Excerpt from Chapter 3 of Unstill Life

On a hot September day in 1958, holding the hands of my sister Tanya, my parents boarded an airplane for New York City and my father’s new job. However, in their rush to depart, they neglected to remember their one-month-old baby—me—wrapped in a traveling blanket and left behind on a chair in the terminal. The plane was called back to the gate. They found me where they had left me, still asleep in my white traveling blanket.

“Weren’t we silly, not remembering our baby, but you were so very brave,” they would recount laughingly and repeat for years. I loved this tale of their brief, accidental abandonment. It made me feel strong and resilient, and I liked the image of my parents as brainless characters in a 1930s screwball comedy, leaving their baby at the gate. In fact, my parents were anything but silly. They were just very inattentive, and New York, with its continuous swirl of activity, would only increase their distraction.

It took my mother less than twenty-four hours to be seduced by East Coast glamour and sophistication. In her journal the day after her arrival she wrote:

I am drunk, drunk, drunk on New York and all my worst characteristics are showing. I enter the bathroom across a marble threshold, and in the bedroom we sleep in a king-size bed. First time either one of us has ever slept in one. Or even seen one. Though we have seen the beds of kings. This bed is a savannah. Where are you, Pete? Hold my hand. Thrown over us an exquisite muslin spread on which has been stitched “D S duP.” For three stories this monogram on sheets (such percale! I could lick it!), bath towels, bath mat, kitchen towels, glassware in the high-ceilinged dining room (I gaze in awe at 12 champagne glasses at a time), the wide silver frame of a wedding picture in the parlor. D S duP, my unknown benefactress, I stand on the lavender urns in your oriental rug and in my hand I hold a family History. Published, yet. Even with a hard cover . . . There she stands in her wedding gown— yards of snowy taffeta—a plain, undistinguished looking girl with her hair parted in the middle and rolled harshly to either side. Oh, Doris duPont Stilliman Stockly, I could do it so much better. Well, maybe not, but I would sure love to try.

She was ensconced in the mansion of a wealthy benefactress of the museum while she and my father looked for an apartment. Across the river in Brooklyn, my sister and I were placed in the care of Doc and Grammar. Doc had recently been hired by Brooklyn College to run the Chemistry Department, though he still maintained a laboratory and a farm in Illinois where he grew engineered crops because, as soon as he retired, Doc and Grammar intended to feed the hungry of the world just as he had once quenched the thirsty of Chicago.

On her side of the river, surrounded by urbanity and elegance, my mother was as giddy as a teenage girl. She was beside my father on this new adventure, two vagabonds again as they had been in Europe:

Pete and I walked on the Esplanade in Brooklyn Heights and stood and gazed at lower Manhattan glittering in the cold dark and huddled before the sea wind and the challenge facing us, two babes from the boonies. Turning, I saw a woman—smooth, civilized shape standing in a lighted window—juxtaposed to the long winds off the night water and the humor and desolation in the warnings of the foghorns.

Because my father’s job required a fair bit of entertaining, my parents were advised on the importance of an uptown, Central Park West location. An address deemed slightly more formal than downtown, while suggesting a more congenial attitude than the staid East Side. Within days my parents found an apartment in the same building as René d’Harnoncourt, my father’s boss at MoMA. The Turin was dark and cavernous, with a caged elevator that ran up through the center like an artery. The elevator, with its brass gate and giant shiny crank, was our thoroughfare and nexus. When I was seven and Tanya nine, the elevator men went on strike and we and some of the other children of the building were charged with running this majestic machine. For nearly a week, paired with a buddy each, we ferried our parents out of their apartments, down to the lobby and off to work. With its beaux-arts façade, the Turin was in the ballpark of elegance, but turn the corner and walk down Ninety-third or Ninety-fourth Street and rows of brownstone tenements were vacant, gutted and boarded up. Yet the Building, as it came to be called, turned out to be an intellectual and psychological gold mine.

