Peter Selz, an Art Museum Force on Two Coasts, Dies at 100


Peter Selz, who as a leading curator at the Museum of Modern Art staged wide-ranging exhibitions of Mark Rothko’s paintings and Auguste Rodin’s sculptures before leaving to become the founding director of the University Art Museum, Berkeley, died on June 21 in Albany, Calif. He was 100.

His daughter Gabrielle Selz confirmed the death, at an assisted living facility. He had lived in a Modernist house in Berkeley for more than 50 years before recently moving to nearby Albany.

Mr. Selz, a German-born bon vivant whose guests at his Manhattan apartment often included the artists Franz Kline, Helen Frankenthaler and her husband, Robert Motherwell, as well as Rothko, joined MoMA in 1958 as its curator of painting and sculpture exhibitions, one of the most prestigious positions in the art world.

“New Images of Man” (1959), Mr. Selz’s first major show at MoMA, was a haunting, largely despairing survey of the human image through paintings and sculptures by 23 American and European artists, including Francis Bacon, Jackson Pollock, Jean Dubuffet and Alberto Giacometti.

When he announced the show, Mr. Selz described its 104 postwar works as “effigies of the disquiet man.”

The reviews were mixed, which Mr. Selz attributed largely to the exhibition’s devotion to figurative works and not to Abstract Expressionism, the popular movement of the era. But in her review in The New York Times, the critic Aline B. Saarinen wrote that many of the paintings and sculptures were “powerful mirrors of some of the significant aspects of the human condition in our time.”

Indeed, his daughter said in a phone interview: “He would say that everything — a somber painting by Rothko or a Rodin sculpture — was about the human condition. My dad responded to emotion.”

Two years later, Mr. Selz assembled the largest retrospective, to date, of Rothko’s Abstract Expressionist paintings and murals: large rectangles floating in undefined, brilliantly hued spaces. Mr. Selz called them “mirrors to our fantasy.”

He recalled breaking with curatorial practice at MoMA when, instead of not consulting a living artist about an exhibition, he worked jointly with Rothko to choose the paintings in the show and how to hang them.

“He knew exactly how he wanted it to be seen,” Mr. Selz said in an interview in 2008 with the art website works & conversations, “which was very low to the ground with a minimum of light and in small spaces.”

In 1963, Mr. Selz organized a MoMA exhibition of more than 100 Rodin sculptures, including “The Thinker” and “The Kiss.” Though American museums had Rodin works on view, this was the first show in the United States devoted solely to them, 46 years after the artist’s death.

Hans Peter Selz was born on March 27, 1919, to a prosperous Jewish family in Munich, Germany. His father, Eugen, was an ophthalmologist, and his mother, Edith (Drey) Selz, was a homemaker.

His maternal grandfather, an art dealer, introduced Peter to art, taking him to local museums and galleries.

“When he saw my response, he took me almost every week,” Mr. Selz said in an interview for the book “Peter Selz: Sketches of a Life in Art” (2012), by Paul J. Karlstrom.

At 15, Peter glimpsed some modern German art at an odd venue: a Munich police station, where he saw paintings by Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Max Beckmann — a small sampling of the 20,000 works that the Nazis, then newly in power, would remove from state museums and declare degenerate art.

As the Nazis’ persecution of Jews increased, including measures that forced Dr. Selz to treat only Jewish patients, Peter left Germany in 1936 on his own and went to America through the help of family members who owned the Rheingold brewery in Brooklyn.

After attending high school and then Columbia University for a year, he went to work at the brewery scrubbing beer vats to help support his parents, who had arrived with his brother Edgar in 1940. (Peter also had a half brother.)

While miserable at the brewery — he was beaten by German-American co-workers, who were Nazi sympathizers — he furthered his art education by spending time in Manhattan with Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer and art gallery owner, who was a distant relative.

“He sort of took me on and showed me what modern art was about,” Mr. Selz said.

Mr. Selz served in the Army infantry and the Office of Strategic Services, the United States’ wartime intelligence agency, before enrolling in the University of Chicago, where he took an accelerated course of studies on the G.I. Bill that allowed him to bypass undergraduate work. There, he earned a master’s in art history and a Ph.D in modern art history.

Mr. Selz later turned his doctoral dissertation into a book, “German Expressionist Painting” (1957). By then he had been chairman of the art department at Pomona College, near Los Angeles, since 1955. The book’s publication coincided with an exhibition on German Expressionism that he organized at the college. He remained there until MoMA hired him.

Mr. Selz acknowledged that a single-minded dedication to his career had made his family life secondary.

“The art on the walls and the artists were the most important things in his life,” said Ms. Selz, who wrote “Unstill Life” (2014), a memoir about living with her father and mother, Thalia Selz, a short-story writer and editor. “The way I got his approval and attention — when he wanted to focus on me — was to be really knowledgeable about art, from a really young age.” Her parents divorced in 1965.

Mr. Selz left MoMA in late 1964 to oversee the University Art Museum at Berkeley, then in its planning stages. It opened in 1970.

While there, he built up the university’s art collection substantially, focusing on contemporary and old masters works; helped start its Pacific Film Archive; and organized a major exhibition of idiosyncratic, cartoonish, vulgar Funk art from Bay Area artists in 1967.

He resigned in 1973 as director of the museum (now called the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive), but continued to teach modern art at the university until he retired in 1988.

While still teaching at Berkeley Mr. Selz was the project director of “Running Fence,” a 24½-mile-long fabric fence created by the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, his wife, in Northern California and completed in 1976.

In retirement, Mr. Selz organized exhibitions and wrote books, including “Art of Engagement: Visual Politics in California and Beyond” (2006).

In addition to his daughter Gabrielle, Mr. Selz is survived by his wife, Carol Schemmerling; another daughter, Tanya Selz; his stepdaughters, Mia Baldwin and Kryssa Schemmerling; four grandchildren; and one great-grandson. In addition to his marriage to Thalia (Cheronis) Selz, three other marriages ended in divorce.

Mr. Selz’s most unusual exhibition at MoMA presented a bizarre hunk of kinetic art: the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely’s “Homage to New York” (1960), a white-painted machine built from castoffs like bicycle wheels a piano, a weather balloon, metal drums and a bathtub.

Powered by motors, “Homage” sawed and hammered itself to smithereens before about 200 guests in the museum’s sculpture garden. But when fire rose from the piano, as planned, its automatic extinguisher failed, and an on-duty firefighter doused it.

“Mr. Tinguely makes fools of machines,” the critic John Canaday wrote in The New York Times, “while the rest of mankind supinely permits machines to make fools of them.”

At a party later that night at the house of Tinguely’s dealer, Mr. Selz said that his bosses would not talk to him because of the fire.

“You see, they had a reason to be sensitive about fires because the year I got to MoMA, they did have a fire that singed a Monet, so it was a real fear,” he told the Brooklyn Rail, an arts and politics magazine, in 2011. “However, soon they all realized that it was a good thing for the MoMA to do, and it was all fine.”

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