This absorbing biography, often conveyed through Peter Selz’s own words, traces the journey of a Jewish-German immigrant from Hitler’s Munich to the United States and on to an important career as a pioneer historian of modern art. Paul J. Karlstrom illuminates key historical and cultural events of the twentieth-century as he describes Selz’s extraordinary career—from Chicago’s Institute of Design (New Bauhaus), to New York’s Museum of Modern Art during the transformative 1960s, and as founding director of the University Art Museum at UC Berkeley. Karlstrom sheds light on the controversial viewpoints that at times isolated Selz from his colleagues but nonetheless affirmed his conviction that significant art was always an expression of deep human experience. The book also links Selz’s long life story—featuring close relationships with such major art figures as Mark Rothko, Dore Ashton, Willem de Kooning, Sam Francis, and Christo—with his personal commitment to political engagement.
Peter Selz Sketches of a Life in Art
Munich, Art, and Hitler
Peter Selz remembers clearly his first encounters with the art world, events that provided framework and meaning for the rest of his life. His maternal grandfather, Julius Drey, owned an art and antiques gallery in Munich, and early on he introduced his receptive grandson to the wonders of visual-arts high culture (Figs. 2 and 3). Peter was entirely captivated, his world taken over and his sense of who he was permanently formed. It was a world that he was determined to make his own.
Born at home on March 27, 1919, Peter was the youngest son of Eugen Selz and Edith Drey. His grandparents on both sides were from German Jewish families that had been mainly in the greater Munich area for several generations, though Eugen's grandfather was a rabbi in a small Franconian town, and Edith's mother came from Leipzig (see Fig. 4). Edith had been previously married, and her first son, Paul Weil, lived with his father. Eugen and Edith's first son, Edgar, was born in 1915, and then came Peter (see Fig. 6). His birth name was Hanns Peter, but it was shortened by dropping the first name when he was five and then later changed to Peter Howard for his Americanization papers. He was a genuine Mⁿnchner by birth and upbringing, and that historic Bavarian city played an important early role in the formation of his thinking and his ultimate career trajectory.
Peter's father was an ophthalmologist with a successful practice that, however, diminished during the mid-1930s as Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist Party became increasingly influential. Yet the rise of Hitler and Nazism was not the main thing Peter remembers from his youthful world. Although his education was abruptly truncated in 1935 with the expulsion of Jews from the German Catholic school system, his early memories consist of unrelated-and for the most part pleasant-experiences.
The house in which Edgar and Peter were born, overlooking the Isar River, stood on the northwest corner of Weidenmeyerstrasse and Liebigstrasse in the central district, and the family lived there for twelve years. The boys walked back and forth to school twice a day, returning home for lunch at midday. Peter remembers riding his bicycle to the Viktualienmarkt near Peterskirche, a location depicted in painstaking detail by Adolf Hitler in watercolor about twenty years earlier. Viewed from a much later perspective, this urban landscape gives an almost surrealistic cast to Munich as a quotidian stage on which German Jews and the architect of their annihilation shared the same temporal space.
From the large apartment on the Isar River, Peter recalled the move to a smaller but "still very nice" apartment in Schwabing, close to the boys' school. After several years residing in those comfortable but somewhat reduced circumstances, the Selz family moved again. Dr. Selz's office had been on Barerstrasse, between Theresienstrasse and Briennerstrasse-only a few blocks from the headquarters of Nazi power. But as the situation worsened, Peter's parents combined family living quarters with Dr. Selz's office in a smaller apartment on Theatinerstrasse, "which was not a good deal at all. Those last two years in Munich were a crowded situation.... My grandfather had a big place still. He was pretty well off. We did not live nearly as well as my grandparents did."
Peter's recollections of his early childhood and family life in Munich are mostly sanguine. He acknowledged, and seems to have accepted as normal for the time and place, an emotional distance between parents-especially mother-and offspring: "I was much closer to my father than my mother." But asked if he felt deprived in terms of her attention, her love, he responded, "No, that's the way it was."
Until the Nazis came my childhood was very secure. Very well ordered. Sunday morning we'd have a family breakfast. Then we would visit my paternal grandparents, who were very old by that time. I had about an hour listening to what they had to say. Then we went to the Odeonsplatz ... where the army band played Brahms and Beethoven. My first introduction to music, an army band playing great music, was not so good.... At 1:00 sharp we had Sunday dinner at my maternal grandparents', the art dealer. And they lived very, very well. In the afternoon they visited us for coffee and cake. And then we had supper. Now, this was every Sunday.
