Gabrielle Selz, Writer

Resident at Westbeth in the early 1970s

(In 1970, my mother, having recently taken on the job selecting the first group of artists to live in the utopian artists housing project, Westbeth, had decided that we should join this pioneering new community.)

My mother, my sister Tanya and I had a “duplex,” a vast overstatement, as a duplex in “Modernist” vocabulary meant just two tiny spaces connected by a steep, raw cement staircase. Because Tanya was a teenager, she needed her own sanctum and was given the lower section of the duplex. She had a swinging red saloon door, à la Bonanza, between her closet and the wall to distinguish her bedroom from our little vestibule, and boy, did I enjoy tormenting her by swinging that door every time I went in and out of the apartment! My mother and I slept upstairs, where there were two main spaces: a kitchen/dining area separated by a thin wall from the living space, with an adjoining bathroom. Mom took the living section and put our couch and Knoll coffee table in one corner, her bureau in the middle and her bed up on a raised platform in front of the huge window—that part of the apartment was now our living room and her bedroom. Because our ceilings were so high, a carpenter was hired to build a sleeping loft for me. It cantilevered out over the dining nook and instead of walls for privacy I had a railing over which my mother draped her old black Spanish shawl with embroidered red roses. This thin membrane separated me from the rest of the house. A solution I found totally acceptable. In my new accommodations, I felt like I was living in a tree house.

Those eighteen-foot ceilings my mother had raved about—made of poured concrete, they waved in ripples and had been inspired by ocean currents and installed as part of an early experiment Bell Labs conducted in surround sound. They carried every creak, whisper, cackle and moan, literally around the block. Not only did I hear a composer working on his next symphony, but also the family down the hall sitting down to dinner and the drunk father next door yelling at his infant son. We developed our own Morse code, taps along on the walls and pipes to tell some noisy creator, Keep the racket down.

I loved Westbeth. At night, camped out in my loft like a bird in a nest, surrounded by the noises of five-hundred-plus artists busy at work, I drifted easily off to sleep to the humming, buzzing sound of people all around me.

Excerpted and edited from Unstill Life: A Daughter’s Memoir of Art and Love in the Age of Abstraction (2014), W.W. Norton, courtesy of Gabrielle Selz, gabrielleselz.com/unstill-life/.

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