Obituaries : John Caldwell; Curator at S.F. Museum of Modern Art

John Caldwell, the curator of painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and a significant figure in contemporary art, has died at the age of 51.

He died of a heart attack Sunday at his vacation home in Miami, said Chelsea Brown, the museum's director of public relations and marketing.

Caldwell joined the SFMOMA in 1989. Under his curatorship, the museum featured exhibitions of artists Sigmar Polke, Luciano Fabro and Jeff Koons and acquired several works by major artists.

From 1985 to 1989, Caldwell had served as curator of contemporary art at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pa. Among his credits was the 1985 "Carnegie International," a critically acclaimed exhibit, which brought together American and European contemporary art.

The exhibition "verged on euphoria and has not been rivaled at any international exhibition of its kind," New York Times' art critic John Russell wrote at the time.

At Carnegie, he also organized exhibitions of the works of Richard Deacon, Sean Scully and Joan Witek and acquired the first major paintings by Anselm Kiefer and Polke to enter an American museum's collection.

In the late 1970s, Caldwell served as assistant curator of American art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In 1980, he became an art critic for the New York Times, a position he held four years.

Caldwell graduated cum laude from Harvard in 1963, later pursuing advanced degrees in art history from Hunter College and Yale University.

Looking back over Caldwell's career, Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight said the curator "had a remarkable capacity to accomplish the unexpected."

"In Pittsburgh he revived the Carnegie International, an aging dowager that had long since lost its luster, and restored the exhibition to its former prominence. In San Francisco he organized a magnificent retrospective of the notoriously elusive German artist, Sigmar Polke, which everyone said couldn't be done. Not only did Caldwell do it, but the show went on to be chosen the most important of the season by the American chapter of the International Assn. of Art Critics."

Memorial services are pending in San Francisco and New York.

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