Monday, August 8, 2011

Curatorial Flashbacks #15: Early Daze

 By Carl Belz

My first encounter with the museum profession had me writing a few paragraphs for the brochure of a modest Man Ray exhibition at the Princeton University Art Museum in the spring of 1963. I’d earned my doctorate earlier that year with a dissertation on Man Ray’s contribution to Dada and Surrealism and, armed with a BA, MFA and PhD, all from Princeton, I was about to set off to my first teaching job, at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. 

I came upon Man Ray through surveys of Dada and Surrealism I read while preparing for my qualifying examinations during spring semester 1962. He was mentioned chiefly as the lone American participant in those international movements, initially in New York, where he became friends with Marcel Duchamp following the 1913 Armory Show, and then in Paris, where he moved in 1921; and he was invariably represented by the two readymade objects that remain most closely associated with his signature: the flatiron with the nails on its surface—called “The Gift”—and the metronome with its attached photo of a human eye—called “Indestructible Object.” On the lookout for a dissertation topic throughout that semester, I began to think Man Ray might be my ticket, and I was encouraged to pursue that possibility when mentor Robert Rosenblum agreed to be my adviser on the project.
 Digesting the scant literature on Man Ray that existed in 1962 required little time and effort but didn’t take me very far toward building a thesis. For that, I needed primary source material, which meant going to Paris for a month, visiting with Man Ray at his studio three or four times a week, seeing work both old and new, talking at length with him about his art and artistic thought, collecting and notating images of paintings, drawings and objects provided by the Man himself and, for much of the rest of the time, making copious notes for future reference. Throughout the process, Man Ray was fully and wonderfully accommodating. Along with all of the above, he sort of took me under his personal wing, loaning me old exhibition announcements and brochures to study, occasionally inviting me to accompany him on errands around town—we ran into Yves Klein one morning—taking me to lunch a few times and, shortly before I was scheduled to return home, showing me a little snapshot that I was unaware he’d taken in which I could be seen sitting on a couch in his studio, surrounded by objects of his making, among them the memorably cosmic painting of a woman’s lips called “Observatory Time, The Lovers” and, nearby, his early mobile comprised of readymade coat hangers called “Obstruction.” I naturally coveted the photograph to document my experience but, unable to summon the audacity to ask for it, I was fully content to return home with its memory—along with what I felt were the makings of a doctoral dissertation.
Man Ray, Observatory Time, The Lovers, Oil on canvas, 1936.
Man Ray, Obstruction, 1961 (replica of the 1920 original), Mixed media, Dimensions variable.
Which I spent the next several months writing, rewriting and shaping into a final presentation and then readying myself for its defense. All went well, and I was especially buoyed one day toward the end of the process—which had begun to feel like a necessary rite of passage that tested not only merit but endurance as well—when I received in the mail the little photograph of myself, signed by the master, that you see reproduced here. I was momentarily baffled in not knowing where the image had come from, but I quickly remembered the studio snapshot and realized Man Ray had edited out all but a tiny fraction of the information contained in the original photograph. Wow! How could he think to do that? I was astonished by his inspiration, by the magic he’d performed, and I was in turn reminded of why I’d gone to graduate school in the first place—to learn about art’s past and the wonders of its achievement. Further, and equally important, the photograph reminded me that there were real artists out there beyond the confines of Princeton’s ivory towers, artists living lives in the here and now, all the time making new stuff that would become art’s new history. Thus did the spell over my cloistered graduate school existence begin to dissolve—and the real world begin to beckon.
Photograph of Carl Belz by Man Ray, Paris, 1962, 5-1/2 by 3-1/2 inches
Getting the PhD sounds like a smooth ride, but the back story suggests otherwise—how I was often in the dark about what I was doing during both my undergraduate and graduate years, which was mostly following my intuitions, winging it, chasing a dream of one sort or another.

For instance, I didn’t go to Princeton to prepare for advanced study in the history of art, I went to Princeton to play ball and prepare for medical school. And I did pretty well on both fronts. I was a career .300 hitter in baseball, while in basketball I helped lead our freshman team to an undefeated season (freshmen weren’t permitted to play varsity in those days), averaged double-doubles (points and rebounds) for my three-year varsity career, shot my way into the elite 1,000 point club, set that single game rebounding record I told you about in an earlier Flashback, was twice named to the starting five of the All-Ivy team, captained Princeton to a share—with Dartmouth—of the Ivy League championship in my senior year, and only once got ejected from a game (against Harvard, for fighting, grrr). In the classroom, I aced organic chemistry in my sophomore year, then became a biology major, was admitted to medical schools at Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania in the spring of my senior year, decided on Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, and set my sights on moving to New York.
The Princeton varsity basketball team (minus one) for the 1956-57 season, with Carl Belz 3rd from the left, Sports Illustrated, December 8, 1997.
But that plan didn’t materialize, as I got seriously distracted, and eventually redirected, by art and art history. I took a drawing course with artist-in-residence Stephen Greene—he also taught a painting course, and that was the extent of art practice available at Princeton in those days, when studying art only meant studying art history—and, corny as it sounds, it turned out to be a life changing experience. While I learned that I couldn’t make particularly good drawings, I nonetheless learned awe and humility in the face of those who could, and I wanted increasingly to know more about them. So I used the handful of electives available to me in my senior year to take as much art history as I could, I became thrilled and consumed by the new world I’d discovered, and, late in the game—but not too late—I dared myself by submitting an application to stay on and pursue an advanced degree in Princeton’s Department of Art and Archaeology. Which I did.

