Wednesday, August 6, 2014
Gabrielle Selz talks about Unstill Life: A Daughter's Memoir of Art and Love in the Age of Abstractions, having a father who was dubbed "Mr. Modern Art," the plight of artists today, and so much more
Gabrielle Selz is a writer and a live storyteller and her debut Unstill life is one of the most fascinating books I've read all year. She holds a BA in art history from the University of California, Santa Cruz and an MFA in writing from City College of New York, and she's worked in commercial television and on the political campaigns of two Greek democratic presidential candidates: Michael Dukakis and Paul Tsongas. She is the recipient of a fellowship in Nonfiction Literature from the New York Foundation for the Arts and a Moth Story Slam winner. She has published in magazines and newspapers including, The New Yorker, The New York Times, More magazine, Fiction, Newsday, and Art Papers. She now writes art reviews for The Huffington Post, and you can read her blog about art and life here.
I’m always curious when it comes to memoirs, how reliable memory can be. Certainly, we remember things differently as we age, and take on new perspective. While you were writing this memoir, did you find that you looked at things differently than you did as a child?
Unstill Life was a very complex memoir to write. There was so much art history involved and the threading together of so many stories. My memory is good, but it wasn't nearly enough, especially in the early sections of the book, which took place before I was even born. I was so lucky to have my mother's journals, her letters (she kept carbon copies of all her own letters as well) and the tapes my parents made to help me and to use as primary source material in Unstill Life. These were written at the time the events took place--they have immediacy and authenticity, that memory doesn't. As I wrote the book, my perspective on the events that took place in my childhood deepened. For instance, for many years I had been upset with my father for his role in the Rothko trial and for what I considered a betrayal of Rothko's children. It was so painful for me that I could barely speak about it. Yet, as I pieced the story together, I understood my father's motivations better. I came to known his character, his belief in what he was doing, the complexity of his action, as well as the complexity of the convoluted and interconnected relationships in the art world. The process of writing was so much more than my memory could possibly encompass. I first had to unravel the material, to separate it out almost thread-by-thread, to authenticate it with research and conversations. I also felt that I wanted to observe, to paint a picture, much more than stand in judgement of other people's behavior. I guess that, in itself, was a huge change in perspective. By the time I wrote the final draft of Unstill Life, I'd arrived at a place where I had no ax to grind. I wasn't impartial, I was just more interested in letting the story and the characters speak for themselves.
Your memoir offers up an amazing you-are-there portrayal of a New York City and a Berkeley that doesn’t exist anymore. To me, things seem more and more difficult in the art world, and artists are being displaced out of the city because of exorbitant rents. How do you see this impacting art itself? And is there a solution?
Yes, artists are being pushed aside in NY and the Bay Area now. Galleries are also being forced to move away from downtown SF due to the huge increases in rents because of all the tech money. It's insane. But it was always insane in NY. That's why they created Westbeth, to give artists a low rent place to live and work. So this problem has been going on for decades. Now, at Westbeth the artists there have aged in place and it's a naturally occurring geriatric community. The old folks there can't even afford to shop at the expensive grocery stores in the Village. I don't know what the solution is. They've cut so much funding from the NEA and from most art organizations. Maybe Kickstarter? Really, or Steven Colbert could go on television and ask individuals to help. I'm only half joking. If we want art in our communities we have to be willing to vote for it, and to raise and earmark the dollars for it. I do think the amazing thing about NY is its ability to rejuvenate. I've now seen at least three major booms ending in busts that have allowed artists to move back into neighborhoods and then the process starts up again. I hear that the new Williamsburg is the Upper East Side--above 96th Street. That gives me hope. But, now these neighborhoods are getting further and further away from the center of the city as the developers follow after the places artists have gutted and renovated.
It's still very rare for an artist to make real money. Because as artists ( as a writer I count myself in this group) we are so passionate about our work, people think we will do it for free. And we probably would, but we shouldn't have to. Since the 1970s, there have been artists doing performance and installation pieces on homelessness and squatting. Gordon Matta Clark did projects on land ownership and the myth of the American dream. It's fascinating how resourceful artists are. How they will turn anything, even (or especially) the predicament of their existence, into art. I know an artist out here in Long Island who's art project is living in a survival shack. The artist Sharon Butler has taken her canvasses off their stretcher bars so that she can work anywhere. She tacks her portable linen on walls . So there this imperative to make it work no matter what. Jackson Pollock took "Mural" off the stretcher bars to get it home and after that, paintings abandoned the frame. Max Beckmann painted on bed sheets after he fled the Nazis to Amsterdam during World War II. Creation is often born from pressures and constraints. In Tehran, Islamic artist Shadi Ghardirian, creates photographs where she exposes the code of Shahariah law--women there can not show their faces or be depicted in works of art--while at the same time still abiding by the restrictions. So she creates surreal images of women in decorative chadors their faces covered by their favorite kitchen utensil: broom, iron, pan, tea cup. These are amazing depictions. At once humorous and poignant, that explore the idea of censorship and religion, and comment on the role of women in society.
