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Selz, Peter H.

    Full Name: Selz, Peter H.

    Other Names:

    • Peter Selz

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1919

    Place Born: Munich, Bavaria, Germany

    Home Country/ies: Germany

    Subject Area(s): Expressionist (style), German (culture, style, period), and German Expressionist (movement)

    Institution(s): Museum of Modern Art


    Art historian of German Expressionism and Professor of Art History, University of California, Berkeley,1965-1988. Selz was the son of Eugene Selz and Edith Drey (Selz). Of Jewish parentage, he fled Nazi Germany with his family arriving in the United States in 1936. Selz attended Columbia University for the 1937-38 year. He also established a connection with Alfred Stieglitz, a distant relative, who introduced him to many New York and European expatriate artists. During World War II, he served in the U.S. Army in Office of Strategic Services from 1941 until 1946. He became a naturalized citizen in 1942. After the War, he married the writer Thalia Cheronis (b. 1925) in 1948. Selz attended the University of Chicago, where he received his A. M., in 1949. Awarded a Fulbright grant for University of Paris and Ecole de Louvre, he spent a year in Paris, 1949-1950. Returning to Chicago, he taught as an instructor while completing his Ph.D. on a topic suggested by the department chair, Ulrich Middeldorf German Expressionism. A second Fulbright grant was awarded to him to study at the Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire in 1953. His dissertation on German Expressionism, written under Joshua C. Taylor in 1954, was one of the first from an English-language institution. During these same years he headed the education department at Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, (to 1955). In 1955 he moved to Pomona College, Claremont, CA, to chair the art department and be director of the art gallery. He served as a member of board of directors for the College Art Association 1958-1964. Selz became the curator of department of painting and sculpture exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1958. At the Modern, his exhibitions included the infamous 1960 Jean Tinguely “Homage to New York,” a sculpture that destroyed itself (and started a fire) in the sculpture garden of the Museum. He also launched important retrospectives, including the first Rodin retrospective in the United States and a comprehensive exhibition of Alberto Giacometti’s work in 1965. That year he was called to University of California, Berkeley to found that university’s art museum. He was first director 1965-1973, concomitantly teaching as professor of art history, 1965-1988. He divorced his first wife in 1965. A second CAA board appointment was 1966-1971. Selz was awarded the Order of Merit from Federal Republic of Germany in 1967 for his study of German Expressionism. Together with his mentor, Taylor, and his colleague at Berkeley, Herschel B. Chipp, he co-edited the first collected essays on American primary source theories of modern art in 1968. He was appointed a member of the advisory council of the Archives of American Art in 1971. For the 1972-1973 year he was a senior fellow, National Endowment for the Humanities. He taught as Zaks Professor, Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1976. In 1983 he married Carole Schemmerling. Selz was a visiting professor at the City University of New York in 1987. In 1988 he was named emeritus at Berkeley. From 1993 he served on the acquisitions committee, Museums of Fine Arts, San Francisco. His students included Kristine Stiles (b. 1947). As an art historian, Selz was one of the first to examine German Expressionism not as a series of stylistic changes (formalism), but as motivated by the politics of the time. His interest in art as a political phenomenon never altered. Selz was fortunate enough to interview many of the German Expressionist artists or their widows in the 1950s while they were still alive. His reputation as an academic was diminished for his reputation as a womanizer, female students were advised to avoid his office hours (Karlstrom).

    Selected Bibliography

    [dissertation:] German Expressionist Painting from its Inception to the First World War. University of Chicago, Ph.D., 1954, revised and published as, German Expressionist Painting. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1957; Art in a Turbulent Era. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Press, 1985; Art in Our Times: A Pictorial History. New York: Abrams, 1981; Emil Nolde. New York: Museum of Modern Art/Doubleday, 1963; Alberto Giacometti. New York: Museum of Modern Art, New York/Art Institute of Chicago/Doubleday,1965; Beyond the Mainstream: Essays on Modern and Contemporary Art. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997; and Brüschweiler, Jura, and Hattis, Phyllis, and Wyler, Eva. Ferdinand Hodler. Berkeley: University Art Museum, 1972; and Rickey, George. Directions in Kinetic Sculpture. Berkeley: University Art Museum [and] the Committee for Arts and Lectures, University of California, 1966; and Chipp, Hershel B., and Taylor, Joshua. Theories of Modern Art: a Source Book by Artists and Critics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.


    Who’s Who in American Art 22 (1997-98): ; “Peter (Howard) Selz,” Contemporary Authors; Selz, Peter. “Beyond the Mainstream: Fifty years of Curating Modern and Contemporary Art.” lecture delivered at Duke University, September 10, 2004; Karlstrom, Paul J. Peter Selz: Sketches of a Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012;.

    Contributors: Lee Sorensen


    Lee Sorensen. "Selz, Peter H.." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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