Two Years of Blogging for HuffPost Arts and a Video Dialogue with Peter Plagens

It has been roughly two years since I posted my first blog on the newborn HuffingtonPost Arts Page and what a great ride it has been. I can hardly say enough good things about the friends, connections, and opportunities that have come my way as a HuffPost blogger. To be fair, there have also been some challenges, hesitations and confrontations along the way.

Early last year, after the Huffington Post was sold to America Online, the Newspaper Guild of America asserted that Huffington Post bloggers should strike and demand compensation for their blogging. After thinking through the situation, which entailed a very complicated set of issues that I felt had resulted from historic changes in the way journalism had evolved in response to the internet, I blogged my response. Titled "Why I won't be joining the Huffington Post Strike." it was posted on a website called IlluminateMe.org.

The veteran art writer and critic Peter Plagens, who had also contributed blogs to IlluminateMe, responded immediately and negatively to my blog, and made a series of comments on the site's discussion board. In his comments he characterized unpaid Huffington Post bloggers as "volunteer slaves" and suggested that bloggers who did not observe the Newspaper Guild's proposed strike were "de-facto scabs." He also scolded, responding to the reasoning presented in my blog; "Mr. Seed's capacity for exculpatory rationalizing is truly stunning."

I had to wonder if the revered critic was suffering from a case of "gatekeeper syndrome." Hmmm...

Fast-forward to now...

Earlier this month, I saw a "Tweet" from the Getty Museum, offering to present questions to Peter Plagens, who was scheduled to present a talk there. I tweeted him the following question:

"On a discussion board last year you called HuffingtonPost bloggers "volunteer slaves." Do you still feel that way?"

Here, in a video response provided by the Getty, is his what he had to say:




In general, I appreciate Mr. Plagen's straightforward response. One thing worth noting is that Plagens is no longer lashing out at Huffington Post bloggers; his tone has softened and the one-time "de-facto scabs" are now people who "...do what they can to get their stuff out there." That said, Plagens and I still have substantially different views on whether or not the Huffington Post "owes" its bloggers. Click on the video below to learn how I see things at this point in time. I hope you will take a moment to comment when you are done watching both videos.



Janice Nowinski: Naughty Postcards and the Man by the River


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Janice Nowinski, "Seated Girl II," 9 x 13 inches, oil on canvas

Janice Nowinski's "Seated Girl II" -- a blocky little nude with dun colored thighs and heavy umber fingers -- is a bit of a flirt. She is, in fact, the insouciant painted descendant of an anonymous coquette that the artist lifted from a 19th century "naughty postcard." As ragged as "Seated Girl II" may be -- her jauntily raised left eyebrow is a single swipe of mud colored impasto -- she triggers something: something vulnerable and human.

 Nowinski, is a "painter's painter," one who likes to work against technical refinement, which can quickly degenerate into sentimentality. She is one the lookout for obscure, authentic feelings: sensations that she can render tangible with earnest brushwork. Nowinkski's artistic process relies on instinct and she uses sincerity as a compass to provide aesthetic direction. "If one is authentically involved in the investigation," Nowinski comments, "the painting itself leads you into unexpected territory."

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Janice Nowinski and her "studio assistant" Giuseppe

Gloriously out of synch with the current vogues of figurative painting, Nowinski mines the territory between Édouard Manet and David Park, avoiding the tricky cul-de-sacs of gender, sociology and feminist theory. "I consider myself a Humanist from beginning to end," she opines. Nowinski genuinely likes people, and paints them as a form of solidarity, and, in the case of the naughty girls, as a kind of painterly rescue and resurrection. "The images she is responding to now are anonymous," notes Nowinski's friend Kyle Staver. "Without her intervention and interpretation they would remain so."

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A harem of "naughty postcards" in Janice Nowinski's album

When depicting the male figure, the artist has chosen a model who is less remote in time and culture. The shirtless dude who appears in Nowinski's "Shrouded Male" evolved from a snapshot of an old boyfriend -- one she had a complicated relationship with -- retrieved from the artist's personal photo album. "I'm risking a more personal and confessional series of paintings," Nowinski acknowledges. "Taking that image from the past and using it as a trigger for a painting today has enabled me to re-reason the event. By doing so I can take the emotional and nostalgic elements out of it: I can reconfigure the past."

