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Cover for Unstill Life

Unstill Life

A Daughter's Memoir of Art and Love in the Age of Abstraction

Gabrielle Selz


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Luminous and revealing, a daughter’s memoir of the art world and a larger-than-life father.

In 1958, soon after Gabrielle Selz was born, she, her parents and her sister moved to New York, where her father, Peter Selz, would begin his job as the chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. What followed was a whirlwind childhood spent among art and artists in the heyday of Abstract Expressionism. Gabrielle grew up in a home full of the most celebrated artists of the day: Rothko, de Kooning, Tinguely, Giacometti, and Christo, among others.

Poignant and candid, Unstill Life is a daughter’s memoir of the art world and a larger-than-life father known to the world as Mr. Modern Art. Selz offers a unique window into the glamour and destruction of the times: the gallery openings, wild parties and affairs that defined one of the most celebrated periods in American art history. Like the art he loved, Selz’s father was vibrant and freewheeling, but his enthusiasm for both women and art took its toll on family life. When her father left MoMA and his family to direct his own museum in California, marrying four more times, Selz’s mother, the writer Thalia Selz, moved with her children into the utopian artist community Westbeth. Her parents continued a tumultuous affair that would last forty years.

Weaving her family narrative into the larger story of twentieth-century art and culture, Selz paints an unforgettable portrait of a charismatic man, the generation of modern artists he championed and the daughter whose life he shaped.

Praise For Unstill Life: A Daughter's Memoir of Art and Love in the Age of Abstraction

A beautiful, compelling memoir, a testament to art, to love, to life and all its losses and joys.
— Frederic Tuten, author of Self Portraits

Reading Gabrielle Selz’s telling of the exhilarating twentieth-century decades when American art remade itself is like sitting to one side at a New York opening with someone who knows every story inside out. No one has died and all the living are here, too: Max Beckmann, Karel Appel, Carolee Schneeman, Alberto Giacometti, Mark Rothko and so many others whirl past, as at the center, the writer’s complicated parents, the visionary and philandering MoMA curator Peter Selz and the beautiful writer Thalia Cheronis, hold our attention. Informed by the author’s tenderness and longing, Unstill Life has the vitality of witness and the intimacy of memoir at its best.

— Honor Moore, author of The Bishop’s Daughter

This intimate look at the art world’s movers and shakers is from the perspective of the younger daughter of Peter Selz, a major curator and museum director. . . . It’s an exuberant tale of artists from Rothko to Christo that makes the reader marvel that neither the daughter nor her mother ever rejected the rascal who both animated and complicated their lives.
— Gail Levin, biographer of Edward Hopper, Judy Chicago, and Lee Krasner

Life inspires art inspires life—all of which inspire Gabrielle Selz’s sparkling memoir of her brilliant but chaotic family. In Unstill Life, the art and people ricochet off each other, wreaking havoc but also encouraging everyone to live more intense, artistic lives.

— Charlotte Rogan, author of The Lifeboat

For a first book it’s impressive; actually for a second or third book it would still be a contender, with lean engaging prose, an alertness for detail, and her consummate storytelling. One of the season’s surprises.
— James Croak - Hamptons Art Hub

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.
— Royal Young - Interview Magazine

Selz’s reminiscences of coming of age amidst an explosion of creativity and social change are clear-eyed, sympathetic—and sometimes heartbreaking.

[A] page-turner [with a] unique point of view… Beautifully told and compelling.
— John Seed - Hyperallergic

Candid and captivating… Unstill Life personalizes the modern art world and makes it feel immediate, not a painting on a museum wall.

— Francis Dinkelspiel - Berkeleyside

[A] candid daughter-father memoir… [Selz’s] evocation of her father’s long life explores the bittersweet intersection of modern art and modern family, and the collateral damage of the sexual revolution.
— David D’Arcy - San Francisco Chronicle

W. W. Norton & Company, 9780393239171, 352pp.

Publication Date: May 5, 2014

About the Author

Gabrielle Selz has published in magazines and newspapers including More magazine, the New York Times, Newsday and Fiction. She writes regularly on art for the Huffington Post. She lives in Southampton, New York.