And now I'm going to say something maybe a little controversial. I think as artists part of our job is to find away to create art and survive--thrive if possible. Maybe that means not living in NYC or SF. I don't think we get to have it all. Choosing to be an artist is choosing to follow a passion that probably won't earn you the money that investment banking would. So choose with open eyes. Often, if we get what we want--like Westbeth--it doesn't solve the problems. It's still a struggle. The amazing grace of adulthood is learning to live in the space between wanting and having.
You’re exploring a time when art in America transformed itself, but so did people. Can you talk about that?
I think the art, as well as the culture, especially in NY and Berkeley, placed a very high value on self expression and self fulfillment. What was most important to these artists was to explore and express themselves at any cost. They had survived the depression and the war after all. The country was back on its feet, people were making money. And I think this desire for self-expression grew and transformed into becoming the dominate expression of the times. The expansion was powered by the boom in youth culture and by medias like television, which by the 60s, had become the dominate form of molding culture. Think of the changes that took place in the fist half of the 60s: The Free Speech Movement was born, the Civil Rights Act was signed, we landed on the moon, and in1965 the US government ruled that it was unconstitutional to prohibit married couples from using birth control. Sex was liberated.
What I witnessed at Westbeth and in Berkeley was the birth of a Utopian dream--the celebration of creativity and expansion, bohemian lifestyles, sexuality, pervasive drugs, etc., which evolved into the emergence of more hedonistic aspects. I wanted to explore this cycle, in art and in my life. Because it seems to me that the nature of the art of this period, was its need to break free and expand, its push towards infinity. I needed to understand how this need to push outward, to explore and break boundaries at all costs, effected my family. I wanted to understand the intersection of self-expression and family responsibility.
Your father was dubbed “Mr. Modern Art” and you’re a professional art critic. Do you find your sensibilities match your father’s in some way? Do you look at art and artists the same way he did?
Indeed, my father has deeply influenced my art education and sensibilities. He is such a great raconteur. But I am less of a critic than my father. In my writing, I prefer to explore a work of art. I prefer to engage and be with it. I write a lot about installation art because I find that I really enjoy stepping into an art object, becoming part of the evolving process. Dad was such a powerful figure in the art world. He was interested in discovering artists and making careers. He was also a curator, which I am not. I am foremost a writer and approach everything from that place. What's the story behind the object? What's the arc of the experience? Who is this person who created it? What is going on inside them? That sort of thing. I am more interested in falling into a work of art the way I fall between the pages of a book. I love finding myself inside some else's imagination. That's magic.
If you knew what you knew know about how things would change, would you have done anything differently while you were growing up?
Only one thing, not to be left at the Kinderheim. My parents abandoning my sister and me in a foreign country where we didn't know the language or know what was happening left its mark on both of us. It caused irreparable damage to my sister. Of course, that abandonment is indicative of my parents, and a great many of the other art world adults at that time. I don't know who I would have become without having survived that abandonment. Maybe less insecure, but also less resilient and resourceful. I guess we hope there is always a lesson or insight in a traumatic event and that we can be illuminated by it.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
I am thinking a lot about the power of structure, physical and otherwise, in our lives. Also, the architecture and cycles of utopias and dystopias. Abandonment vs oppression. What causes one to lead to the other.
And when I am not pondering these lofty thoughts. I am trying to enjoy myself and my son. It's his last year before he's off to college. The time is very precious to me. So we are obsessed with finding the right school! I see the theme of freedom vs structure is emerging here, too!
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Everyone always assumes that it was painful to write this book. But in fact it was so much fun. Every morning I got to wake up and go into my office and enter this world--with this art! I was able to slip between the pages of my mother's journal, to visit with her before she became ill. I struggled to find a way to seamlessly incorporate so many voices, but particularly hers. Writing this book, bringing this world to life on the page, was one of the greatest joys of my life!