Though remarkably matter-of-fact in most of his descriptions of those years, Peter remembers with fondness the mountain hikes in the Bavarian Alps with his father and, often but not always, his brother Edgar. He describes these outings as the best part of his family life:
We always went into the Alps, and one time we went as far as the Dolomites. Another time we went to Chamonix. And then across the Mer de Glace, which was very hazardous-we had this guide who took us across the ice. The glacier is now melting. I was a great hiker. They tell me I walked eight hours when I was four years old [a story that Edgar corroborates].... I was very close to my father then, because he took me everywhere so we could hike together. Those were wonderful, wonderful times-we went hiking in the mountains the winter before I left for America, just my father and I.
Peter's mother, however, seems more absent than present during this time. He continues: "My mother spent most of her time with her lady friends, and especially with her parents, whom she said she knew longer than she knew my father or us. So that's where she spent a lot of her time. Until I was seven the person I was close to was my nanny. I was crestfallen when she left."
That is the exception to Peter's dispassionate early-life partial amnesia-the bittersweet memory of his nanny, Rosa. When asked whom he liked better, his nanny or his mother, he answered without hesitation, "My nanny." Several stories and memories, even a few photographs, touchingly bear witness to this deep childhood attachment as well. One studio photograph (see Fig. 5) depicts a nude young Peter sitting with his hand on Rosa's shoulder. He has kept the tiny print as a valued souvenir over these many years, and is still pained by the way his parents dismissed Rosa and failed to tell him she would not be returning at the end of her summer break, as she had done reliably thus far. Peter described how he would collect rocks and other aesthetic objects on his hikes along the mountain streams, putting them in boxes that he would present to Rosa upon her return. He had her gift box waiting at the end of the summer when she did not reappear. He never saw her again. His disappointment remains palpable after almost eighty years.
The other most important person for Peter at that time was Grandfather Drey. Several times a month Peter and Edgar would meet their grandfather at the Alte Pinakothek, the venerable Munich art museum. Edgar remembered that they got "a wonderful strange religious education from paintings of the old masters.... And Peter was particularly interested.... I had other interests." Eventually it was just Peter and his grandfather on these forays. According to Peter, they went in sequence to see the Flemish paintings, then on the next visit the Dutch, and on yet another, the Italian. With pride he credits his family mentor with knowing a "great, great deal" about art. "He realized that I was very interested in the paintings. And he would talk about them. The Four Apostles by Dⁿrer, Rembrandt's Sacrifice of Isaac, a late Titian. He would tell me what was going on, the stories, what the painting was about. And the painters. He was totally self-taught."
Peter's chronicles of his past connect Germany to his life in America in interesting ways. One telling example is the account of his earliest contact with German Expressionist artists. Once again, the crucial figure is his art-dealer grandfather:
He introduced me to art.... And when he saw my response he took me almost every week. But the masters who interested me the most when I was a kid were the most expressionistic, the prototypes. Especially Rembrandt, El Greco, and Grⁿnewald.... And before long I actually saw the contemporary Germans in what was a precursor to the big decadent art show [Entartete Kunst] that Hitler put on in 1937. I was gone by that time, but in 1935 there was a smaller version. So interestingly enough, at the main police station in Munich you saw Kandinskys, Klees, Kirchners, and Beckmanns. Which were already vilified at that point as degenerate. I remember seeing these very badly installed paintings, and I found them extremely interesting.
In 1934, with encouragement and advice from his grandfather, Peter set out on his first vagabond experience, a bicycle expedition with a close friend, Herbert Kahn, through the Italian Alps into Venice (see Fig. 7). He describes it as the greatest adventure of his early years:
When we were fifteen, I liberated myself and my friend. We went to Italy, and I have pictures. This whole album is from our Venetian trip. We went to Venice, to Verona. Saw the Fascist monuments. I knew where to go. And Vicenza, see? [looking at photos] Went to see the Giorgione [Enthroned Madonna with St. Liberalis and St. Francis, ca. 1500] in Castelfranco. We went by bicycle, all the way, over the Alps. We had no money. The Germans didn't allow us to carry money across the border.
[Reconsidering when asked how he survived]: Well, we had a little money. We slept on the ground or in haylofts in barns. But connections I did have. My grandfather sent me a postcard with the name of a big art dealer in Venice. His place was right near Ponte dell'Accademia. He helped us out.... He was an art and antique dealer.
These images of the golden days with his grandfather looking at art in the Alte Pinakothek and of his youthful journey with a friend to Venice are, in a sense, part of the Selz "creation myth," at once validating of his subsequent life and career and beautifully anticipatory, so congruent with what was to come as to be almost irresistible. Older brother Edgar, interviewed when he was in his nineties, confirms the essence of the story: "Peter was a remarkable young boy, because he got so involved in art. He spent a lot of time in the museums and art galleries. He knew every painting. And our grandfather encouraged it. He made him." Peter burned with desire-nothing else would do-to follow in his grandfather's footsteps and be surrounded by beautiful and thrilling objects, enjoying them and making a living by finding, buying, and selling them.
