Gabrielle Selz’s MoMA and Daddy


The lines between art, love, and madness have always been blurred. In her debut memoir Unstill Life: A Daughter’s Memoir of Art and Love in the Age of Abstraction (W.W. Norton), Gabrielle Selz beautifully chronicles growing up the daughter of Peter Selz, chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in the 1960s. The shimmering backdrop of Gabrielle’s childhood was an explosive, exciting time in American art, with a free, wild, larger-than-life dad who seemed to be at the center of it all. Family dinners were often interrupted by visits from Rothko or de Kooning.

Yet her father’s sensual appetites also included women, and his affairs, as well as his fame, broke up his marriage and family. A poignant, poetic, vivid picture of a New York populated by debaucherous dreamers, Selz’s memoir is personal, brave, and touches not only on the complicated and intricate love her parents had for each other and their children, but also an epic time in American art history. We spoke with Gabrielle Selz about family life, being a child around artistic genius, public versus private personas, the seductiveness of creative people, and why we forgive artists their eccentricities.

ROYAL YOUNG: How was the experience of writing about your family? I know sometimes their reaction can be extreme.

GABRIELLE SELZ: My father wanted me to write it. He had wanted me to write about him for years, and I was resistant for a long time. It wasn’t until I found my mom’s tapes when she had expressive aphasia and couldn’t talk and I could hear her voice on them, which was just very intense for me. It allowed me to slip back in time. That was the way I entered this. I wanted to incorporate, not just this curriculum vitae of his life, I wanted to write these other stories that were personal. I had to wait because I wasn’t ready, and also my mother was still very much a part of his life and she had her own desires to write about this world. I couldn’t intrude on it.

YOUNG: So she had planned to write about your family’s life?

SELZ: Years ago they had made these tapes, I have boxes of them. They spoke about their world and she was going to do it. But it never jelled for her. She had too many emotions about it. I think she was too close to the material.

YOUNG: That happens when you’re writing about your life. [laughs]

SELZ: [laughs] Yeah. Especially with all her emotional baggage, her resentment of my father’s career. So she would either would put too much of herself in the story or leave herself out entirely.

YOUNG: Do you feel like the writing of the book for you was a way to get your mother back or complete some part of her?

SELZ: I think it was a way to get my family back. It was a way for me to reenter the picture. In the art world I grew up in at that time, kids weren’t the main course, they were like little side dishes. We were loved, but we were kind of ignored in favor of these very colorful artists and certainly the artwork. It was a way for my to knit my family’s story into the larger social story of the time.

YOUNG: What is your relationship to art now, and how has it changed over time?

SELZ: I write a lot about art, so I feel more confident writing about it.

YOUNG: Did you ever resent the art?

SELZ: Yeah, but I never didn’t like it. It was the way my father and I connected. I loved going to museums with him the way some kids like going to a baseball game with their dad. I hadn’t planned on incorporating the art in the book the way it is. I started writing the personal narrative, but the art kept showing up like a character. I was reading a lot of cookbook memoirs, and I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to incorporate art the way other writers incorporate food: something really delicious and accessible and not foreign. In the process this whole world opened up and became more accessible to me, not just as a passenger or an adjunct to my dad. I was always a little intimidated by him; I mean, he’s written like three art history books. The whole discourse of writing about art has changed. When I was in college it was all very art-speak and jargon-y. Now it’s become more fun and enjoyable to read.

YOUNG: Yes, and more personal.

SELZ: Right, and for me, art is a very personal experience.

YOUNG: Did you ever feel like there was a danger in reconciling your father’s CV, as you called it, and then him as a dad? Was it hard to see him as a dad rather than a public figure?

SELZ: Yeah, sure, because he was a better public figure than a dad. [laughs] He admits this; he will be the first to say that he sacrificed his family life for the career aspect. That’s why my relationship with him is strong, because I can enter his world. It’s harder for him to enter mine. It was hard for him to enter my son’s world when he was a child. My dad has been lucky because he is surrounded by family that really appreciates his eccentricity and accommodates that.

YOUNG: It’s so fascinating. I grew up with a dad who was a crazy artist, and we accommodated his whims and eccentricities. As a kid I was taught that, too. Painting with my dad in his studio was a precious time not to be disturbed. Art took precedence. And it can be about family spending time together. But why do you think we have this perception of artists?

SELZ: Well, they are doing something that is very brave, opening windows on life. When they do it successfully, they connect with people. My dad isn’t an artist, but he has that magnitude and sparkle and he comes alive. It’s very seductive. He’s very successful, and I think we are all inspired by that. At 95, he’s still working, that persistence. He was always like that. When he first started out, he couldn’t get a job and he just took himself on the road and went from university to university knocking on doors with his dissertation until he got a job.

YOUNG: Yeah, and that driven aspect is very seductive and impressive as well.

SELZ: Yes, and that world is very glitzy and glamorous, as you know. You sit down for dinner and never know who is going to show up. Who wouldn’t want to do that?

YOUNG: I love that you explore both sides of it. The glamour and excitement and seductiveness but also the hard parts, the crumbling parts.

SELZ: We would have little pieces of excitement and then our dad would go away again. I remember when I was a kid and my dad would come to visit me. I’d be pulled out of school and he’d swoop by in a taxi and take me someplace amazing. My whole ordinary day and world was disrupted, but it was this fantastic adventure.