In the late afternoons, Pauline Kael, the opinionated film critic who reigned at The New Yorker, glowered from behind a cloud of cigarette smoke as she ascended to her apartment—a few floors above ours. “Careful, girls,” she’d growl as we jerked the elevator to her stop. Her often-whimsical decrees ruled the cultural and Hollywood filmscape. Once, right after the movie Cleopatra premiered, even Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton came to pay their respects to Pauline Kael at the Building. Kael, in her inimitable way, had blessed their film in her review with the words, “Oh, go see it anyway!”
Upstairs also lived the frail poet Adrienne Rich with her husband and three sons. This was before Rich became the voice of lesbian, feminist poetry. I can barely remember her three sons, who must have been on elevator duty the week of the strike, only fierce-looking Rich, her round face rimmed with short hair, propped between two crutches. She suffered from acute rheumatoid arthritis and her hunched body reminded me of Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol.

The social heart of the building lived up on the ninth floor. A wild-haired Russian Marxist named Roz Roose, who hosted salons each Sunday afternoon and invited everyone—kids and all—over for lox and bagels and smoked fish. An irresistible, nonstop talker, Roz immediately embraced my parents. Norman Mailer came to Roz’s parties along with whomever he was married to at the time. So did the playwright Arthur Penn and the comedy team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May.

With Sunday salons, museum events, and the Artists’ Club down on Eighth Street where the New York School of painters and sculptors gathered to exchange opinions—and where one night my father nearly got into a fistfight with the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg after Ginsberg called him bourgeois for working for MoMA and my father called Ginsberg even more bourgeois for publishing in Time magazine—fairly quickly my parents were in the thick of it all.

These were the years my parents referred to as “the red carpet years” and my mother called “that life.” Describing a party she attended soon after they arrived, she wrote:

The movie actress Hedy Lamarr came through town and wanted to buy a painting from one of The Boys (Rothko, Guston, Motherwell et al) and so there was a party and she arrived—beautiful, with an enveloping magnetism—carrying a pad and a pencil under one arm with the blithe insistence that each of the artists draw her a birthday greeting (for free of course) right on the spot. This wife drunk, that wife jealous, Hedy offering Franz Kline’s girl a screen test. Franz Kline yelling, “We’ll draw her a picture, boys, and then do you know what we’ll do??? We’ll FUCK her!” Well of course they did all draw her a picture—except Cavallon. And Cavallon’s wife found him later in the kitchen with Hedy—a hand on each of her breasts.

Called the Irascibles, the New York School, or the Abstract Expressionists, my parents referred to the guys who smoked, drank and argued about painting whenever they got together simply as the Boys. Even though they were older than my father, they were still boys.

There were women artists, Helen Frankenthaler, Hedda Sterne and the grand dame Louise Nevelson, but these were ladies—especially Helen, who had a manicure every day after she finished painting. When my mother was introduced to Helen Frankenthaler, at one of my father’s first formal events, Helen snubbed my mother, saying her evening dress looked like a wrinkled nightgown, and poor mortified Mom’s face crumpled like the flimsy garment she had on. This was before Mom began dressing up, and maybe Helen had something to do with the metamorphosis of my mother’s wardrobe, because the very next day Helen sent her a beautiful black dress with satin piping at the hem, and they remained friends even after my parents’ divorce.

These women painters were good artists, but they certainly didn’t hang out drinking at night as a group. When I was older, my father admonished me never to refer to this coterie of famous artists as Abstract Expressionists. “Some are abstract painters, denying anything but color and form on the canvas, while others are Expressionists. Meaning, Gaby, they allow their feelings to enter their paintings.”

