Gabrielle Selz’s ‘Unstill Life’ provides peek into the modern art world with its glamour, ambition, heartbreak

Gabrielle Selz and Peter Selz. Photo: Courtesy of Gabrielle Selz
Gabrielle Selz and Peter Selz. Photo: Courtesy of Gabrielle Selz

When Gabrielle Selz was growing up in New York in the 1960s, her house was filled with artists who have become icons of the time: Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, and Alberto Giacometti.

Selz’s father was Peter Selz – then a curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, a man whom the New York Times dubbed “Mr. Modern Art.” Peter Selz moved to Berkeley in 1965 to become the founding director of the Berkeley Art Museum, a position that allowed him to showcase West Coast artists. He highlighted Funk, film, and ceramicists like Peter Voulkos and Robert Arneson who were not even considered true artists at the time. Peter Selz later became project director for Christo’s Running Fence, the 24.5-mile long billowing fabric fence that ran over the Marin County hills in 1976.UnstillLife_Cover

In her candid and captivating memoir, Unstill Life: A Daughter’s Memoir of Art and Love in the Age of Abstraction, Gabrielle Selz, who will appear at Mrs. Dalloway’s bookstore in Berkeley at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, writes about what it was like to grow up in an art-drenched milieu.

She was witness to a time when figurative artists battled with abstract artists, when Pop Art tried to crowd out both, when glamorous gallery openings and wild parties were regular occurrences. Art was not just something on a wall to look at. Art was life during Selz’s upbringing.

At the center of Unstill Life is the story of her parents’ relationship. Selz’s mother, Thalia Cheronis, struggled to carve out her own identity while living with a man known for his brilliance, passion, and inability to remain faithful. (Peter Selz married five times.) Yet Selz’s parents remained connected throughout their lives, and the glue was a love of art. In settings that go back and forth between New York and Berkeley, Selz recreates the excitement and tumult of the art world before the digital age.


Along the way readers get to see the tragic suicides of Mark Rothko and Diane Arbus, Jean Tinguey’s controversial burning installation at MoMA, Merce Cunningham’s acid parties at Westbeth, the innovative artists’ building on New York’s West Side, the Anna Halperin dance troupe performing naked on a cold cement floor for the opening of the Berkeley Art Museum, and the famous court battle over Rothko’s estate, among others. Unstill Life personalizes the modern art world and makes it feel immediate, not a painting on a museum wall. Peter Selz, now in his 90s, still lives in Regal House, the home he built on Regal Road in the 1960s.

06mrmodernart
Peter Selz,a German Jew who fled the Holocaust, served as curator of painting and sculpture at the MoMA from 1958-1965. He was friends with the world’s top artists, and his daughter, Gabrielle Selz writes about her family’s life in this artistic milieu in her memoir, Unstill Life

What was your parents’ relationship to art?

My father was introduced to art as a child by his grandfather who had an art and antique business in Munich before World War II. Then, when my father came to America he discovered that he was distantly related to Alfred Stieglitz and Stieglitz became his mentor. Later, on the GI Bill, my father studied art history at the University of Chicago.

He wrote the first dissertation on Modern Art (German Expressionist Painting) in this country. At the University of Chicago he met my mother. She had a Bachelor’s in art history, but had switched to writing for her Master’s Degree. “I am much better at fantasy than fact gathering,” she said. But, though dissimilar in their approaches–she conjured and elaborated while he analyzed and dissected—they shared the same passion. Art, particularly expressionist and abstraction, which placed such a value on the viewer’s presence, was the medium, the meeting place for these two very unique individuals. Even after their divorce, they stayed connected, partly because of their shared love of art. My father didn’t posses an artistic talent.

What he had was a sweeping sense of history and a deep affinity for the created object. And my mother was the writer, who early on, helped shape his thoughts into words.


What vision do you think your dad brought to Berkeley as the founding director of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive?

My father dreamed of a major museum that was also a study center and teaching institution. A place where all the art forms were embraced under one roof, hence his insistence on founding the Pacific Film Archive. Coming from MoMA, he believed that film was an important art expression.

When dad was first approached to direct what was to become the Berkeley Art Museum, it was going to be a much larger endeavor. Peggy Guggenheim was going to give her collection to the University of California in Berkeley while leaving it physically in Venice. So, there were going to be two sites for the Berkeley Museum, one in Berkeley and the other in Venice. One would be a study center, and one would be a museum. But then Ronald Reagan was elected Governor and slashed the budget and Peggy Guggenheim backed out.

Also, Rothko was going to give a suite of paintings, but he only gave one. Rothko hated parting with his painting.

Still, my father is a persistent man. Though the scope had changed, the dream continued. Dad acquired an amazing permanent collection for Berkeley. You can see many of those art works on view at the present show  as well as the Hans Hoffman’s that were gifted to the museum while my father was there.


With Unstill Life you have written a narrative about the post-war art world, but you have also chosen to discuss what it was like to find your way in the bohemian art environments of New York and Berkeley when installation and performance art were just beginning. What would you say were the challenges of growing up around this type of art that was so focused on breaking down boundaries?

Unstill Life is very much concerned with painting a picture of the time and culture of the art world during the 60s and 70s. Like Patti’s Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, Unstill Life is about learning to navigate through a world filled with larger than life personalities. I grew up in a world where the boundaries between art and life were blurred. The adults that surrounded me were what my mother referred to as “permeable people” a.k.a. artists. They were always crossing back and forth from what was outside in reality to what lay inside their imaginations. Often they got stuck on the wrong side. Sometimes they managed the transition. Once in a great while they conjured a thing—matter—in the space between reality and illusion.

