Peter Selz on Rehistoricizing

Interview with Peter Selz by Professor Carlos Villa Via Phone, San Francisco, Ca July 2005
People present in interview: PS: Peter Selz CV: Carlos Villa CM: Charlie Marks

CV: Peter, your influence as a world class, world renowned art historian, art critic as art writer spans over sixty years and so in terms of re-historicizing abstract expressionism I know that you have been around when it was right at it’s infancy. Maybe I should just ask you, how long have you been working?

PS: I’ve been working since the late 1940’s, about 1950.

CV: Where you in New York?

PS: At that time I was in Chicago. I got my doctorate at the University of Chicago. And my first teaching job in Chicago was at a place called the Institute of Design, which was the new Bauhaus in Chicago. This art school is where I taught for six years, ’49 to ’55. That’s where I started out and, let me say this, at that particular point we looked at New York and we looked at abstract expressionism in New York and I was involved with artists, there were two groups of artists in Chicago and neither of them are interested in abstract expressionism. One of them were the Institute of Design, the new Bauhaus people, whose work was primarily concentrated on relating art to everyday life and to design, product design, visual design, photography and architecture. And on the other hand, the Chicago painters, whom SOMONE was the one who really stood out, who interested the post-abstract expressionists new kind of imagery. It was only after that, I went to California first, and got to New York in 1955. In 1958, by that time I knew I was interested in abstract expressionism. But then I was in the very center of what was going on.

CV: When and where did you see your first abstract expressionist work?

PS: I don’t know exactly when and where but I do know it was in the late 1940’s. I saw abstract expressionist paintings. There was a Mark Rothko show at the Art Institute of Chicago. We also saw works by Pollack and DeKooning. We saw them all the time in reproductions in the art magazines. I would go to New York regularly anyway, but by this time the work was already widely seen.

CV: How did you respond to the work? In an emotional way or in a way that was a little distanced?

PS: It was emotion and distance. I had written a dissertation on German Expressionism. And the book came out a little later. I was involved very much with it anyhow. I saw this work and I was very impressed. I remember in a private collection in Chicago where I saw the first paintings by, one painting, by mark Rothko. That impressed me obviously. Then I began to see DeKooning, Pollack’s and the rest. I think it was poetry. I saw these as very important.

CV: I noticed you have a Sam Francis right here. Does it still inform you?

PS: This painting, I’ve had it for thirty years and it informs me all the time. This is the marvelous thing about a good abstract painting, a good abstract painting. It looks different all the time. I think the really exciting thing about abstract paintings, those that are really good, is they vary in what they tell you and how you respond to them. I respond to this differently over the years and everybody who comes in here sees something different. I think this is the strength of it.

CV: That was your experience with abstract expressionism and certainly all of your other experiences have informed your work. What lessons, theories of abstract expressionism, I mean the theories of what you see, and your practice for instance, and your writing, what can all of this have for currently practicing artists for this generation and for succeeding generations?

PS: Well, in your statement here you said that American abstract expressionism became a dominant model for modernist art, making art international for more than a decade. That isn’t quite true. Because it is looking at it from an American point of view. The first show I did when I got into the Museum of Modern Art was the “New Images of Man” and I would say that the people that showed there not only had WORD coming from Chicago but European showed there, SOMONE, SOMEONE, Francis Bacon and many others were every bit as important as the abstract expressionists both in America and Europe. We’ve been trying to overshadow all this and hardly show it, and putting the Europeans down. Saying that abstract expressionists is Americas free expression and free personal expression, it’s individualism, with is a companion with capitalism as we explored it. There are different trends all the time. If you asked me what to say to young artists, what they can learn from abstract expressionism, I think what they can learn from both abstract expressionism and Europe, painters like Bacon, is a sense of integrity of artists who felt they did what they felt personally they wanted to do. Now, abstract expressionism were used by the powers that be to show for Americanism but this is not what the artists felt. DeKooning never saw his work used in that fashion and he was appalled when it happened. I know Rothko was. I think that kind of integrity. What I see now, I look at the work that is being showed now, the MFA shows all over the place and what you see in the galleries, the personal commitment you saw in abstract expressionism is lacking, it’s a joke. I see young artists making things, making gimmicks, using technology to show what technology can do. And that’s not very interesting as an experience. We know what technology can do, we ultimately know what it can do. Well, I can make a parallel to this. The political situation right now, here, this country has the weapons of the highest technology that anyone could ever dream of. Yet we are bogged down in Iraq because human influence is there, it shouldn’t be there because it’s based in lies, but that’s besides the point. The point I want to make is that the human hand, whether it’s shooting people or painting pictures, remains essential.

CV: The heart?

PS: Yes, the heart. The hand and the heart, the hand and the heart. The hand and the hear isn’t there in most of the work I see produced at this point. I see very little heart, very little emotion, emotion is put down, everything is cynical, everything is a joke, everything is a gimmick. DeKooning is not of great importance to artists now, either is Picasso, but Duchamp, it’s when Duchamp was doing his thing, he was brilliant, his mind working brilliantly. But now in the fifth generation it’s boring.