Upon their landing in New York, my father immediately took my mother to visit Mark Rothko and his wife Mell at Rothko’s studio because Dad wanted to put together a Rothko retrospective at MoMA. Mark rushed forward and clasped, not my father’s hand, but my mother’s. It turned out that a few years earlier in 1954, Doc had tried to save Rothko’s teaching job at Brooklyn College. Doc might have been born a peasant who didn’t know much about modern art—though he had a strong affinity for the art of ancient Greece—but after he’d seen one of those exuberantly colored Rothko paintings he’d burst into tears, not an uncommon reaction to Rothko’s work. When Rothko told this story to my mother, he related how Doc had stood up at the faculty meeting and thrown behind Rothko all the weight of his chaired position, which meant in true Doc style he’d screamed and yelled and flung an eraser at Ad Reinhardt, who was voting to keep on the lesser painter Jimmy Ernst, the son of the surrealist painter Max Ernst. Though Rothko’s contract wasn’t renewed, he’d remembered the name of the crazy Greek with the waxed mustache twitching in agitation. My mother couldn’t have been more pleased. In this unfamiliar landscape someone important, someone my father respected, knew her, or at least her father.

And, then there was Willem de Kooning. Literally translated, his Dutch surname meant “the King,” and he was. After years of poverty, de Kooning was finally becoming commercially successful. He had gained renown in the late forties when he’d covered his canvases with swaths of black-and-white enamel paint, because he could get it by the gallon, cheap. He was still one of the Boys but also, due to his fame, slightly beyond them. But Dad always said that even though de Kooning was credited with inventing Abstract Expressionism, he was never purely an Abstract artist; you could always spot a subject in his paintings, somewhere. When my parents met de Kooning he was already in his fifties, though he still had a boyish face, and a stocky build. They carted him home for dinner and fed him at the dining room table my father had constructed from a simple plywood door using steel piping for the legs. It was a very Bauhaus-looking table, both elegant and utilitarian, and the only thing Dad had ever made with his own hands except that mustard-colored ceramic bunny that he’d sculpted in college. All the artists loved the door-table, especially de Kooning. He would later create a whole “door series” of garish female figures six feet tall painted not on canvas, but on simple wood-paneled doors. These were not based on my father’s table, but done because de Kooning had ordered the wrong size of doors for his house in the Springs. Still, making his table, seeing those door paintings, made my father feel like he, too, was an artist at heart.

It was a small circle, more of a cluster, really, who met for cocktails, openings, the theater or dinner a few nights a week. My parents had been used to busy lives, but nothing had prepared them for the whirlwind and the saber-toothed competition of life in New York. Dad was the new guy, the young guy, the guy the New York Times had dubbed Mr. Modern Art, and he was on everyone’s invitation list.

My mother, who hadn’t expected to enjoy this life so much, was now smack-dab in the middle of what she called life finally happening. No more waiting around. Though our babysitting fees are exorbitant. She wrote friends back in Claremont of swirling from party to party, then tumbling exhausted into bed. I rise each morning with barely three hours of sleep to care for the children. Standing in front of the 5th floor apartment window I still get a jolt. There instead of the mountains of Southern California are the green trees of the park and the Guggenheim Museum, hovering like a large snail over Fifth Avenue. She hadn’t made the psychological move across the country yet, and for a few short minutes she’d wonder if she’d ever find a way of binding herself to this world as more than just a decorative element on my father’s arm.

Then the day would begin and my father would hurry off to his office downtown. God, he loved walking in the front door of MoMA. “My shows are decided by me and me alone,” he told my mother. In fact, he did have to get the okay from d’Harnoncourt in curatorial meetings, but they were his ideas. His research was extensive. Where were the paintings to be found? What could they borrow? Back then insurance wasn’t the huge factor it is now, but there were no computers to help locate the art. However, my father had traveled extensively and would continue to do so for the museum. From back when he was a young boy he had visited museums frequently. He knew where many of the paintings might be located. And yet art, particularly modern art, was always moving. Constantly in search of new art, Dad had meetings and lunches with artists and dealers. He wrote his own catalogue essays and oversaw the production and installation of his exhibitions. When he first arrived at MoMA he barely knew how to hang a show, and René had to demonstrate how it was done. The most important work was hung at the entryway of the show. The middle of the painting should be right below eye level and all the works in the room should “speak” to one another. Before each show was hung, Dad played with a little model on his desk of the gallery spaces. It looked like my dollhouse (my sister and I shared a Bauhaus dollhouse of Modernist design), and he’d spend hours happily rearranging the tiny pictures on the tiny walls before the show opened. “It takes a lot of finesse,” he told my mother.