Many of these artists were just beginning to explore performance art as a viable medium. And these early performances were often the basic rituals of their everyday lives. So that made it more confusing. What was real drama and what was just the drama of performance, of art? This was a question I struggled with.

It goes back to that issue with my father. His home is like one big theater where he is the main attraction. His office literally cantilevers out over this huge loft like space of the living room like a stage. There he sits, as if in the throne room, calling out to people (wives, stepdaughters, me) who are in other parts of the house. If you are there, you are always, in some way, in attendance to him.

And yet he is very charismatic. He is wonderful. His home is a fascinating place where you never know who is going to show up for dinner. It was hard to leave. My mother once said about her own father (a renowned Greek chemist) that he brought the world in the door with him. Well the art world came through my father’s door. To leave, to separate from my father was to risk loosing the connection to this world.

Thalia Selz at Sag Harbor. Photo: Gabrielle Selz
Thalia Selz at Sag Harbor. Photo: Gabrielle Selz

What is your relationship now to art and to your father?

When I was a little girl my father used to swing me up onto his shoulders and take me to the galleries. I’d call out the names of the paintings. I knew that if I wanted his attention, I had to learn about art. Eventually, I came to love what I knew—love it on my own and for my own reasons. Fifty years later, my mother is dead, and art is now the language my father and I use to communicate. A resonance that allows us to cross over generations from one mind to another.

Maybe that says more about us than it does about art, but I do believe, profoundly, that life ends and art is left. I believe that art has allowed me to know my father, to know not just the art he loved, but also the people who created it. It has held onto their stories, absorbed them like a patina. There are some objects that when we behold them, we feel their pulse. This is not just the pulse of life; this is the pulse of magic. For my parents, and maybe now for me, this is the pulse of love.

What was the difference between the art scene in New York and Berkeley in the 1960s?

Dad came out to Berkeley just as Pop and Conceptual Art were ascending on the East Coast. My father was not a fan of Pop, which he felt pandered to the market. Or of Conceptual Art when it lacked depth or a focus on the human condition. Out on the west coast artists were less concerned with market trends. My father identified with the irreverence of styles like Funk Art. Where Pop glorified consumerism, Funk put it down. My father loved the unorthodoxy of art that incorporated materials like ceramics. Ceramic artists like Peter Voulkos were barely considered fine artists then. There was such an embrace of different materials out in Berkeley and also the incorporation of politics and the exploration of performance art.

Certainly the Film Archive would never have existed in Berkeley without my dad and that’s a lasting achievement. And my father was always deeply concerned with getting to know artists who were working right in his neighborhood. He promoted local talent as well as bring art from abroad back to Berkeley. So he showed and wrote about Nathan Oliveira–a figurative artists who did not follow the prevailing east coast trends.

What did he think he could do in Berkeley that he couldn’t do in New York?

He could direct a new museum. That didn’t look like it was going to happen on the east coast For one thing, no Jew, not even a secular Jew like my dad had ever been asked by the trustees to direct a major American museum at that time. Also, dad goaded the establishment. He liked pushing boundaries, and it looked like he would be able to do that at Berkeley.

And in Berkeley he could teach. My father was a writer and a professor before he came to MoMA and before he directed a museum. He loved the active engagement with his students. The University of Berkeley offered that kind of evolvement. Radical thinking, intellectuals, a stellar art department, politics, and it was beautiful. Berkeley had a Mediterranean feel and an openness that immediately appealed to my father. In Berkeley, he found a place that both stimulated and excited him while at the same time provided an easy-going home. That’s rare.

When starting out writing your memoir, was it clear to you that you’d be writing about your relationship to both art and your father? Which chapter best expresses this symbiotic relationship and why?

Well, I knew of course that I was writing about growing up in the shadow of my father. And I knew that I wanted to write about how it felt to have someone so central leave and then how desperate I was to re-enter his life. A life that was full of art and seemed so glamorous to me. This has been a central issue in life outside of writing as well. So, of course, it showed up in my work. And since my father’s central relationship is to art, it’s the pipeline to his emotions and I often say that even though he has been married five times, he is really only been married to art (In fact, he wears an eyeball ring instead of a wedding band because to him it symbolizes the “eye”, the gazer, the one who assess and judges with his eyes.) So all along I knew my memoir would have this triangulation. And my parents were both very connected to each other through art. It was their conduit, the channel.

I guess the chapter that best encompasses this symbiotic relationship is the chapter 13. The beginning of Part 3 in the book when I finally move to California and my father takes me to visit Running Fence. He was Christo’s project direction. That section starts off with this beautiful quote from Jeanne-Claude Christo “Perhaps the most powerful force of art, is that the changes made are not in the site, but in us.”  First, let me digress and say I didn’t want my chapters to be tied up like bows. I wanted the book to flow. My relationship to both my father and art has been in flux for years. But for many reasons, Running Fence was when I first really experienced art as something “alive”. I had grown up around art but at this point in the story I was 17, old enough to appreciate things on my own. Watching Fence come to life was such an incredible experience. For the first time I felt like I wanted to be part of the experience of art as much as I wanted to be part of my father’s life. And wanting of course is central to narrative. Without want there is no reason for a story.

This was the beginning of bringing me closer to my father. And of course, with each step forward, there were many steps backward. I got to know him, I became disappointed, there was a break, we moved beyond that break, etc. It was a journey, much like the artwork Fence is the story of a journey: a journey to create this fabric wall, this membrane of light.

Gabrielle Selz will read from An Unstill Life at Mrs. Dalloway’s, 2904 College Ave. at 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 27.

Unstill Life from Gabrielle Selz on Vimeo.

Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out our All the News grid.