Documentary looks at the heavies of hipster art

  • By Robert Horton / Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, March 2, 2006 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Although it seems to split its attention between cultural survey and biography, “Who Gets to Call it Art?” turns out to be a remarkably entertaining documentary film. It also has the virtue of speed and brevity: There isn’t a dull moment in its 80-minute running time.

Art history: A breezy, rapid look at the New York art world of the 1950s-60s, specifically revolving around curator Henry Geldzahler, who championed all manner of modern artists. Good archival footage and a great soundtrack make this fun.

Rated: Not rated; probably PG-13 for subject matter

Now showing: Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave., Seattle; 206-329-2629;

The cultural moment it portrays is the New York art world of the 1950s and ’60s, which is illuminated in cogent interviews and some terrific archival footage. The biographical element looks at one Henry Geldzahler, a museum curator, art historian and all-around flamboyant enthusiast.

Geldzahler, who died in 1994, was at the center of contemporary art of the era. Oddly enough, given his championing of hipster art, he was employed throughout the 1960s by the staid Metropolitan Museum. That didn’t stop him from participating in Andy Warhol’s Factory shindigs or Claes Oldenburg’s “happenings.”

He never met a camera he couldn’t pose for, and he had a habit of asking artists to paint his picture, which makes Geldzahler a suitably colorful subject for biography. He had a face like the young Charles Laughton – beefy, drooping, balding – and clear feelings about what he liked and hated.

Beyond this, the film is a breezy primer on American art. Old and new interviews with heavyweights of the era provide the first-hand tang of what the scene was all about. These include Frank Stella, Jasper Johns and David Hockney, all of whom knew Geldzahler well.

We see plenty of Andy Warhol, too, in old footage; he and Geldzahler supposedly talked on the telephone twice a day for seven years during the 1960s. We also get a clip from Warhol’s 90-minute film of Geldzahler smoking a cigar. That’s probably enough to get the gist of it.

Director Peter Rosen brings wit to his approach, but he doesn’t undercut his subject (even when including a great TV commercial for Braniff Airlines, featuring Warhol and boxer Sonny Liston). Also – and this is an important part of the movie’s pulse – we hear a terrific soundtrack of music, including art-rock, classical and pop. Selections include music by the Velvet Underground (a Warhol concoction), CAN and Eric Dolphy.

The film climaxes with Geldzahler’s sprawling, celebrated show at the Met on American art from 1940-70, which caused a stir at the time as much for which artists were left out as which were included.

You could say the same about this film. It leaves out a great deal, it’s totally New York-obsessed, and there’s a lot about Geldzahler that remains undescribed. But as a quick hit of the art world, it’s awfully fun.

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