Books

Growing Up in the Shadow of the Art World

by John Seed on June 17, 2014

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Peter Selz (right) with Man Ray and Blanchette Rockefeller at the Museum of Modern Art (all images courtesy Gabrielle Selz)

“’Hold on there,’ I heard a voice call out. It was Harold Paris, my father’s friend and the artist he was now showing at his museum. Harold, too, had risen from his chair, but he was not undressed, he was wearing a cape and beret — Harold was a theatrical man — and he was pointing at me: ‘There’s a child here.’”

Gabrielle Selz, Unstill Life

In 1972, at the age of fourteen, Gabrielle Selz was attending a party following the third wedding of her father, the art historian and UC Berkeley professor Peter Selz, when a naked woman she had never seen before climbed into Selz’s lap and began to roll a joint. As she did so, other wedding guests began to cheer. Moments later a male wedding guest — identified as a symphony conductor — lunged towards a woman guest, toppling the table between them and losing his pants in the process. As applause broke out only the intervention provided by Harold Paris gave Gabrielle, “embarrassed to be exposed as a child,” the break she needed to make her way to her bedroom and lock herself in before the scene descended into sexual chaos.

This incident, one of many illuminating moments in Gabrielle Selz’s new book Unstill Life: A Daughter’s Memoir of Art and Love in the Age of Abstraction, illustrates one of the book’s major themes: Gabrielle had to grow into adulthood surrounded by adults who in many cases were consciously or unconsciously eternal children. Part art world memoir, part coming of age story, Unstill Life has a lot in common with Musa Mayer’s superb book Night Studio which unfolded the story of her complicated relationship with her father, artist Philip Guston. The postwar art world was a vivid, exciting place, but seen through the eyes of children who grew up in it, the self-absorption of the adults involved forms a cautionary tale about intersection of self-expression and familial responsibility.

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Gabrielle Selz (left) and sister at People’s Park, a Berkeley, California commune, in 1968

The story of Peter Selz life has been told very well in a previous book, Peter Selz: Sketches of a Life in Art by Paul J. Karlstrom, but Gabrielle’s re-telling of some of the same biographical material takes on additional meaning since she lived the events, some of which continue to shape her life. One of the most interesting and difficult stories that Gabrielle has to tell is to narrative the complex relationship between her parents, Peter and Thalia, who divorced after seventeen years of marriage, but then remained connected — sexually at some points — for over forty years.

Because her father served as Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York from 1958–65, Gabrielle grew up with firsthand views of important artists including Rothko, de Kooning, Tinguely, Giacometti, and Christo. She also, in many cases, knew the wives and children of a male-dominated generation of artists who devoted themselves to the art at the expense of their families. Selz provides glimpses of Christopher Rothko — who sat in her lap as a child — who lost his father to suicide at the age of six. When he appears later in Gabrielle’s life as an adult, Christopher tells her that he was so traumatized by his early life, which included the death of his mother shortly after his father’s, that he has no memories prior to the age of fourteen. Selz also describes Christo and Jean-Claude’s neglected son Cyril who was “enveloped in his own world,” which to his mother indicated that he was being raised to be “truly independent.”

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Gabrielle Selz’s photograph of Christo’s “Running Fence” (1976)

Unstill Life is a page-turner, not just because of its unique point of view, but also because Gabrielle Selz is a skilled writer who knows how to keep things moving. There are more than enough great anecdotes about art world notables to carry the book, but just the narrative of Gabrielle’s own finding her way is beautifully told and compelling. There must certainly be a few things she chose to leave out, but Unstill Life has enough honesty and frankness to provide real credibility.

Peter Selz is now 95, so he has read Gabrielle’s book, and assisted her with it: it couldn’t have been easy for him to do so. When I asked Gabrielle if the process of writing Unstill Life, which involved reading her late mother’s diary and listening to taped dialogues her parents made some years ago, had offered her any closure, this is how she replied:

Closure: such a firm, absolute word and life is anything but. It did change things. In writing the book, seeing it in print and having my dad still here to enjoy it, I felt like I was doing two things at once, following in my parents steps and stepping into my own life. It did help me embrace that complicated and rich legacy and move beyond it. I feel like in writing it I gathered all the bits and pieces — the broken parts of my family, the stories, the glamor, destruction, chaos and fun — and knit them into something whole. That feels really satisfying.

Unstill Life: A Daughter’s Memoir of Art and Love in the Age of Abstraction, published in May by W. W. Norton, is available from Amazon and other booksellers. Hyperallergic interviewed Peter Selz in November 2013.

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  • inkspot

    Sounds like a fascinating book. One note: People’s Park was not a commune.

    • http://gabrielleselz.com Gabrielle Selz

      You are right. It was a communal park.

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