At home, after my dad had left for work, my mother set off for the playground across the street with my sister and me. By all accounts, I was a contented though rambunctious child, dark, sturdy and Herculean, while Tanya was what my mother called fey, cautious, delicate and as pale blond as corn silk. Already, in my toddlerhood, I was aware of the frantic quality of my parents’ lives and of how quickly my mother disappeared into her own liminal space, conscious of our need perhaps for a coat, but not fully present. Whenever my sister and I slipped our small hands coyly into hers, she’d squeeze our fingers gently, then shake them free. She didn’t like to be held on to, not by us. While we played in the sandbox at her feet, she read or scribbled in her journal.

Gradually she was drawn into conversation with the other mothers around her. Women who were married to television producers, psychotherapists or UN delegates. They sat in a semicircle above their children, shrouded in cigarette smoke. Periodically one of these mothers would stop chatting, and like a puff of a smoke signal a warning would drift down to us children to watch out for broken glass and dog poop. Like the derelict buildings on the side streets, Central Park had yet to be refurbished; it was a minefield of dog droppings, needles, rusty nails—you name it, and you could find it under your bottom on the playground. But the women who sat above us were glamorous, regal as statues in their stockinged legs, high heels and sprayed bouffant hairdos protected under bright Pucci or gauze scarves they tied under their chins. They swung their pocketbooks, lit each other’s cigarettes and talked gaily about lives prior to their marriages and babies, when they had pursued careers in publishing or advertising.

My mother, with her subtle eye for drama and fondness for intrigue, loved the gossip of the playground. By now, she joked, “I have a closet full of evening dresses and nothing to wear to the playground.” And it was true. Even at the park she wouldn’t be seen without a pair of large, decorative earrings dangling almost to her shoulders. There, sitting in the cluster of moms, she told stories about her Pete, who was at that very moment being lionized somewhere, lunching with the Surrealist painter Joan Miró. Miró has such hypnotic eyes; or perhaps Jean Arp, whose aging girlfriend is the former mistress of D. H. Lawrence. If he was traveling then, Pete was in London accompanying the Queen Mother through the Tate Gallery, or in Paris carousing with Alberto Giacometti, who sculpted in daylight, painted at night, and drank between shifts. In Germany he was awarded the Order of Merit by the federal republic for his work on German Expressionism. “Everything that happens,” my mother said, “happens to Pete.”

Roz Roose, our upstairs neighbor and a rabble-rouser extraordinaire, inspired my mother and her friends to join a protest against the atom bomb down at City Hall. After dropping their children off with the babysitter, they dressed up in their heels and white gloves, and trooped down to join the demonstration. I expected ten to thirty people, but this is New York, and there were about five hundred. The Beats were out—the girls had brushed their long hair and made up nicely and put on their prettiest pants and earrings, the guys trimmed their beards for the occasion. The only other men in the crowd were a few Ivy League types and Norman Mailer who was talking to Dorothy Day, the old pacifist from Catholic Worker. It was like a cocktail party at lunchtime until the paddy wagon showed up. Mom and her friends, with our instinct for self-preservation, put on dark glasses, just in case a photographer tried to snap their picture. After all, they had husbands with prestigious jobs and children waiting at home for dinner. Right before she was almost carted off in the paddy wagon, my mother sweet-talked the cop into letting her go.

Still, she wanted to do . . . something! In particular, she wanted to be known for her writing. As she explained to my father later that night when he found her standing by the sink, hands in soapy dishwater, “I couldn’t even let myself get arrested!”

Pausing over the suds. “I want to step into the sphere of my own importance.”

