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Unstill Life: A Daughter's Memoir of Art and Love in the Age of Abstraction Hardcover – May 5, 2014

4.6 out of 5 stars 23 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

*Booklist Starred Review* Selz inherited her writer mother’s powers of literary expression and her father’s eye for art, and she draws on both in this arresting and uniquely illuminating postwar art-world memoir. Thalia, shy, introspective, and adventurous, “elegant as a tulip,” and of English and Greek descent, grew up in Chicago. Peter, born to a wealthy Jewish family in Munich, fled the Nazis, landed in New York, and connected with his relative and mentor, photographer and modern art advocate Alfred Stieglitz. Ambitious and gregarious, Peter became chief curator for the Museum of Modern Art and the first director of the Berkeley Art Museum. Selz spent her childhood among famous artists, most memorably Mark Rothko, and now crisply recounts an endless carousel of exhibitions, parties, affairs, rivalries, gossip, and tragedies on both coasts in incisive and abrading eye-witness accounts of outrageous behavior and radical artistic innovation, from abstract expressionism to pop art to Christo’s Running Fence. She writes frankly of her father’s epic infidelity, her parents’ divorce, her nearly surreal sojourn in a communal Manhattan artists’ housing project, and her tricky relationships with Peter&'s subsequent wives and many lovers. Selz's memoir of aesthetic fervor, discovery, selfishness, sacrifice, sorrow, and abiding love is compelling testimony to art’s uplifting and, at times, diabolical power.
--Donna Seaman, Booklist

Review

Unstill Life is a loving scrutiny of a marriage and its two magnetic members. It also serves as a personal art history of a thrilling time in Western painting and sculpture. Ultimately though, its subject is the same as every good memoir, the long, hard work of becoming your own person.  --Hermonie Hoby, The Times Literary Supplement

The daughter of art critic and historian Peter Selz, called Mr. Modern Art when he “reigned” as the chief curator of New York’s Museum of Modern Art from the late 1950s through the mid-’60s, Gabrielle Selz fashions a profoundly moving tribute to her parents in this memoir of her childhood, from Central Park West to Berkeley. All tenderly captured by an author who knows art in her bones.
--Publishers Weekly

One of the season’s page-tuners: Selz’s reminiscences of coming of age amidst an explosion of creativity and social change are clear-eyed, sympathetic—and sometimes heartbreaking.
--Art News

Gabrielle Selz has a flair for the apt anecdote, and her father ensured to her chagrin that she never ran out of stories... Her evocation of her father’s long life explores the bittersweet intersection of modern art and modern family, and the collateral damage of the revolution.
--David D’Arcy, San Francisco Chronicle

Unstill Life is a page-turner, not just because of its unique point of view, but also because Gabrielle Selz is a skilled writer who knows how to keep things moving. There are more than enough great anecdotes about art world notables to carry the book, but just the narrative of Gabrielle’s own finding her way is beautifully told and compelling. There must certainly be a few things she chose to leave out, but Unstill Life has enough honesty and frankness to provide real credibility.
--John Seed, Hyperallergic

In one of the Summer’s Buzziest Beach Reads thoughtfully evokes life in the shadows of her larger-than-life curator father, Peter Selz.
--Vogue Magazine

“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

“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

“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
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (May 5, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393239179
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393239171
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1.3 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #875,624 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
It was with great anticipation that I read "Unstill Life," Gabrielle Selz's memoir of growing up in the celebrated and notorious art worlds of New York and San Francisco, from the early 1960s to the 1980s. The book's protagonist is not Selz, but her father, MoMA chief curator Peter Selz, the man the New York Times dubbed "Mr. Modern Art." He was a man who dominated rooms both inside and outside the museum, and around which his wives and daughters orbited.