In the case of the "Shrouded Male" the towel wrapped around the man's head holds a suggestion of "guardedness," something that Nowinski now realizes was true to the actual man's character. It also has rich, metaphorical possibilities, worth exploring with paint. The river in the background, the loose belt and the semi-abstract background add to the poetic brew of memory, confession and ambiguity.

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Janice Nowinski, "Shrouded Male," 20 x 16 inches, oil on canvas


Seen as a group, Nowinski's recent paintings -- more postcard girls and shirtless guys -- are uncompromising, and more than a bit unexpected. "Two years ago," Nowinski remarks, "I couldn't have guessed that my painting would have lead me here." Previously known as a painter of still lifes, Nowinski has taken her time to arrive, and has done so with the help of a tight group of friends and some stellar mentors.

A native of New York City, Janice Nowinski took her first art classes at the Brooklyn Museum as a child. Later, at an experimental high school she was part of a "decent" art program where she experimented with printmaking after not being allowed to paint. When Nowinski traveled to Italy after graduation to study violin making she fell in love with Michelangelo, Mantegna and Leonardo and reverted to art. Her higher education was "checkered" -- there were classes at the Art Student's League and then the New York Studio School -- until a mentor appeared: the landscape painter Gretna Campbell.

 "She (Gretna) introduced me to Corot, Bonnard and Matisse; the painters who still inform my work. Gretna's insistence was that you find your own voice and look at other painters not to become them but to emulate their work ethic. The lesson that I took away from her was that I didn't have to obey the rectangle. She freed me up to work more organically and intuitively. I began working a la prima. If it didn't happen in the first pass there was no second chance."

By the mid 80s Nowinski had begun graduate work in painting at Yale, where she walked into a "rigorous, life-altering program." A new generation of figurative artists was germinating there: John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage and Richard Phillips were one class ahead, and Kyle Staver, who became a close friend, was a classmate. Then there was the faculty. Early on Nowinski took a class with stellar realist William Bailey who laid things out directly to his students. "It's really very simple," he warned them, "you either get it or you don't."

 Professor Vija Celmins made it her task to introduce Nowinski to a wider range of contemporary painters. Celmins, who was a bit puzzled by the fact that Nowinski's two favorite painters, Edward Hopper and Paul Cezanne, seemed so different from each other. "She knew she had her work cut out for her," Nowinski recalls. Before long Celmins had taught Nowinski to become more generous and open-minded in her aesthetic views, asking her student "Why are you painting away from freedom?"

Mel Bochner, who saw another side to Nowinski also chided her about her taste in artists. "His first question to me, " Nowinski recalls, "was 'How long have you been married to Soutine?'" She remembers also being criticized for painting still lifes that displayed "objects floating around in an undefined space. "My paintings looked and smelled like paintings but their intentions were not clear," Nowinski states. "I alluded to abstraction but didn't go all the way and vice versa with representation."

 By the time she had finished Yale in 1987, her interactions with these powerful professors and other students had taught Nowinski to look at her own work "more dispassionately, in a larger context." A key lesson, Nowinski recalls, was that "...to have narrow reference was to make small minded paintings."

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Janice Nowinski, "Still Life / Gray," oil on linen, 22"x30", 1993
 
Tenacious to a fault, and in no particular hurry, it took Nowinski three years to complete "Still Life / Grey", which she decided was her "first mature still life after grad school." Over the next two decades she made more still lifes and also painted "conversations with masters" including transcriptions of works by Rubens, Poussin, Manet and Fragonard. Nowninski remembers doing "a lot of brooding, dark still lives and even darker self portraits." A photo of her palette testifies to the determined mixing and scraping that happened over time.

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Janice Nowinski's palette

 Part of what was happening was an aesthetic sorting-out process that was in fact a slow road to self-discovery. Nowinkski remembers it this way:
"I would spend a lot of time separating reproductions into piles for future paintings: the good pile and the bad pile. I tore up a book of "All the paintings at the Louvre" which I had bought for $20 at the Strand Bookstore. One day I was mindlessly making piles and I came across the odalisque by Boucher and tossed it into the "bad pile". All of a sudden I realized what was missing from my work: a sense of humor and also the possibility that sex could be a great painting subject for me. My persona of being a "dark, psychological painter" was coming to an end. So I mixed in a little Boucher/frivolity into the dark, broody cocktail and this allowed more of myself to come out in the studio."


