite an art collection, and a beautiful big space where it's exhibited. It was totally empty, and there was one very large photo-real painting I was curious about. I walked up very close because I wanted to see if I could detect any brush strokes. I'm standing there and all of the sudden this voice comes, "STEP BACK FROM THE ART." [laughter] I looked around. The room was still empty. 
 
PS:  I want to touch it!
 
RW:  Right. Me, too. Can we call on you John, for your anecdote? 
 
John Toki steps forward and takes the microphone: I have a story about Peter Selz. I don't recall the exact year, but I remember what happened. I got a call from Gary Carson, who I think was Stephen DeStaebler's business manager. DeStaebler was being honored in Phoenix. Gary calls me and says, John, would you mind showing Peter around the Phoenix area? It was at least 110 degrees. Do you remember that, Peter? We had lunch.
 
PS:  Yes.
 
Toki: I said let's go to Scottsdale, and we went into a gallery. There were some Chihuly glass pieces there. So I learned something new about Peter. I thought Peter was this left-brain author, curator. I saw the other side. Peter goes up to these beautiful glass pieces. I remember the prices-I think they were about $30,000. Peter goes up to these glass pieces and starts to massage them. [laughter] The gallery people come running over: You can't do that! 
      They don't know who this man is, but I learned something about Peter-that he's an individual who really feels [laugher]. 
     So then we left, and I said how about going to the Phoenix Museum? So we get there and walk down the aisle. And there's Peter again, right up against the paintings, and he's touching them! What I learned about Peter is that he's a man who really tries to absorb, not only what he has seen, but the tactile qualities and the emotional qualities of what the works are trying to express. That's what has set Peter apart, I think, from so many other historians who may be a little too much left-brain. He's using both sides. [laughter, applause]
 
PS:  John, you know it's much more sexy when you can touch it [laughter].
 
RW:  There's time for maybe two more stories. 
 
Phil Linhares:  I don't think I've ever told you this, Peter. But you helped me dodge a bullet. Many years ago I was in New York, it was in the 70s when I was working at the San Francisco Art Institute, and I got a call from George Neubert who was the chief curator at the Oakland Museum. He says, Christo wants to see you. 
     So George gave me the number and I made an appointment and went up to their studio. I talked with Christo and Jean Claude, and they were planning the Running Fence Project. They talked with me about the possibility of helping them on the project with a variety of things, meeting them at the airport, and so on. They said, "It will just take a year. It should be an easy thing." 
     So I said, sure, it sounds interesting. I'll talk with my boss about it. I talked with Ted Elliot at the Art Institute and he said, yeah you could take this on, perhaps. Then a little later I heard from Christo that Peter was selected to do the job-and it took years and years and aggravations and all these meetings with farmers, and so on. I'm so relieved, Peter! Thank you so much! [laughter, applause]
 
PS:  You're right. And he was terrific to work with! It was one of the most enjoyable things I'd ever done. Yes. It was very difficult. We had to get fifty-one ranchers and farmers to agree to let us put a fence through their property. It took a lot of doing. Jean Claude was more attractive than me to talk with them [laugher], but we finally got it done. And when it was done, it was just a wonderful thing-how it went over the hills and all the way into the sea. 
     It was one of the most marvelous things to experience! It even had an environmental benefit because ever since then people respect the land even more and seem more aware of it. And Christo and I remain very, very close friends. I'm sorry to say that Jean Claude is gone. It's been over thirty years since then. He's one of the most marvelous artists alive! When you ask if great art is being done-yes it is! And Christo is one of the artists doing it. 
 
Audience: Peter I wonder what you thought of the unique art that was along Highway 80 for many years in the mudflats of Emeryville? 
 
PS:  Well, it was very nice to look at. But they were really a traffic hazard. Many people slowed down there on the freeway, and I was one of the people who slowed down. [laughter]
 
RW:  Thank you, Peter. It's been wonderful to have you here tonight.
 
Suzanne Tan:  Thank you Peter. Thank you Richard. That was marvelous. 
[standing ovation, extended and very warm applause]
 

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founder of works & conversations magazine.

 

A Man Impossible to Classify One of my first experiences in San Francisco was of being ... Read More 745216 views


The Dumpster       “We can’t use these. They look like ... Read More 156976 views


Cotton and Silk Vorbeck quilt, detail I’m working on the last panel of a pair of ... Read More 12204 views


Say Grace I am deeply delighted to live on a planet that is so big and varied that I can ... Read More 10658 views


A Conversation with Silas Hagerty I met Silas, a young man in his twenties from New England, at a ... Read More 78215 views


READ MORE >> 

A Man Impossible to Classify One of my first experiences in San Francisco was of being ... Read More 745216 views


Interview with Bill Douglass—Jimbo's Bop City and Other Tales At the time I'd first gotten to know the widely respected ... Read More 368103 views


Greeting the Light It was thanks to artist Walter Gabrielson that I was able to get ... Read More 309918 views


Interview: Gail Needleman Gail Needleman teaches music at Holy Names University in Oakland, California. ... Read More 193212 views


The Dumpster       “We can’t use these. They look like ... Read More 156976 views


READ MORE >>