Chronicling an ‘Unstill Life’

A probing personal look at a family that lived what many would consider the dream life in the center of mid and late-20th-century creativity but paid a price
Gabrielle Selz with her father, Peter Selz. Nan Phelps

“Unstill Life”
Gabrielle Selz
W.W. Norton, $26.95

Those looking for an absorbing beach read with substance will enjoy Gabrielle Selz’s memoir, “Unstill Life.” It is the story of Peter Selz and Thalia Cheronis Selz and their two daughters, Tanya and Gabrielle, who writes about art for The Huffington Post.

It is a probing personal look at a family that lived what many would consider the dream life in the center of mid and late-20th-century creativity but paid a price in its ultimate dissolution and the emotional growth of its children. The theme of the book is highlighted in the prologue, where Ms. Selz writes about her parents that “art — far more than their children — remained their passion and their glue” as they broke up and reunited over a half century.

In addition to her own memories, the author uses primary source material to piece together the parts of her parents’ lives that she did not witness or was too young to comprehend. She was aided in this by tapes her parents had the foresight to make in the 1990s, before her mother’s Alzheimer’s took its toll. She was also helped by her mother’s diaries and memorabilia as well as the recollections of her father, now in his 90s. Ms. Selz’s mother, a writer, had planned to write her own history of the couple and their adventures in art, but was taken ill before that project came to fruition.

Both parents had colorful family backgrounds that included 19th-century divorces and a casual blending of nationalities that seems a bit daring for the time. Her father was a German Jew who escaped to America before he came to harm. In America, it turned out he had a relative, Alfred Stieglitz, who became a mentor to the aspiring art historian. After Mr. Selz attended Columbia University and the University of Chicago, he ended up first at Pomona College as chairman of the art department and then the Museum of Modern Art before heading to the University of California at Berkeley, where he became a professor of modern art and the founder and director of its museum.

He entered MoMA just as the art world was about to shift. In 1958, the titans of the New York School, such as the Selzs’ friends Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko, were still at their height, but were about to be supplanted by Pop and Minimalism as well as performance and installation art.

Anyone versed in the history of this period won’t need a guide to who’s who or how they got there, but Ms. Selz provides one for the more casual reader. It was at this point that the question arose, “Who is this book written for?” Those reading it for the insider gossipy view of artists living the bohemian life probably don’t need the detail the book goes into to describe the context, but the cursory treatment will be ultimately unsatisfying to those looking for a more probing examination of the artwork of the time. In trying to split the difference, it seems the book’s editors may have failed both. 

Since this time predates much of Ms. Selz’s viewpoint and even sentient thought (she was born in 1958), the description of those early years in New York has a distant, recreated feeling that seems childish at times, sometimes being the literal viewpoint of a child staying up late to overhear her parents’ dinner parties.

As our narrator begins to grow up, things get more interesting. There is the death of Rothko, which the Selz family takes hard, as they were rather close friends. The background about the artist and the time he spent on the South Fork seemed the freshest and most illuminating of the information presented on the New York School artists in these chapters. What remains with the reader is the writer’s own reaction to his death and her concern for his young son Christopher.

The curator’s adventures at MoMA, including sponsoring an Jean Tinguely kinetic piece that started a fire in the sculpture garden, were entertaining. It was clear that as scholarly as Mr. Selz’s approach to German Expressionism and other early Modern art was, he was drawn to the spectacle, early on during his time there and then more completely in his years in California.

The portrait of a young life in a colorful Central Park West high-rise had a charming Eloise-like quality, eventually shattered by her parents’ divorce, and then by her mother’s determination to set up Westbeth, an artist’s community that still survives in the West Village. It is at this point in the book that Ms. Selz’s view of her surroundings and the lives of her family and friends begins to catch up with her parents’ material. It is here that her recollections of Christo installations, her father’s more far-out wedding ceremonies (he had four more after the one with her mother), his grand vision for his house in Berkeley, and the happenings and installations he sponsored or instigated really catch fire.
    From here on out, Ms. Selz’s account of her young adulthood and the activities of her family gains full perspective and true insight. The ultimately worthwhile and poignant story she tells, rather than looking outside the walls to those art celebrities her parents knew, becomes about real people striving to do the best they can to keep themselves engaged creatively and emotionally stable in a time of great turbulence and uncertainty.

Gabrielle Selz lives in Southampton. She will read from “Unstill Life” tonight at 8 at BookHampton in East Hampton.

.Mark Rothko and his son Christopher in Sag Harbor, 1964.
Tanya and Gabrielle Selz in Sag Harbor in 1964.
Thalia Cheronis Selz, known to most as LaLa, toweling herself in Sag Harbor.