Book Reviews - Winter 2022

New York Was Very Heaven

The midcentury newcomers who reshaped the art world

By Andy Grundberg | January 17, 2022
Edith Schloss, center, in a 1950 photomontage titled “Chelsea Girls,” by her husband Rudy Burckhardt (Courtesy of the publisher)
Edith Schloss, center, in a 1950 photomontage titled “Chelsea Girls,” by her husband Rudy Burckhardt (Courtesy of the publisher)

The Loft Generation: From the de Koonings to Twombly: Portraits and Sketches, 1942–2011 by Edith Schloss; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 336 pp., $32

The Loft Generation has several things to recommend it: an inspired title (that’s “Loft,” not “Lost”); a cast of characters essential to postwar American art (not only the de Koonings and Cy Twombly but also Fairfield Porter, Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Jack Tworkov, Larry Rivers, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and Harold Rosenberg, among others); a female author who knew them well and whose presence on the scene has been largely forgotten, along with her contributions to it; and finally, a gripping story about a group of young artists, many of them immigrants like Schloss, who reshaped contemporary art and in the process made New York the center of the art world.

Schloss’s book follows on the heels of Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women (2018), an authoritative, 700-plus-page account of roughly the same era focused on the painters Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler. But whereas Ninth Street Women is a meticulously researched saga told by an author from a later time, The Loft Generation is a memoir. After Schloss’s death in 2011, her editors, including Schloss’s son, Jacob Burckhardt, capably shaped the unfinished draft she had left behind and fleshed it out by adapting several of her published profiles and articles. But by definition its perspective is idiosyncratic and episodic. Its pleasures, of which there are many, lie in the intimate details.

I doubt I am alone in being ignorant of the career of Edith Schloss (1919–2011), despite her having been a painter and an art critic for more than half a century. Born in Germany into a bourgeois Jewish family, she left for England shortly before Kristallnacht in 1938, and was soon joined by her parents and younger brother. She then departed for the United States, and, after a short stay in Boston, settled in New York. There she gravitated to the budding loft scene around 23rd Street in Chelsea, meeting Porter, the de Koonings, and Rudy Burckhardt, a Swiss photographer and filmmaker whom she married in 1946.

The rest, one is tempted to say, is history. Schloss studied at the storied Art Students League, visited the Porter family’s island in Maine, traveled to Basel, Paris, and Rome with her husband (often accompanied by Edwin Denby, poet, dancer, art critic, and Burckhardt’s former lover), and attended talks and festivities at The Club, the artists’ hangout on Eighth Street that served as a breeding ground for abstract expressionism. In 1954, now caring for a young son, she started writing art criticism and profiles for ARTnews under the tutelage of its legendary editor, Tom Hess, thus widening her social circle to include even more painters and writers.

The highlight of Schloss’s artistic career was showing her Joseph Cornell–style box in a 1961 exhibition called “The Art of Assemblage” at the Museum of Modern Art. Schloss had met the reclusive box artist a decade earlier, when Cornell was interested in making a film with her husband (they eventually collaborated on four projects), and her description of their visit to the artist’s home on Utopia Parkway in Queens is vivid and moving.

Nonetheless, Schloss makes only an incidental appearance in Ninth Street Women. She is tagged as an “original Chelsea girl” along with Elaine de Kooning, yet serves mainly as a footnote in Gabriel’s effort. This is not entirely an injustice: from the evidence of the plates in the book, and by her own assessment, Schloss was a good but not great painter. Today her work is of interest primarily for how she melded the influences of the two artists she most admired, Porter and Willem de Kooning. She might better deserve remembering for her art criticism, but like her paintings, it too seems caught in the middle, neither sufficiently assertive and radical to put her in league with tastemakers Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, and Meyer Schapiro nor as poetically charged and subjective as the contemporaneous criticism of John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and James Schuyler.

