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.
|Man Ray, Observatory Time, The Lovers, Oil on canvas, 1936.
|Man Ray, Obstruction, 1961 (replica of the 1920 original), Mixed media, Dimensions variable.
|Photograph of Carl Belz by Man Ray, Paris, 1962, 5-1/2 by 3-1/2 inches
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.
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.