Henry Geldzahler (1935-1994) was a contemporary art curator and critic from Belgium. He was certainly the most credentialed of Andy Warhol’s inner circle as far as official institutional appointments go. Not only was he once the director of the visual arts program for the National Endowment of the Arts–the first one, in fact–and US commissioner to the Venice Bienalle, the city’s famous arts organization and exhibition, he also served as the Commissioner of Cultural Affairs for New York City under Mayor Ed Koch in the late 1970s. In-between those positions, he acted as curator to such places as the Met (namely its American and Contemporary Art), the MoMA, and the Dia Art Foundation, with tenures upwards of 18 years.
Henry Geldzahler was born in Antwerp but his family escaped to the United States after the German occupation of Belgium in the early days of World War II. They ended up in New York, and Henry would go on to study at both Yale and Harvard, though not completing his graduate studies at the latter to go join the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While at the Met, he would conduct the New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970 exhibit in 1969, including major figures in the Abstract Expressionist and Pop Art scenes; Andy Warhol was one of these figures.
Henry Geldzahler and Warhol’s relationship went back to the early 60s, however, having been introduced by associate director of the Leo Castelli gallery, Ivan Karp. They became good friends, communicating by phone almost daily: “Henry was a scholar who understood the past, but he also understood how to use the past to look at the future. Right away we became five-hours-a-day-on-the-phone-see-you-for-lunch-quick-turn-on-the-‘Tonight-Show’-friends,” Warhol once said. Warhol even incorporated Geldzahler in some of his filmmaking, dedicating a 3-minute film that bore his name reportedly using leftover film from his iconic Empire. He pointed a camera at Geldzahler while he sat on a couch smoking a cigar, and walked away.
Geldzahler is also credited with giving Warhol the idea for his Death and Disaster series: “We were having lunch one day in the summer at Serendipity on East 60th Street and [Geldzahler] laid the Daily News out on the table,” Warhol recalled. “The headline was ‘129 Die in Jet.’ And that’s what started me on the death series. The Car Crashes, the Disasters, the Electric Chairs…”
By the mid-to-late 60s, the men’s friendship would cool, a likely combination of domestic issues on the part of Geldzahler, and Warhol’s increasing unhappiness with what he considered neglect from the former when his art wasn’t chosen for certain high-profile shows. As Warhol’s diary can attest, the two would continue to see each other amongst the high echelons of New York’s art elites and hoi oligoi, but in a hot-and-cold fashion, with Warhol being equally happy and incensed to see Geldzahler.
Henry Geldzahler’s legacy is cemented for his influence over the American art scene at the highest levels. Not only being a masterful curator, he also wrote several books covering artists such as Charles Bell, Keith Haring, and of course, Andy Warhol. He died at his Southampton, Long Island home at age 59 from liver cancer on August 16, 1994.