“But you are so wonderful.” My father stroked her back. “Everybody seems to know it. There is no one quite like you.”

She was unique like a painting. Each afternoon at four o’clock when my father wasn’t off traveling, my mother began her transformation. She’d found an inexpensive seamstress in the neighborhood, bought her fabric cheap down in the Garment District, and had the outfits she saw in paintings copied. With a little magic of white silk she soon resembled a Singer Sargent or, in oriental-patterned sarong and red sash, suddenly she was as decorative as a Matisse. If she was worried about other women stealing my father’s attention, she also sensed that art was his truest love and the real contender for his affections; she would not be outdone by a painting. With a tease to her hair, a brush of scarlet to her lips, a dab of gardenia-scented perfume at the nape of her neck, she’d slip her feet into gold-scalloped high heels and turn us over to the babysitter. Then, shawl thrown over her shoulders, she’d blow us a good-night kiss as she sailed with my father out the door.

They were off to the races: flying into the elevator, then into a taxi and into another elevator and then—whoosh!— arriving in someone’s apartment already full of people drinking expensive liquor. It is hi to Mark and Mell Rothko, to Philip and Musa Guston who hovers like a bird over her drink. Mark is now the self-declared Prince of Painting, telling Pete that he’s dubbed himself with this name after being introduced to David Rockefeller, the Prince of Finance! My mother identified with Mark’s sense of irony and drama, as well as Mell’s lack of illusions about the art world. Besides, she was their third wheel, accompanying the Rothkos to openings when Dad traveled. And how do you do Sir John Rothenstein [for this particular reception was honoring the esteemed director of the Tate Gallery in London]. Mark beaming upon this little grinning bullfrog of a man and swelling out his chest and in his precise way saying, “Sir Rothenstein, Sir Rothenstein, I am an ambitious man, I wish to be buried in Westminster Abbey. How am I to accomplish this?” Who even remembers Sir Rothenstein’s reply.

TS180Thalia Selz at a party

At some point my father would call my mother over to look at a painting on the wall or to hear what he was proclaiming about the painting on the wall. Pete always repeats his words to make sure I’ve heard him—ha-ha—at the same time someone yells in my ear, “And I just want to tell you, before you disappear. I love your black stockings and pink satin ballet shoes, like a Degas dancer!” Then, invariably, because one party a night wasn’t enough, my father beckoned and my mother slipped into her wrap, snaked her delicate hands into their long white gloves, kissed her hostess goodbye and dashed with my father into the foyer, where for one still, quiet moment they took it all in—that life! Then, back onto the elevator and into another taxi, zipping off for supper among the New York psychiatrists, whom one should never take seriously, or with the wealthy, whom one should always take seriously because they love being thought important so much, or the artists and that is enough like breathing so one doesn’t have to be careful at all.

The artists, because that’s why they had come to New York, for the art and the artists.

In the late fifties, when the art world was still in the grip of abstraction, my father wanted to show art that hadn’t abandoned the figure entirely. Not exactly figurative art, but art that showed man in the tumult of the second half of the century. My father had come up with the idea for this show even before he left Pomona. And both Alfred Barr and René d’Harnoncourt were behind him. But critics like Clement Greenberg believed that after the war, “High art must be abstract.” Liberated from the confines of the image, purged to its essentials, abstract painting was free. It was pure art. To paint any other way, to include subject matter or illusion, was a violation of the progress of modern art. Greenberg had even sidled up to Willem de Kooning at a Jackson Pollock opening and intoned, “Now it’s impossible to paint a face,” and de Kooning, the great reinventor of the face, not to be displaced, replied, “Yes, and also impossible not to.”

