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If you’ve never heard of Andy Warhol or Pop Art, then you can skip Who Gets to Call it Art? and resume whatever it is you are doing to pass the time. On the other hand, if you have heard of Andy or Pop Art and have wondered along with the film’s title “Hey, what gives? Who gets to call that art?”, then this movie is worth a viewing.

Kaleidoscopic Biography

The movie is about both Henry and the art scene in New York City after World War II
The movie is about both Henry and the art scene in New York City after World War II

Who Gets to Call it Art? is a busy little documentary about the New York City art scene in the 1960s. It’s actually billed as a film about a man named Henry Geldzahler who was a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art . He gained some fame and notoriety for his 1969-70 landmark exhibition at the Met titled “New York Painting and Sculpture from 1940 to 1970.” In fact Who Gets to Call it Art? is really about both Henry (we learn that he just wanted to be called “Henry”) and the art scene in New York City after World War II. As a consequence, the film is a little unfocused... well, it’s very unfocused... OK, it’s kaleidoscopic. This makes for a bad biography but a fun film to watch.

There are some really nice interviews of artists past and present and some nifty archival footage. There are fleeting glimpses of just about every significant American artist, painting, and sculpture from the last 50 years. There are thumbnail descriptions of the theory behind the art (but no in-depth explanations). But then remember the film is supposed to be about Henry Geldzahler. Therefore there is some interesting home movie footage of Henry at (I presume) a seder at home and graduating from Harvard.

Post-WWII NYC-USA

New York City was a heady place to be in 1960, especially if you were in any way connected to the art world. To understand the significance of that time and place you may need some back-story. To keep things simple, when I say “art” I mean only painting and sculpture, and when I say “contemporary” it will be only stuff made in NYC-USA after WW II. That may be unfair for ceramists from Los Angles, but that’s the way it is.

Contemporary art begins with a group of New York City painters called the Abstract Expressionists who literally came out of the woodwork in the 1940s with a brand new painting style and philosophy. It’s the point in time when the center of the art world moved from Paris and Europe to the USA and NYC. As WWII left America the most powerful country in the world and NYC was its effective capital, that was not surprising. Things went along pretty smoothly for the next 15 years. The art world’s symbiotic ecology was built up among its three pillars: The Galleries, The Critics and The Museums. The artists were suitably tormented, the critics busy theorizing and the public appropriately perplexed; everybody was happy.

Around 1960 a little whirlwind got started that would become a hurricane named Pop Art. At the center of that storm was Henry.

Quick Art History

Seen in the Big Picture World of NFL football and Hollywood divorces — the things that really get the public’s attention — it was a tempest in a teapot. But in the contemporary art world, it was Krakatoa all over again. And here the director of Who Gets to Call it Art?, Peter Rosen, has a problem. How to make a documentary that folks from outside the cloistered ivory tower of fine art can enjoy, or even understand?

You’ve got to do some quick art history which is going to be at best cursory — essentially what I’m doing right now. And because this is supposed to be a film about the Geldzehler-Pop Art connection, it is going to be just a bit dismissive of Abstract Expressionism. Right out of the chute, you’ve started stepping on sensitive aesthetic toes. ( If you are interested in hearing the other side of the story in great detail, go read Stevens and Swan’s encyclopedic “deKooning: An American Master.”)

Rise and Fall of Pop Art

Henry is at the center of Pop Art but was he The Center? Who Gets to Call it Art? may suggest so, but it’s not clear. He is certainly an important piece of the puzzle, but Pop Art was not his creation alone, a point that the film also makes. I think this ambiguity troubles the film because at times Henery’s story gets lost in the telling of the story of Pop Art. And when you tell the story of Pop Art, Andy Warhol appears. Warhol is the perfect poster boy for Pop Art with his ironic indifference to public acclaim and his mass media art — things like boxes made up to look like cases of Brillo soap and prints of giant Campbell’s soup cans. Henry and Andy are good friends, a relationship that benefits both men’s careers. But to say that they are in it for the money is too crass and Who Gets to Call it Art?

does a good job of conveying the lighthearted energy that fueled Pop Art, especially after the somber angst of Abstract Expressionism. So is Who Gets to Call it Art? the Henry and Andy Story? Yes and no. You can’t tell the story of contemporary art with out including Pop Art and you can’t tell the story of Pop Art with out including Warhol, but Andy isn’t the sum of contemporary art. Henry on the other hand shows up consistently in the NYC art scene (besides Pop Art there is also Field Painting and Minimalism), and so he is an attractive starting point for a survey of contemporary art.

There is one final yet subtle point to Who Gets to Call it Art? and that is by letting Pop Art into the Met, Henry made it a thing that had happened, not a thing that was happening. At that point, Pop Art became a commodity like pork bellies or corn futures, and out came the money men. The life and spontaneity of the movement was gone.

I can recommend Who Gets to Call it Art? as a nice, if somewhat scattered, overview of the last Big Moment in the art world. We haven’t seen one like it since. Next time you see an Warhol soup can or print of Marilyn Monroe, you too can smile the wry smile of the educated art viewer, despite being as confused as the rest of us about what it all means. I think that counts for something.

Elsewhere on Movie Habit, I have reviewed Sunday Driver, a film about a lowrider car club out of Compton California named “The Majestics”. Both films have been released as DVDs in the same month by Palm Pictures, and what a great pair they make. From opposite ends of the geographic and cultural spectrums you have documentaries of American artists at work. Watch them as a double feature and get a new perspective on what it means to be an artist.

DVD Extras

The bonus features are mostly additional footage of artist interviews. If you just can’t get enough of Frank Stella, David Hockney and John Chamberlain then this is hot stuff. There is also Oldneburg’s filmed “happening,” Fotodeath, which is hard to get anywhere else. And there is an audio track of a Q&A at a screening of Who Gets to Call it Art? which is interesting re: “what is the film is about?”

Picture and Sound

In this case, picture quality can be measured by how good the reproductions of the paintings look, a good job for video. However, I’m not a fan of the moving camera during an interview, so that was a distraction.

At times the soundtrack is more interesting than the images. Overall Who Gets to Call it Art? solidly uses period music. Considering how much time is spent with Warhol, I could have used more Velvet Underground.

How to Use this DVD

Watch it straight through without worrying about the details and enjoy the ride. For a curious diversion, Fotodeath will leave you scratching your head and wondering, who got to call that art?