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Janice Nowinski, "Recumbent III, after Boucher," oil on linen, 12"x16", 2001


Over time, working through it all, looking for the right mix of moods and subjects Nowinski managed to build up an impressive knowledge of the history of painting. The "permission" that Boucher's image had given her to add a little something -- just the right amount of wrong -- would lead over time to her recent postcard and photo based works.

 "In all good painting," says Kyle Staver, who has been watching Nowinski develop, "the painter steps off the curb and finds a way to cross to what is uniquely theirs." Nowinski, still a bit surprised to find that she is painting from "a shoebox filled with snapshots and 19th century naughty girl postcards that were sent to me by a friend," is nonetheless pleased and excited about the new zone of feeling where her work has taken her.


"It is exactly where I want to be."


 
Janice Nowinski: Solo exhibition
The Bowery Gallery, NY, NY
530 West 25th Street, 4th Floor
May 22 - June 16, 2012
Reception: Thursday, May 24, 6 to 8 PM

A Conversation with Siddharth Parasnis

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 Siddharth Parasnis, "Two Houses in the Country #4," Oil on canvas, 50' x 40"


Siddharth Parasnis, who was the subject of a one-person show at Dolby Chadwick Gallery this past March, and whose work is currently on view at Sue Greenwood Fine Art in Laguna Beach, bases his paintings on architecture, but not in a literal way. "It all starts with architecture and then moves on from there," he says. Combining memory, painterly improvisation, and a sense of color that he says life has "carved in his brain" Parasnis creates a hybrid world with its own eccentric vitality.

I spoke to Siddharth Parasnis recently and asked about his sources, his way of working, and his distinctive approaches to color and geometry.




John Seed in Conversation with Siddharth Parasnis
 
JS: Your paintings have a sense of "place" that serves as their starting point. Tell me about some of the places -- including India and California -- where they are rooted.  

SP: I guess that I have always enjoyed creating an ambiance; a place almost like a stage, but without characters. I think characters make everything too literal, and you sort of lose the ambiguity. I offer the viewer plenty in my work but not everything. I like aspects of the painting process left unanswered; I think it's part of my sentimental and physical process of painting. Painting takes the viewer with me on a journey to share that which may be derived directly from life or memory, imagination, or dreams. Paintings are my way of sharing the places that I've been to, both actual and imaginary ones.

Looking back on my life in India, I see how it consisted of tons of relatives and friends. Something was always happening; the festivities were almost overwhelming. Think of the implacable impact of Bollywood movies; busy streets with thousands of people, women with colorful saris, and street hawkers selling spices, and all kinds of colorful things. A lot of chaos!

That's what you would see in my earlier work, busy compositions, and colorful canvases.

 After living in the San Francisco Bay Area for over a decade, especially now that I have settled in an extremely quiet and secluded part of San Francisco, my work has changed a lot and compositions are much mellower, deeper. They also occasionally reflect a painting from my neighborhood. But more importantly moving in this neighborhood has impacted my work on a broader aspect. The paintings started to look more California now, all these changes were first noticed by viewers, and art writers. And while reading about my own work by them, Yes - I do see that too. These changes weren't intentional but rather innate.


 An occasional trip back to India brings the colors or chaos back again and spice up the works, which is fun!




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Siddharth Parasnis, "Eternity #36," 48" x 48" Oil on canvas
 
JS: How abstract are your paintings? What is your mix of observation, memory and invention?  

SP: To me, the abstract and representational aspects of my paintings are so deeply intertwined that I can't put one next to the other. Abstraction is present in the representational forms, and the representational forms occur through the process of abstraction. I think, they rather go hand in hand.

To me it's like a game; finding the abstraction in representational subject matter and then locating the tangible forms in abstraction. Chasing one after the other makes each painting an intriguing journey. To me, as long as the painting is about paint, the subject matter -- whether it is representational or abstract -- is only a device.

The paintings in my recent solo shows, both at Dolby Chadwick and at Sue Greenwood, are derived from memory, imagination, dreams, subconscious inner feelings as well as coming directly from life.

 JS: Although your paintings feature many straight lines they also wobble and tilt a bit. Tell me about how you see the role of geometry in your work.  

SP: Yes, one can certainly see undeniable geometry, lines, and hard edges in my work. What makes those features so apparent is the organic play and mark making that is intertwined with it. To me there is never one thing; there has to be one thing married to another, a harmonious relationship. I also get comments about my work being very vivid, but I think vivid is a very relative term. The mundane colors next to other less mundane colors make for vivid contrasts and color relationships. It's just depends on how you look at it, I guess.

 To me, composition and character of the painting is really everything -- not just colors, lines, shapes, and textures -- but everything that happens in between. There is, for example, inspiration, subject, matter, emotional involvement, energy and a lot more. Even if those things can't really be seen they can very much be accountable for the character or success of the finished composition.  

JS: You have been living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area. How have you been influenced by Bay Area Figurative painting, and by the environment of Northern California?  

SP: It's been an interesting journey; the amalgamation of the "baggage" I brought from India, my MFA here, and my continued living in the San Francisco Bay Area, have made for a unique combination. Some of the artists I discovered during my MFA program -- Edward Hopper, Willem deKooning, Richard Debinkorn, Elmer Bischoff, and Nathan Oliveira -- stirred my nerves, and excited me. I was captivated by the expressionist tendencies in their work, and by the emotional atmospheres they created.

It took 10 years to adapt to San Francisco and make me feel that it is truly my home.

 JS: Have you ever considered adding figures to your paintings? Do you have any interest in the figure?

 SP: I painted figures in my work a long time ago. They appeared in my work briefly when I was in India and disappeared later. Architecture and abstraction have played an important role for over a decade in my work and now I am exploring other subject matter, such as boats, fence, grassland, etc. I have explored subjects that I never thought I would, so you never know, I might go back to figures one day. But don't have the desire to do that right now or in the near future.  

JS: You have a unique sense of color. Is your color carefully controlled, or spontaneously invented?  

SP: It's both! I think my colors come from my conscious and subconscious experiences, and from the life that I have witnessed so far in India and here in the United States. I guess subconsciously color sort of gets carved in your brain every single minute of the life that you are living. Then while painting, it all comes out; I guess colors find the right places for themselves in the painting. I have to react to canvas spontaneously. Then the canvas gives me back something, a puzzle, a question, a direction, and then depending on what has happened, I sometimes "choose" the next move. I guess that can be called "carefully controlled".

 Sometimes the canvas takes over and I follow the lead. However, no matter how big or small the painting is, I have to capture the soul of the painting in one session. The painting may take months or even years after that to bring to the conclusion but that one session is what gives the painting "life" or "birth to say the least. If it doesn't work out, then it starts all over again. Colors have to work together as a whole; capturing all the color relationships in a single session brings harmony.

 JS: How did you make the difficult choice to devote yourself to painting as a full-time profession?  

SP: Part of it is about my passion, part of it is about ego, part of it is practicalities. It's not just that I get to pay my bills when I sell an artwork but when someone purchases my work gets me, my pain, my excitement or so I believe. It helps me motivate, push my boundaries, and get through the day.





 Andrew Burgess | Kathy Jones | Siddharth Parasnis
On view May 3 -31, 2012
Artist Talk: May 19th at 11AM
Sue Greenwood Fine Art
330 N. Coast Hwy
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
ph: 949.494.0669

Peter Selz: Sketches of a Life in Art

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Peter Selz: Sketches of a Life in Art by Paul J. Karlstrom
University of California Press, 2012, 321 pages
Cover Image: Selz on the roof of his car at the Institute of Design, Chicago, 1955
 
Paul Karlstrom, the author of a vivid new biography of Peter Selz, had to think quite a bit about just where the opening scene of the book's preface should take place. After all, Karlstrom was searching for the proper setting and anecdote to enter into the complicated and wide-ranging life of a man who is considered one of America's most creative and energetic art historians. What setting or situation, he asked himself, would say the most about this man's world and his place in it?

