book review

Twentieth-Century Woman

A pioneer of New York’s loft scene gets a long-overdue introduction.

Edith Schloss in Ravenna, Italy, 1947.
Edith Schloss in Ravenna, Italy, 1947. