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Peter Selz. Courtesy: BAMPFA.
Peter Selz. Courtesy: BAMPFA.

Peter Selz (1919–2019)

Celebrated scholar, art educator, and curator Peter Selz, the founding director of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) at the University of California, Berkeley, died on Friday, June 21. He was one hundred years old. His passing was announced by his daughter Gabrielle Selz.

“Peter Selz was a remarkable individual whose contributions to BAMPFA, UC Berkeley, and the broader art world are too numerous to count,” Lawrence Rinder, BAMPFA’s current director and chief curator, said in a statement. “Over the course of his tenure as our founding director, Peter transformed BAMPFA from a modest university art collection into the internationally renowned art and film institution it is today. Generations of Bay Area art lovers have benefited from his insight, knowledge, independence, and boundless energy, and his legacy will reverberate across and beyond our museum for decades to come.”

Born in Munich on March 27, 1919 to Jewish parents, Selz fled Nazi Germany and resettled in the United States in 1936. He served in the US military and studied at the University of Chicago and the École du Louvre in Paris before he joined the Museum of Modern Art in New York as curator of painting and sculpture in 1958. During his tenure at the institution, Selz organized major exhibitions, including midcareer surveys of Jean Dubuffet and Alberto Giacometti, thematic shows such as “New Images of Man,” and Auguste Rodin’s first US retrospective; developed close friendships with artists such as Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning; and commissioned important works such as Swiss artist Jean Tinguely’s Homage to New York, 1960.

In a press release for the kinetic structure’s one-time-only performance—it was designed to self-destruct and scheduled to do so in front of an audience of more than two hundred people on March 18, 1960—Selz said: “Jean Tinguely’s experiments are works of art in which time, movement, and gesture are demonstrated—not merely evoked. . . . Tinguely uses machines to show movement, but he is fully aware that machines are no more permanent than life itself. . . . He has conceived and built this sculpture and is eager to witness its loss so that we may witness its choreography.”

In 1965, Selz headed to California, where he served as a professor at UC Berkeley and accepted an invitation to helm the university’s art museum. The institution had just received a transformative gift—fifty works by Hans Hofmann. Selz was responsible for mapping out the new museum’s future. Under his leadership, its collection more than doubled in size, architect Mario Ciampi was tapped to design its original modernist building, and the Pacific Film Archive was formed. Selz also became known for organizing exhibitions that went against current trends—he curated shows that celebrated the countercultural Funk art movement and championed figurative artists at a time when Pop and Minimalist artists were making waves.

Selz also authored dozens of books and exhibition catalogues on the work of artists such as Sam Francis and Ferdinand Hodler and on topics such as German and Austrian Expressionism and was a West Coast correspondent for Art in America. Selz resigned as director in 1973 but continued to teach at UC Berkeley for more than a decade after—he was named professor emeritus in 1988. He remained active in the Bay Area art scene, curating shows and serving as project director of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s 24.5-mile-long artwork Running Fence, which crossed the Marin County hills and was completed in 1976. Selz’s many accomplishments are recounted in the book Peter Selz: Sketches of a Life in Art (2012) by Paul J. Karlstrom.