The book could have opened in Munich where Selz's art dealer grandfather introduced him to "beautiful and thrilling objects." It was this early, informal education that ultimately shaped Selz more than his official German education, which ended at age 16 when Selz was expelled from Realgymnasium for being a Jew. Since Selz's acclaimed book "Art of Engagement" opens in the Nazi death camps and then follows the thread of political art in the American ferment of the 60s and beyond, it seems reasonable to expect that the preface to his biography would open in Germany.

Then again, the summer of 1966 might have worked: Karlstrom could have described Selz and Mark Rothko meeting in Rome and driving north in a Fiat to Arezzo to see the Piero della Francesco murals in the church of San Francesco. Close friendships with artists -- including Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Sam Francis, Christo and Nathan Oliveira -- have been enormously important to Selz. When I spoke to Selz on the phone recently and asked him what he was most proud of in his career he answered without hesitation: "My friendships with artists and advocacy of artists."

Still, Karlstrom worried that opening his book with a vignette of Peter Selz hanging out with Mark Rothko or helping Sam Francis choose the title of a picture wouldn't say what really needed to be said: that the essence of Peter Selz is to be found in his individualism and his willingness to experiment and explore. "Peter is a force of nature," relates his daughter Gabrielle, "accountable only to himself."

With that in mind, Karlstrom opens his book at a restaurant in Los Angeles, where he and Selz found themselves after a long day at the College Art Association's annual conference in 1999. "The preface," notes Karlstrom, "was the only place where our personal relationship was allowed to appear." When Karlstrom suggests that Selz might want to join him after dinner at a performance art/rock concert event at Whisky a Go Go on Sunset Boulevard, Selz responds enthusiastically:  

"Let's go!"

 The book takes off from there, as the author and his subject walk through the door of the Whisky into a wall of highly amplified sound. "I wanted to start far away from the College Art Association annual meeting," Karlstrom says wryly. "He (Selz) is not like most of his colleagues." Norton Wisdom, a painter who assists rock and jazz musicians with putting their music into visual form -- and also a former student of Selz's -- was the featured performer that night. When asked years later, Wisdom recalled that Selz looked "at his ease, comfortable" at the event. "Selz is never out of place in any environment," writes Karlstrom." The book he has written about Peter Selz is a paean to a man who is both vastly experienced and eternally youthful in his outlook.

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Peter Selz and Paul Karlstrom share a toast at the Meridian Gallery, San Francisco


Karlstrom and Selz are friends. In fact, now that the book is finished they are closer than ever. "I got to know him very, very well," says Karlstrom, who adds that "very, very" is a Selzian way of emphasizing a key point. They first met almost 40 years ago when Karlstrom came to Northern California in 1973 to set up the first regional center of the Smithsonian Archives at San Francisco's De Young Museum. He immediately recognized that Selz, who was on his Bay Area advisory committee, was "different."

"He was supportive and he showed an interest in what I was doing," Karlstrom recalls. "Peter relates to people, and wants to get to know them. He also wants to know what people might have to offer." Although Karlstrom was at first a bit intimidated -- Selz's book "German Expressionist Painting" was the major assigned reading in Albert Elsen's modern art class at Stanford and the former undergraduate saw Selz as an icon -- friendship seemed to be almost inevitable. "It snuck up on me," laughs Karlstrom, "I realized we were friends."

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Paul Karlstrom and Peter Selz at a 2007 Robert Colescott Exhibition

"Peter Selz: Sketches of a Life in Art," was originally intended as modest collection of artist anecdotes brought together as told through interviews with Peter; at least that is what UC Press asked Karlstrom for in 2007. The book soon evolved into a full biography and the one year deadline was extended to a four year deadline. During that period, Karlstrom conducted numerous sessions with Selz -- who he had first interviewed in 1984 for the Smithsonian -- and with more than 50 of his friends, family members and associates. There were "bumps along the way" as Karlstrom dealt with some of the contradictions and complexities he discovered in Selz's personal and professional histories. For example, Selz, who has been married five times, told Karlstrom, when discussing various marital infidelities; "basically I am not monogamous."

As the book moves through Selz's dynamic postwar experiences -- as a PhD student in Chicago, an art department chair and gallery director in Pomona, and a curator of modern art at MOMA in New York -- there is a kind of collage effect as Karlstrom tries to objectively comment on the man's triumphs and trespasses. If any one pattern emerges, it seems to be that Selz simultaneously thrilled some people, while distancing others.

When Selz and his critic friend Dore Ashton proposed to use MOMA's sculpture garden as the setting for Jean Tinguely's self-destructing kinetic sculpture/contraption "Hommage to New York," his colleague Dorothy Miller scolded him: "No, our job at the museum is to preserve, not destroy works of art."

 Of course "Hommage to New York" became a legend. Calvin Topkins, in his book "The Bride and the Bachelors," later described the 90 minutes of enchanting chaos that ensued as the ten dollar antique piano at the heart of Tinguely's "machine" burst into flames and destroyed itself; but not everyone was amused. Curatorial infighting, rivalry and the perception of a "glass ceiling" which kept Jews from rising to the position of museum director all colored Selz's tenure at MOMA.

By the time Selz left MOMA after seven years, "encouraged -- indeed urged" by the museum's director to take a job at UC Berkeley, Selz's vision of the art world had clarified. He had, and still has, a high regard for the tradition of the human figure in art and a dislike for the nexus cozy artist/dealer/museum connections that came on strong in the era of Pop Art. Selz has a feeling for subjectivity and metaphor, and willingness to say "yes" to new experiences and sensations. Selz also genuinely likes artists; "He literally thinks of himself as one," reports Karlstrom.

When Selz arrived at Berkeley in 1965, "as something of a star," he became both a tenured faculty member and the founding director of the University Art Museum, which was completed in 1970. He was, paradoxically, the right man for the times; a cultural authority figure who himself distrusted authority figures. Selz commissioned the avant-garde dancer Anna Halprin to create an opening performance for the new museum in which "beautiful naked young men and women flowing throughout the museum...soft flesh against hard gray concrete."
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Anna Halprin's dancers performing at the opening of the Berkeley Art Museum

Karlstrom's book goes on to sketch many other colorful anecdotes, but he balances them with forthright accounts of some of the more mundane problems Selz the wave-maker has faced in his more than 45 years in the Berkeley community. For example, art historian James Cahill states that Selz "seldom came to faculty meetings," something Selz denies. Cahill also reports that "relations between him and most of the faculty were indeed very cool." To his students -- and Selz became a full-time professor of art history in 1972 -- Selz was often a key figure who became a mentor first, and a loyal friend over time.

"Peter Selz: Sketches of a Life in Art," is an original, idiosyncratic book about an original, idiosyncratic man. It has also been a surprise success and is on the current bestseller list of the UC Press: the first run of 2,500 hardbound copies sold out in a month. In Karlstrom's mind, it was a book begging to be written: "One of the reasons that his (Selz's) story warrants a bio is that he is truly an individual who created the place where he wanted to be." Yes, there were adjustments that had to be made along the way -- "Peter does spin" comments Karlstrom -- but Selz loves and is very proud of the completed book.

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 Peter Selz with artist Mitchell Johnson, 2009


When I spoke to Selz he reminded me that his life is still a work in progress. Now 93, he is still extremely active in the art world, and is currently co-curating "The Painted Word," an exhibition which will present visual art by poets of the "San Francisco Poetry Renaissance" of the 1950s and 60s. "Then there are my 20 books," Selz notes proudly, "There wasn't time for Paul to write about those." Karlstrom gently counters that "A thorough study of Selz's books would take another volume, and that academic focus was not the goal. In fact, the main publications, including exhibition catalogues, are mentioned and described as they illuminate important themes."

 Karlstrom, for his part, is happy with how the book turned out, and with the reception it has received. "Telling a life is very hard work," he says, "but I find it suits me. It allows me to indulge a keen interest in people and their stories. After all, artists -- people -- create the art, and in his way Peter is one of them." Karlstrom and his wife Ann -- who served as the book's co-author, and who calmed Selz down when the drafts in progress rattled him -- are close to Peter Selz and his wife Carole. They are always ready to come along when Selz says "Let's go!"

Who could possibly be a better guide to the "subjective, unpredictable, and contradictory world of contemporary art," through which Karlstrom says Selz has steered a "focused, if not always steady course" for more than seven decades.