Julius Drey died in 1934, and Peter was affected deeply. "He was the person I was closest to in my family, and he died when I was fifteen. That was a great loss."
During those formative years, Peter belonged to a German Jewish youth group known as Werkleute (Working People). Such youth groups were a solid part of German cultural life, dedicated generally to providing healthy activities, both physical and intellectual. In the 1920s and ‘30s, however, as German society became increasingly nationalistic, so did the youth groups, particularly those, such as Hitler Youth, associated with the Sturmabteilung (SA), or Brown Shirts. The Jewish version, as in other things always a separate but related phenomenon, grew to importance in mobilizing the young for immigration and the inculcation of Zionist objectives, and it became an important-even crucial-part of the Selz immigration story as well. Not only was the youth group a context in which young German Jewish lives were molded and directed, but it is in contrast to this positive experience that the Nazi reality in Peter's past becomes more vivid: "The other important memory," he recalls, "was what was going on in the countryside with that youth group. Every Sunday when I was a little older-maybe when my grandfather died, 1934 or ‘35-we would go out to the countryside and hike and play ball. And other youth groups would be there too, and we would see the Nazis, the kids in their brown shirts.... We were running around, and they were regimented. They would be marching, and we would be playing and running."
Peter has described himself-and this was seconded by brother Edgar-as an indifferent student. He was simply more interested in art and a future career as a dealer, following in his grandfather's footsteps. But Peter's dislike of school was hardly unique. According to his account, it was shared by many students: "Like all kids in Germany, we hated, hated school. School was horrible. We did learn something. We had to. But we all hated school so much that kids who cheated best at tests were the heroes because they were doing something against the establishment. Against the system. But I did a lot of reading. As far as team sports, I was never very good. But I was a good runner, hiker, and swimmer. And I looked at the art books that my grandfather gave us." Judging from Peter's attitudes toward school and academic work, and the fact that for the last year he was in Germany he could not attend school at all, it seems reasonable to assume that his intellectual and physical development took place largely within the framework of the Werkleute and its activities. Beyond bicycle tours and hikes, the group engaged in conversation about important writers, left-wing political discussions, and Zionist planning for a future in Palestine. The group's objectives amounted to a survival strategy conceived and directed by a liberal network of elders, the ultimate objective being to escape Germany, find sanctuary elsewhere, and pursue the main goal of realizing the Zionist dream, while still maintaining German Jewish cultural ideals. Although Zionism was a minority position among German Jews, ultimately the Werkleute played an important role in maintaining Jewish identity for a soon-to-be scattered population.
The apparent intellectual and cultural level of these high school-age Jews was impressive. In this respect the youth groups seemed notably serious, focused, and directed. Peter describes the political focus as an important influence on his life and his way of looking at art. His social conscience and commitment form one thread of his career, culminating in The Art of Engagement: Visual Politics in California and Beyond (2006). In the book's prologue he invoked his youthful encounters with what he referred to several times in the interviews as "fascist aesthetics": "My interest in the critical relationship between art and politics stems in large part from my personal history. In the mid-1930s in Munich, where I grew up, I witnessed the gigantic spectacles that Hitler organized: huge floats with sculptures glorifying the Nibelungs and the gods of Valhalla and depicting German medieval knights as descendents of Greek athletes rolled down the flag-bedecked streets in unprecedented pageantry." He also describes his early questioning of authority, equating parents with the establishment:
We resented pretty much what our parents did, and what the establishment did. This is very important because from the very beginning I was anti-establishment. And by the time I was seventeen I called myself a socialist. I had a pretty good idea [what that meant]-I was reading Marx when I was sixteen, and I used to quote his Manifesto. I was reading political literature and poetry. Rilke was important, and Hermann Hesse's novels. The writers who are still important today, they were important to me. It [liberal political thinking] all goes right back to that time. Absolutely. One particular artist I knew about, really knew and liked a lot, was Käthe Kollwitz.... Yes, our group thought of itself as political.
Thus Selz puts additional components of his story into place: his political engagement and challenging of authority. By implication he ascribes these qualities to his youthful compatriots in the Jewish youth group that seems to have constituted, especially in Munich, the main source of his social conscience. He also characterizes the Werkleute spirit as fundamentally idealistic, even utopian.
Peter mentioned Goethe and the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber as figuring importantly on the young people's reading list. At the suggestion that this was quite advanced for such a young group, Peter agreed. "I know. But we were fairly mature. Yes, we were intellectual. We read books by Buber and then tried to figure the ideas out in discussion sessions. Karl Marx, who we also read and discussed. Also the poet Stefan George-we have to create a better world. That was the idea."
