When Peter Selz arrived in Berkeley in 1965, the university only had a small art gallery to display its modest collection of art. Selz had been recruited from the Museum of Modern Art in New York City to oversee the construction of a new, contemporary museum, the Berkeley Art Museum on Bancroft Way.

He did that and more. With Selz at the helm, the Berkeley Art Museum redefined many aspects of modern art and brought overdue attention to California artists.

Selz was already “something of a star,” when he arrived in Berkeley, according to Paul J. Karlstrom, whose new book, Peter Selz: Sketches of a Life, has just been released by UC Press. He had been one of the first curators to trumpet the work of Mark Rothko. His star grew even brighter in Berkeley after he put on groundbreaking shows such as “Directions in Kinetic Sculpture,” an exhibition of the Surrealist René Magritte, and Funk!, which showcased ceramicist Peter Voulkos, Bruce Conner, and other California artists. Selz, who had fled Germany during the Nazi regime, also created the Pacific Film Archive.

“The course Selz was charting at Berkeley, reflecting his quick study and adoption of a specifically Californian social and cultural situation, was innovative, even subversive, “ writes Karlstrom.

At that time, few thought there were any differences between the evolution of artists on the East and West coasts. But Selz, who had a sterling reputation in New York art circles, conveyed to the New York intelligentsia that painters, sculptors, ceramicists, and photographers in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland and Los Angeles were pursing directions different from their counterparts in New York and Boston.

Nothing showed this more strongly than the opening celebration Selz put together for the Berkeley Art Museum, which was completed in November 1970. The inaugural celebration featured Anna Halprin and her dance troupe. They danced naked in the halls of the concrete building.

“The performance was a feast for the eye,” Selz told Karlstrom. There were “beautiful naked young men and women flowing throughout the museum. Soft flesh against hard gray concrete.”

Selz, now 91 and a professor emeritus of art history at Cal, is still living in Berkeley, in a modernist house in the hills.

The Kala Art Institute in Berkeley will hold a tribute to Selz tonight, Jan. 24th from 6 to 8 pm at 2990 San Pablo Avenue. Karlstrom will sign books, and three people who worked with Selz will talk about his contributions to contemporary art: Deborah Kirshman, his editor at UC Press, Malcolm Margolin, the publisher of Heyday Books, and photographer Richard Nagler. Selz wrote an introduction to Nagler’s book, Word on the Street.

The Berkeley Art Center will also hold a book signing and event on Saturday, Feb. 18th at 4 pm at 1275 Walnut Street.

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, visit Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...