My father, a man full of the power, vigor and emotional passion that had generated Expressionism, found Greenberg’s approach too narrow and formulaic. Besides, my father liked going against the grain and believed great art, whether abstract or not, was the expression of deep human experience. Like de Kooning, he wanted to wrestle with the question of what had happened to the image of man in the ascendance of abstract art. Where had the figure gone and what did it look like now? My father saw the figure as not just physical, but spiritual in nature. He was not the kind of man to be swayed by the prevailing wind. Already he thought of himself as a maverick, like his charismatic and uncompromising cousin Stieglitz. In the age of abstraction, rediscovering the figure was a radical act. His show New Images of Man debuted at MoMA in the fall of 1959. Though he had chosen the young artists (Robert Rauschenberg and Helen Frankenthaler) to represent America at the small Paris Biennale for MoMA the year before, New Images was my father’s first major show for the Modern. It included the attenuated spindlelike sculptures of Alberto Giacometti, the early graffiti scratches of Jean Dubuffet, Francis Bacon’s macabre paintings of the Pope (nobody understood Bacon, my father said; his paintings could be picked up for $1,000) alongside Richard Diebenkorn’s bright forms residing in fields of color, Karel Appel’s gaudy heads and Willem de Kooning’s famous series of women. It even included some of Jackson Pollock’s late black-and-white tormented shapes that hovered between figurative and abstraction. Like my father, the show was a mix of European and American influences. While the reviews were mixed (Art News called my father’s inclusions of artists outside of New York, such as Diebenkorn and Leon Golub, a sign of his “talentscout mentality,” but the New York Times wrote that “the exhibition is disquieting and unsettling precisely because it ruthlessly invades our inner privacy”), the exhibition was a whopping success and broke museum attendance records. But many of the artists of the Abstract school felt threatened by Dad’s desire to feature the reemergence of the figure, let alone sculpture. The well-known painter Barnett Newman, an Abstract Expressionist (sorry!) who divided fields of color on his large canvases with vertical zips of pigment, was upset because the show included sculptors.

“Sculpture,” Newman told my father, “is what you back into when you look at a painting.”

It was not a show that returned to the figure in the traditional sense. A lot of the images were twisted, contorted and barely recognizable as forms at all. But Willem de Kooning’s women epitomized the ideas my father was trying to put forth. De Kooning’s women were wrestling with life. They were opulent, fleshcolored, aggressive, creamy-smeared and had humorous or scary faces that glared out of the canvas, they were engaged in a full-on battle between image and background. My father said that de Kooning was merging the symbolic representations of women through the ages with the present, modern generation he saw all around him.

dk180Woman and Bicycle 1952–53,
Willem de Kooning

De Kooning had told my father that his women did not emerge out of the act of painting, but were received rapidly when he saw a woman walk into a room, a bar or at a party. It was essential to him to catch these glimpses and tie the images quickly down on canvas. He would affix the head and the legs first, then often cutand- paste the mouths from toothy smiles of models in fashion magazines. “Flesh,” de Kooning said, “was the reason oil painting was invented.” Dad called them “the earth goddesses of the advertising age.” They were funny, luridly gorgeous and sharptongued- looking women. The sort of women who talked openly about the Oedipal complexes they had transferred to their psychiatrists. They were like the playground moms who wore high heels and red lipstick even in the morning and who, when they weren’t watching their children, knocked back cocktails and flirted with—sometimes slept with—each other’s husbands. They marched in protests, baited police, grinned behind dark glasses at photographers and sometimes got hauled off in paddy wagons. They were like my mother, quintessentially 1950s, struggling to be seen and heard as more than just ornamentation.

My mother, who had helped with the research and editing for the catalogue, was proud of my father’s first New York show and of how far he had risen so fast. Only a year earlier he’d been a university professor, and now he was Mr. Modern Art. She referred to him jokingly as the small monument in the center of her life. But she, too, wanted to come out of abstraction and into definition. On a special tour right before the opening of the New Images show, they rode an elevator up to the penthouse of the museum and stepped out onto the balcony. All of New York was spread out below them like a glittering sea. My father had made the leap across the ocean and the dream he had pursued for so long was real. They had scaled the shining cliffs of the city. Throwing his arms up in the air, he cried out, “It’s ours, baby, all ours.”

And for that brief moment it was.