My grandfather--who was 15 years older than Peter Selz--moved in similar circles and though they never met, their paths crossed several times. I have an illustrated letter from Marc Chagall to my grandfather (the two became lifelong friends after my grandfather smuggled Chagall and his wife across the Pyrénées, out of Nazi-occupied France). Selz, too, worked with the artist whom he found difficult at times, and was himself a refugee from Munich, escaping the Nazi regime just before Kristallnacht. Like my grandfather, Selz was a man of immense intellect and charisma, a man who never sat down and stopped "doing," a philanderer who demanded attention at all times but whose drive and intellect seemed to naturally deserve such attentions.

"My father couldn't make art but he could ferret it out," writes Gabrielle Selz, "dredge it from the deep unknown waters offshore and haul it to land. He could sing its praises and honor it. He could place it in history." In fact, her father helped create history, fully aware of this feat in a way that only a narcissist could be. Gabrielle Selz's childhood was enveloped in huge egos that produced great works: Rothko, deKooning, Pollock, Appel.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a fantastic book! Beautifully written! A fascinating history of Abstract Expressionism, and Gabrielle Seiz's father's bringing it to the US ( NYC, the Museum of Modern Art) and to CA, especially, as well as a biography of her parents and family. And the impact all this had on her upbringing and life in general. I highly recommend this book! Couldn't put it down!
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Format: Hardcover
I loved this book. It is a wonderfully woven memoir, an inside glimpse into a moment in time in the art world, and a bygone era of "innocence," glamor, and at times darkness, that reached beyond that world.
Also a multi-layered, intimate and poignant paean to the author's notorious father, the book brought me to tears a couple of times, made me nostalgic, but above all gave me a great admiration for Ms. Selz's apparent inherent ability to retain a clear vision and wit, even at a very young age when, surrounded by some of the great (male) artists/egos of the Modern era (Expressionism and beyond), a less self-possessed person could have easily had her spirit crushed.
"Unstill Life" should definitely be read by anyone interested in modern and contemporary art history, but anyone merely interested in the human condition will enjoy it too.
Put it at the top of your summer reading list!
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Unstill Life is an amazing story and Gabrielle Selz is a master story teller. She invites you in to her personal life which is poignant, yet she's able to convey her story as if the reader had a ring side seat in her life.
What is evident is the love that she has for her father in spite of all his antics with women. He is a lovable, charming and complicated personality as is her mother who was quite a strong woman and successful in her own right. What amazing lives they lead. I enjoyed this story from the first page and was sorry it had to end I was so captured in the lives of the artists, the parties and the 60's.
I highly recommend this book. I'm looking forward to follow this author, she's amazing.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a great book. Not many people may know about Peter Selz. This is a nice introduction to him, the Selz family and the time period in the art world. It helped me imagine Gabrielle's childhood and the artists that were, and still are, a part of her life.
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Gabrielle Selz’s memoir “Unstill Life” is a story elegantly told, and a very engaging read.

The author recounts the relationship of her parents, one of deep love and heartbreak, which mirrors the relationship she in turn has with her father, a grand figure in the the art world. The world of art- its characters, movements, and masterpieces— is also recollected with affection by someone whose life is intricately woven within it.

She recalls growing up among the Abstract Expressionists, visiting with the Rothkos and other well-known figures such as Jean Tiguley, Karel Appel and Max Beckman. For those familiar with the artists and movements, she brings new and intriguing stories and observations, while those readers less familiar are also brought along with concise descriptions of their importance. At all times, Gabrielle balances her personal story with the larger historical narrative.

Her mother, a writer of fiction whose animated journals excerpts are included, comes alive in her own words as well as her daughter’s. One can see how Gabrielle carries on the legacy of both her mother’s literary aspirations and her father’s artistic devotion.

This many-layered novel ends with Gabrielle’s growing into her own—she is able to look back with the clarity of a witness, yet never loses the bittersweet emotional tone of one who lived through it all. I found it to be a moving coming-of-age tale as well as a firsthand historical narrative creatively told.
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