Like many others looking back at that time, Peter sees the German Jews' identification with broader German culture as the element that famously made it so difficult for many Jews to recognize the danger of their changing circumstances. However, when asked if he and his family and friends recognized the danger as an aberration in German society and political power that had to be escaped, he gave an enlightening response:
Yes and no. We knew it had to be escaped, but people did not think it was an aberration. There had been so much turmoil during the Weimar years, so many chancellors coming in and out. Hitler having so few votes the one year and a lot the next. He seemed so far out and so crazy that they [the Jews] thought it would pass. They sent the kids away because we couldn't do anything. But, yes, they thought it would pass, and then it got worse and worse. Like, about the time I left there was another law passed that affected my father. He could only have Jewish patients; he couldn't have Aryans anymore. Most people thought that although things were terrible, they would change. But there was a feeling that the German people were turning their backs on the Jews.
Many Jewish parents eventually came to the difficult realization that their Germany was about to turn on them. On 25 April 1933, a law against "overcrowding" of German schools, directed at limiting the number of Jewish students in high schools and universities, made it evident that there was no future for Peter and his young counterparts throughout Germany.
Asked about the Nazi displays of grandeur and strength in Munich, Peter described with excitement the spectacular "power" parades down Munich's Ludwigstrasse. Despite what they represented and the deep misgivings they must have inspired among more attentive Jews, Peter was drawn to them as spectacle-more of his "fascist aesthetics": "I saw the Nazis marching down the streets in Munich, the center of the Nazi movement. I mean, Hitler's Brown House was not so far from where we lived. So we saw all of this, yes. The enormous great parades, which looked very gorgeous, actually, with all the flags and bunting. These great floats going down the main street." Later he elaborated, "This whole aesthetic of fascism was extraordinarily impressive to me. Look at this, what's going on [he shows some photographs in an album]. I know I should have hated it because these were the Nazis and they were going to kill us-we didn't know that yet-but it was extremely impressive."
But did these theatrical displays of power make him, or other Jews, proud of being German? Selz responded in the negative-adamantly: "No, no, no. Not at all. Not at all! We were never nationalists. When my father was in the World War I medical corps, for some reason they gave him the Iron Cross. And when the war was over he put the medal on his dog's collar. That's what he-we-thought. We were left wing to some extent, never nationalists. So I never felt proud of anything like this. [pause] But it really was impressive. Of course, at that time we had no real idea of what was to come."
According to Peter, neither his family and relatives nor the other adults he knew and observed-and certainly not his younger peers, despite their purported goal of leaving Germany-were aware of what lay ahead, the enormity of the Holocaust. Kristallnacht was still several years away. Nonetheless, the Selz family was presciently alarmed enough to get the boys-first Edgar and half-brother Paul, and later on Peter-out of Germany. There was no alternative.
"In ‘35 I was kicked out of school [Realgymnasium] because I was Jewish." Without access to education, there was simply no viable future for young Jews or for the community itself. For Peter's parents, the critical objective became locating sponsors-relatives or friends-in England, the United States, Scandinavia, South America, China, Cuba, even Africa: any destination where they would be accepted. Palestine was for many the ideal refuge, the anticipated site of a long-desired Jewish state that through the symbolism of geography could reunite the Hebrew people with their historic past. But Edgar went to London; their half-brother, Paul Weil, already had a job in Paris. As for Peter, his journey would take him far from home-though not, as it turned out, in the direction he favored. [My parents] didn't want me to go to Palestine. So they found these very distant relatives, the Liebmanns, in New York. In order to get an immigration visa you had to have relatives. I don't know exactly how my father found these people. I probably was told, but I don't remember." As Peter recounts, "I did not want to come to America, because I belonged to this left-wing, socialist, labor, Zionist youth group." But according to Edgar, Peter was tricked into going to America by their parents, who were of course aware of their son's political leanings: "Peter was an arch Zionist. Did he tell you this? He wanted to go to Israel [Palestine]. But my father discovered our relatives, the Liebmanns. And he wrote them a letter asking if they would accept, would take Peter to America. And he didn't tell that to Peter. And when the letter of invitation arrived, he told Peter, 'Look what's coming out of the blue? You can't ignore that.... It's a letter from nowhere, inviting you to America. It's a sign from God. You have to accept it.'"
In August 1936, the seventeen-year-old Peter Selz traveled with his parents from Munich to Bremen. There, alone, he boarded the German ship Europa for the voyage to New York City. Telling the story decades later, he recalls how poignantly aware he was that he might not see his mother and father again. He has kept the several photographs that were taken as he and his parents said their good-byes while he prepared to ascend the gangplank (see Fig. 8).