One senses her critical limitations when she attempts to describe the glories of the abstract paintings she admires. Often this consists of listing their colors, as if they alone could illuminate the meaning of the work. Of a John Graham painting she believes influenced Willem de Kooning, she writes, “The colors, reptile green and orange against a blushy red, and snake yellows against improbable chinks of enamel blue were like tastes of peculiar fruit.” I’ll stick with bananas, thanks.

But she is not afraid of making judgments, some of which might count as controversial. Of Robert Rauschenberg, for example, she writes, “Alas, over the years, [he] lost himself in jittery, intellectual, multifaceted juxtapositions, flat collage work mixed with the mass media silk-screen process, which grew to have an enormous appeal to the middlebrow masses.” Some may also find her appraisal of art criticism right on the money:

 

Its great reward is this: while your art may languish away in the studio, your art writing bursts into the daylight and functions in public. Immediately in print, it serves people, neatly fits into everyday activity. At its best it is a signpost to the viewer, to show her or him how to appreciate things anew, to stir up fresh perception.

One wonders why Schloss did not figure more prominently in accounts of postwar art, given her critical and social presence. Some of this, of course, is attributable to our long-standing prejudice toward female artists and writers, many of whom are only now being given their due. But it may have more to do with the company she kept, and the company she didn’t keep.

For all of her talent and drive, she was in thrall to men like de Kooning, Guston, Kline, and Tworkov. She found it easier to profess to being a writer than an artist, describing herself at one point as “a sort of under-the-bed painter.” But even claiming status as a writer was difficult for her. At a party at Harold Rosenberg’s apartment sometime in the ’50s, she was asked what she did. She replied, “I use the typewriter.” Such diffidence did not improve her chances of being taken seriously.

Then there is the matter of leaving New York, always a good way to let the art world and its publicity engines overlook you. Schloss moved to Italy in 1962, a year after splitting up with Burckhardt, and two years later started a new relationship there with Alvin Curran, a musician and pioneer of improvisational electronic music. In Rome, she continued her career: she wrote reviews for The International Herald Tribune from 1969 to 1986, and afterward became a regular contributor to an English-language monthly for ex-pat Americans called Wanted in Rome. She also showed her paintings at Ingber Gallery in Manhattan, which brought her to New York every few years. But she, and the art world she knew, became old news. Her last trip back to the scene of the Loft Generation was in 1999, to attend a memorial service for her ex-husband. Her final review, published posthumously in Wanted in Rome, was an appreciation of Cy Twombly, who like her died in Rome in 2011.

Roughly the last third of the book is devoted to her life in Italy, and it is enlivened by accounts of visiting Italian still-life painter Giorgio Morandi and of starting a friendship with American photographer Francesca Woodman. Her encounters with the latter, which began serendipitously when Woodman was an art student in Rome in 1977 and continued after Woodman moved back to New York, show that Schloss easily crossed generational divides in her quest to stay abreast of contemporary art. One wishes there were more examples of this.

The book is at its most vivid when Schloss addresses her artist friends directly, a stratagem that she might have used profitably throughout. The book’s prologue begins: “Dear Elaine, In the beginning I didn’t even like you. You had a way of eliminating other women from the room.” This device disappears in favor of conventional remembrances until late in the book, when Swiss artist and photographer Meret Oppenheim is introduced: “Dear Meret, How did I first meet you? I was sitting in Marie-Suzanne Feigel’s gallery in Basel in Switzerland, one of the few modern ones there in 1947. Suddenly a great big canvas walked in. It had two feet and hands. They turned out to be yours.” It also turned out that Oppenheim was working as an art restorer to make ends meet.

Rescued from obscurity, Oppenheim is now widely recognized as an important surrealist, primarily based on a single artwork, a fur-lined teacup, saucer, and spoon (Object, 1936). Schloss produced nothing so singular and extraordinary, but The Loft Generation offers any number of reasons why her career should no longer be overlooked.

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