It was the spring of 1980, Gabrielle Selz had just graduated from the University of California at Santa Cruz with a degree in art history, and, not long after, she invited her father and his fiancée over for dinner.After a few glasses of wine, her father excused himself to the kitchen, where he pressed his daughter’s roommate up against the refrigerator and kissed her—his wife-to-be just whispers away in the next room.
At least that’s how Ms. Selz pictured it when her roommate confessed.
“I think he’s charming,” she had said. “He sparkles.”
With that, Ms. Selz moved out. It was the final strike, not against her roommate but against her father—the charismatic Peter Selz, known to the world as Mr. Modern Art, who started his career as chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan in the late 1950s.
A long, awkward hiatus began between the father and daughter. He was flighty. She was resentful—especially when he asked her to write about him. She was still too young and close to the material. Too close to the pain. And too close to her mother—writer Thalia Selz, the first of his four wives—who had never truly moved on from her ex-husband.
“He put me through a lot when I was a kid, when I was in college and bouncing around between his wives and girlfriends,” Ms. Selz said during a recent telephone interview. “That was the art world, too—very incestuous. I’m not the only kid in the art world whose dad was lecherous. You can either be destroyed by it, or you can be forgiving.”
Eventually, Ms. Selz chose the latter. Finally, 30 years later—sitting in front of her laptop at her desk in Southampton one day—she was ready to tell her father’s story. And her own.
On Monday, May 5, Ms. Selz released her 352-page memoir, “Unstill Life”—a raw, intimate look at her family during the age of abstraction from the perspective of a child overshadowed by her father, swimming through social circles swirling with the most renowned artists of the 20th century: Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Jean Tinguely, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and Alberto Giacometti, among others.
The sculpture garden at MoMA was her playground. The museum walls, and her father, were her teachers. And those celebrated artists were her friends.
“I wanted to tell the story of what it was like to not be an artist, to be around this world and to be a child in the world,” Ms. Selz said. “I find that children are in the background and art is in the foreground. Growing up, the art was as much a character in the room as the people there. Sometimes even more important.”
The art and its subsequent world defined Mr. and Ms. Selz, and eventually led to their undoing. After 17 years of marriage, they divorced in 1965—their daughter just 7 when Mr. Selz quit MoMA, abandoned his family and headed to California for a new job opportunity, and a new woman.
Between each of his marriages, her parents would reunite and reminisce about the olden days and their passionate love, only to break apart once again.
But in 2005, Mr. Selz traveled to Connecticut to help his daughter inventory Ms. Selz’s art collection. His ex-wife was suffering from mid-stage Alzheimer’s disease. He was also there to say his final goodbyes.
“She was an original,” he had said. “She was interesting. I should never have left.”
Later that night, Ms. Selz headed up to the attic. She gathered up her mother’s journals, her scrapbook, and—what she had been truly looking for—two shoeboxes full of cassette tapes her parents had made together in the 1990s. Her mother had hoped to write a book about “their ringside seat in the art world,” Ms. Selz said. Now, it was her daughter’s legacy, she said.
It took her nearly a year to get through them.
“Because my mom has expressive aphasia, I would listen to her voice and it would be her old voice again, the way it was,” Ms. Selz said. “It was so heartbreaking. I couldn’t listen to them. I would start and then I cried.”
The musical lilt in her voice danced with her ex-husband’s rich baritone as they bantered and discussed “a world and a life that had vanished and, yet, still felt present,” Ms. Selz wrote. It was a window into a world that Ms. Selz wanted to open up and step into. And she had. While studying at Santa Cruz, one of her classes used her father’s book as a text.
She was living history.
“At the same time I’m studying it, I’m also hanging out with the real people,” she said. “That was kind of weird, because I was straddling both worlds. It’s a different world now, but that magic is still there.”
Ms. Selz feels it whenever she talks with her father. On March 27, he turned 95. He is still working, she said, and living unapologetically.
“He absolutely is who he is. I don’t know what I would hate him for,” she said. “He brought a lot into my life. I could have rejected that whole world, but I came back for more. It’s part of my heritage. It’s part of my identity and I want to claim it. And part of that is accepting my father for who he is. And I love him. He is an incredible example of persistence and determination and longevity and life. He’s the embodiment of that.”
For more information about “Unstill Life,” visit gabrielleselz.com.