Former director of Rose Art Museum remembered as gifted teacher and visionary
By David E. Nathan
Carl Belz’s former students and colleagues at Brandeis remember the longtime director of the Rose Art Museum as a tradition-defying innovator, an inspiring teacher and a visionary who helped establish the Rose as the area’s leading museum of modern and contemporary art.
Belz, who joined the Brandeis faculty in the 1960s and went on to lead the Rose from 1974 through 1998, died of a heart attack on Aug. 28 at his home in Arlington, Massachusetts. He was 78.
“He had an enormous, life-changing influence on me,” says Kimerly Rorschach ’78, the director of the Seattle Art Museum. “He was a great teacher in every way. He opened up the art world to me and many others.”
As director of the Rose, Belz eschewed the standard exhibition fare by showing the work of women artists at a time when few museums were doing so. He also worked to bring important artists to campus, including painter and printmaker Frank Stella, Belz’s fellow student at Princeton University. Among the notable exhibitions Belz organized were a review of the early work of abstract expressionist painter Helen Frankenthaler and a collection of realist artist Herbert W. Plimpton’s paintings.
“He moved against current paradigms to bring exhibitions to the Rose that exposed the campus to new ideas in the arts,” says fine arts professor Nancy Scott, Belz’s colleague for many years. “He tended to think outside the box.”
At Brandeis, Belz also taught courses on contemporary art and a seminar-style class on museum studies. Betsy Pfau ’74 first encountered Belz in an art history course he taught with fellow professor Gerry Bernstein.
“No one I ever met spoke like Carl or wrote like Carl,” remembers Pfau, who later became close friends with Belz and now is a member of the Rose’s Board of Advisors. “His lectures were like poetry, and he wrote in a polished yet conversational way that really made you think. He got me so excited about art and taught me how to look at art.”
As a sophomore, Rorschach took Belz’s museum studies course. She recalls studying a painting by Marie Laurencin, a French artist and contemporary of Pablo Picasso, and learning from Belz how to see art from the perspective of the artist.
“He was engaged not just with the art, but with the artists,” Rorschach says. “He wanted to understand what they were doing and thinking. He taught us to look for what the artists were trying to do in their work.”
Belz actively promoted the work of Boston area artists and always maintained a place in the Rose’s annual calendar for local artists.
According to Rorschach, Belz built on the foundation that Sam Hunter, the Rose’s first director (1960-65), had established through the acquisition of masterpieces by Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and other leading artists.
“Carl had limited resources, but he built a great collection of modern and contemporary art, and put on fantastic exhibitions,” she said. “Contemporary art was not what Boston was known for at the time, and he took advantage of that opportunity to build the leading center for contemporary art in the area.”
Belz grew up in New Jersey and attended Princeton. He planned to attend medical school at Columbia University, but changed his career path after taking a painting course, and went on to earn his master’s and PhD in art history at Princeton. He taught at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and at Mills College in Oakland before coming to Brandeis.
The 6-foot-5 Belz was also a fine basketball player at Princeton, and played for one year in the Eastern Basketball League.
Belz leaves his wife, Barbara; four daughters, Portia, Melissa, Gretchen and Emily; three siblings, Dorothy, Elsie and Herman; and five grandchildren.
A celebration of his life will be held at 2 p.m. on Oct. 2 at the Cambridge Art Association.