Brandeis remembers former Rose director

September 16, 2016

Carl Belz, who served the Brandeis community for nearly 40 years in a variety of roles and who left an impression on many of the Brandeis students he encountered along the way, recently died at 78 years of age. He suffered a heart attack in his home of Arlington, MA on Sunday, Aug. 28.

An outstanding professor and ingenious director of the Rose Art Museum, Belz helped establish the Rose as a hotspot for modern and contemporary art. With his undying efforts and creativity, the Rose became well-known for its both diverse and unusual artwork, most of which was against the norm at the time. He served as the Rose’s director for 25 years.

“He moved against current paradigms to bring exhibitions to the Rose that exposed the campus to new ideas in the arts,” admitted Belz’s colleague and fine arts professor Nancy Scott. “He tended to think outside the box.”

Belz was a revolutionary thinker and curated artwork that female artists had made during a period of time when male artists were the norm. Museums rarely showed artwork that women had made, and female artists were belittled in the eyes of the public. Some of Belz’s notable curations include the compilation of abstract expressionist painter Helen Frankenthaler’s early work, as well as an exhibition featuring realist artist Herbert W. Plimpton’s paintings. He even managed to curate painter and printmaker Frank Stella’s work, who was a well-known and important artist from that era.

“Carl had limited resources, but he built a great collection of modern and contemporary art and put on fantastic exhibitions,” said Kimerly Rorschach ’78, who now serves as the director of the Seattle Art Museum. “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.”

The former Rose director faithfully continued what the previous Rose director (1960-1965), Sam Hunter, had started. Hunter managed to bring in legendary pieces by Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and other notable artists. Belz also strove to incorporate artwork made by local Boston artists, and as a result saved a section of the Rose especially for this purpose.

Belz wasn’t just a Rose director, however. He was also a Brandeis professor who taught courses on both contemporary art and a seminar class on museum studies. His former students remember his teaching style and personality fondly. “He had an enormous, life-changing influence on me. He was a great teacher in every way. He opened up the art world to me and many others,” said Rorschach.

Betsy Pfau ’74, a former student who later became Belz’s close friend, said, “No one I ever met spoke like Carl or wrote like Carl.” Now a member of the Rose’s Board of Advisors, she reminisces, “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.”

Even more interesting was his perspective on the arts and how to interpret artwork as a whole. “He was engaged not just with the art, but with the artists,” mentions Rorschach, who took Belz’s museum studies course her sophomore year. While studying a painting by Marie Laurencin, she said, “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.”

At his roots, Belz’s home state is New Jersey and he received higher education at Princeton. His life took a drastic turn when he took a painting course and his career completely changed; instead of attending medical school at Columbia University, he went on to earn his master’s and Ph.D. in art history at Princeton. Before joining Brandeis’ faculty, he led an extensive career at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and at Mills College in Oakland.

Since his passing, he leaves behind his wife, Barbara, four children, Portia, Melissa, Gretchen and Emily, three siblings and five grandchildren.

A gathering to celebrate Belz’s accomplishments and life will be held on Oct. 2 at the Cambridge Art Association.

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