CV: I’m wondering, you were talking about the new figuration and you were talking about abstract expressionism. Now, what in the art history vernacular that just around, what bridges can you make with those two schools, what’s been left out?

PS: I don’t understand.

CV: We tend to factionalize all of these different schools. The part that you really respond to is the commitment and the heart and the integrity. Maybe you could talk about that a little bit more. Maybe you could give us a ‘for instance’.

PS: For instance, when Rothko, abstract expressionism is a big misnomer because Rothko was abstract expressionist and DeKooning was RARELY? abstract, so we have a bad WORD there. And these people, amazing, Rothko would work for years to get the kind of image he wanted to achieve. When he would paint his pictures his soul, his whole being went into his pictures. When he found out that he did this big street of murals to go on the SOMETHING building in New York. They commissioned a serious of painting from here, which they told him were going to be in a quiet room where people could, more or less like the chapel is now, they told him people could go away from the heavy burden of New York. When they found out that they lied and that they were going to be put as decoration in the Four Seasons restaurant he gave them their money back and later on donated the set to the Tate Gallery in London. This is an example of commitment, he was committed to making his painting, which were committed to him under false premises, and gave his life to making these paintings.

PS: Another example, during the Spanish Civil War Robert Motherwell was so moved by what was going on there and what the Fascists were doing to the Spanish Republic that he made the Elegy to the Spanish Republic and he made it again and again and again and poured his heart into his theme. All these people, they were crazy, they took risks. I think that’s why many of them, Pollack and Rothko and David Smith came to an early bad ending. Rothko killed himself. Of course Pollack and David Smith were getting killed in car accidents that could have been avoided. These people were taking risks and going through unexplored territory. And when you really look at this work, at the best work, that this is what they were doing. What can young artists learn from that? The idea that if you don’t take the kind of risks, the kind of commitment that it takes to be an artist, then there are so many other things that you can do with your life. Maybe this isn’t necessary and you could make a much better living. Now you read about the stars and how an artist can make a killing very, very quickly. Well, that’s only very few and mostly because they are pushed into things by dealers.

CV: Your activity of late, I would say in the late seven to eight years, I’m just being very general, you’ve pretty much picked a path in which you started looking at the work of artists of color and I know that in your travels you started seeing work by women and I’m wondering what they’ve been saying about the cannon. Which is that kind of un-written laws that exclude, that has excluded artists of color and also women. I was just wondering what you’ve been thinking about that in the past 7 or 8 years.

PS: Well I must say that, it’s time for me to answer that. I don’t believe that, maybe I should, I’ve been looking for work because it was done by artists of color or women. I’ll give you one example; the phone call right now is because they are having a celebration for the re-install, the Romare Bearden mural has come back to Berkeley City Hall. And they are celebrating after it has toured Washington, and the Whitney in New York and everything else, and the big retrospective, the great work. I was responsible for having this mural painted by Romare Bearden at Berkeley City Hall. My main motive for having this done was because he was a very, very good artist. He was a wonderful artist. The fact that he was a black artist, he didn’t look very black, but the fact that he was a black artist was an additional motive. But the main motive why I suggested it was, here is an artist that I admired enormously and I thought it would be wonderful to give him the chance to paint a mural. Now the word quality has become a bad word in its current usage. But for me that was always the main word. Now I just finished, working on it for the last three years, doing a large book on political art focusing in California. There is a big section of artists of color, of all color, there’s a Native American section, an Asian section, an African American section, et cetera. Then there is a big section on gender section, on feminist art, gay art and even lesbian art but in all these cases I try to select things that I thought had quality. Whether it is performances or a photograph or painting.

CV: So your actions speak louder than words.

PS: Alright. I look for good things. I’ve always, a book of mine was published by Cambridge University Press and they’re called “Beyond the Mainstream”. I was always interested, in most of my work, in finding artists who were not a part of the mainstream. Years ago in the1960’s when nobody looked at art from Eastern Europe, I did a SOMETHING Polish paintings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York of all places. Because nobody in America had looked at the art of Eastern Europe, they all thought it was just bad art but damn good art was being done there. All along, I did a Mark Rothko show, I did a Sam Francis book, but most of what I’ve paid attention to has been out of the mainstream. And now frequently there are women and artists of color included.

CV: What can I say or what can I ask you that you haven’t hit on? Peter, what work are you doing now?

PS: I finished this book, this book will be out in the fall, I just mentioned that. The main thing I’m doing done, it’s done before, but I’m writing an essay on Terence Gross for a show that’s going on in New York. As I mentioned I’m always interested in political work but the bit about this show is that the American people have not seen the work that Terence Gross did with people like Brice in stage design. I’m writing about that. And I’m curating a big show of the art of early SOMEONE, who’s been overlooked in America. He’s famous in New York. Beautiful, it’s probably going to be a big show opening, depends on when it leaves the Academy in a few years. Of course SOMEONE has been living in Paris since the Vietnam War really, more or less. He was SOMETHING, but I’ve been working back and forth with him on that show. There are a few other things.

CV: Great.

PS: Anything for you, Carlos Villa.