Little did I know what I was getting into. I thought graduate study brought together a small group of people who, like me, had been blown away by art and would be spending large chunks of time talking about how great Titian and Velasquez and Pollock were. No. We were not there to learn and discuss the history of art per se—it was assumed we had already done that as undergraduates and needed only to fill in a course here and there to complete our introduction to the spectrum of western art history—we were there to learn the methods of the art historical discipline via encounters with the scholarship in which those methods were embodied. Accordingly, instead of Titian, Velasquez, and Pollock, our role models became individuals like Alois Riegl, Erwin Panofsky, and Meyer Shapiro. It took me most of my first year to figure that out, as my grades sadly attested. I got a mere “pass” in my graduate seminars, adding up to an implicit suggestion that I think twice about continuing in the program. Fortunately, I was still too naïve to read that writing on the wall.

I was, however, fully able to grasp what the writing said about the financial situation I would face in my second year, when my fellowship would be reduced to tuition alone—it said I’d better find work pronto! That’s when my undergraduate experiences began to pay off. Based on the lab skills I’d learned in science courses, I landed a job with a small chemical research firm in town, which I worked fulltime during the summer of 1960 and was able to continue on a part time basis once the academic calendar resumed in the fall. By that time, I’d also earned a spot playing professional basketball on Saturday and Sunday nights—and earning $50 a game—for the Scranton Miners of the Eastern Basketball League, which served as a breeding ground for NBA hopefuls at a time when the NBA consisted of only eight teams. The EBL was also a haven for a number of players who had been banned from playing in the NBA because of their participation in the game-fixing scandals that had rocked college basketball in 1951, players who performed at the very highest level of the game as it was played at that time, players like the legendary Bill Spivey, Jack Molinas, and Sherman White, players way better than me but against whom I was able to hold my own—thus proving to myself that I was more than just a hotshot in the small world of Ivy hoops. 

My seminar grades improved with each semester as I learned more about why I was where I was and what I was supposed to be doing there. Accordingly, my confidence rose, and my fellowship stipend was restored to a respectable level. By the time of the Man Ray exhibition, I’d been at Princeton for eight years, and I was more than ready to move on. Which I did, holding academic positions at a couple of places starting with UMass, in the process casting about intellectually while mostly doing teaching and writing—some art criticism, some art history, even a history of rock music published by Oxford University Press—until 1974 when, instead of tenure, I was offered the directorship of the Rose Art Museum. I knew virtually nothing about running a museum—museology didn’t even exist when I was in school—so I learned on the job and, as I did, it gradually dawned on me that I’d absorbed aspects critical to my new position when I was still at Princeton. Through my dissertation project, I had been introduced to working with living artists, I got a taste of how much I enjoyed and found meaning in that, and I subsequently learned I was pretty good at it and that it was central to my personal and professional identity. From its opening in 1961, the Rose Art Museum was known as a museum of the art of our time, of living art, and I made it even more so by emphasizing the artists who made that art. So it came to be that I was in a productive place, and an especially right place for me, which, for part of me, was enormously satisfying, though another part of me felt as though I had spent more than a decade circling back to where I started. So I wondered: How come it had taken me so long to figure my self out, and how long would it take to know more fully my self in each moment of the ongoing present.

But those are the questions we all live with, aren’t they, the questions that signal our humanness in modern experience, the questions that our modern, living art is made to lay bare and address? And because our selves are ever evolving via new encounters with one another and with our shared world, those are the questions we’ll continue to ask, knowing that they’ll take as long to answer as they take—as any artist will tell you.  

Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University.


Kyle Gallup said...

Carl, WOW!!!What a beautiful and interesting essay on your early years studying at Princeton and meeting Man Ray. Thank you for sharing your memories, thoughts, and images. Now I must go back and read it again. Double pleasure. Cheers!

Sue Post said...

Your passion for everything you become involved with radiates brilliantly from these flashbacks. What a gift! I would love to read your thoughts on the denouement at the Rose, now that the plaintiffs have prevailed.

Deborah Barlow said...

There is no one else I know who could tell a story like this. And the photos are terrific. What a life you have lived. I know there are more tales to tell and hope you will pen them for us all. Thanks for this.

Maxiine Yalovitz-Blankenship said...

Oh! Wonderful, wonderful ...and yet again, wonderful!

Maxine (Yalovitz-Blankenship)

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Carl. An amazing account of your life in art and sport. Have you seen the Man Ray/Lee Miller exhibit at BC Yet? Want to meet ther this week-end?

Joey Vaughan "World Blues Attack" said...

Hi Carl! Fantastic stuff! Wow!!!!!! Joey Vaughan "World Blues Attack"

Tamara Krendel said...

What a pleasure to read this vibrant writing about your Princeton daze and the various paths you could take/took before falling in love with art and how it ultmately became intimately integrated into your life with your unique perspective, openess and active involvement with living artists through the Rose and beyond - I was very moved by how such a larger than life - a mythic figure (as indeed you are) could end your musings about college daze with such an open, sincere and humble attitude - seeing each moment - day as a kind of adventure - worthwhile not just because of who you are - and have become - but because you look forward to days unfolding because of who you might meet and how enriching these experiences of can be - your humility and humanity very inspiring moving and inspiring- (and of course this quality - this openess is part of your mythos (greatness as a human being). In short- as i tend to reel out all good-(great)things. What a sincere pleasure to read and vicariously share your adventure(s)! -Tamara Krendel