A Tribute to BAMPFA’s Fearless Founder: Peter Selz (1919-2019)

Peter Selz

The BAMPFA community mourns the loss of Founding Director Peter Selz (1919–2019). The internationally celebrated art historian, professor, and essayist served as director from 1965 through 1973, leading the young museum with an ambitious and eclectic approach—a spirit that continues on today.

“Peter Selz was a remarkable individual whose contributions to BAMPFA, UC Berkeley, and the broader art world are too numerous to count. 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," said Lawrence Rinder, BAMPFA's director and chief curator. "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.”

A Jewish-German immigrant who fled Nazi Germany for the United States in 1936, Selz became a distinguished scholar and curator of the postwar art scene in New York. As Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art (1958 to 1965), he championed work by a diverse range of important artists such as Mark Rothko, Jean Dubuffet, and Alberto Giacometti, among others. Selz then accepted an invitation from the University of California, Berkeley to become the founding director of the University Art Museum, now known as BAMPFA. He shaped the institution literally from the ground up, engaging the renowned architect Mario Ciampi to design the iconic modernist building to partnering with the film director and scholar Sheldon Renan to establish the Pacific Film Archive at the heart of the museum’s program.

Under his leadership, the museum doubled the size of its art collection and mounted massive exhibitions, including the influential group exhibition Funk in 1967. As his daughter Gabrielle Selz later observed, her father’s curatorial approach in Berkeley defied many of the fashionable art world trends of the 1960s, celebrating the work of figurative artists like Nathan Oliveira and ceramicists like Peter Voulkos who worked against the prevailing abstractionist trends of the period. As a professor in UC Berkeley’s art history department, Selz distinguished himself as a scholar and essayist, authoring books and exhibition catalogs on Sam Francis, Ferdinand Hodler, German and Austrian Expressionism, and many other topics. He concluded his tenure as the museum’s director in 1973 but continued to teach at UC Berkeley for more than a decade thereafter, and remained a major force in the Bay Area art scene.

A beloved member of the Bay Area art community through the end of his life, Selz was recently honored with a one hundredth birthday party at BAMPFA on April 2. In what would be his final public appearance, Selz expressed optimism about the future: “I can say there’s a lot of very, very good art being produced now, a lot of surprises … I have felt optimistic about art all my life.” Selz will be sorely missed by all, but his legacy will live on.

BAMPFA will continue to be a place to honor Selz’s vision and work. Visit the Film Library and Study Center to view two films that he appears in, The Funk Art Show (1968) and Kinetic Art (1966), and listen to archival recordings. This space is open to all Wednesdays through Fridays from 1 to 5 PM, and no appointment is necessary.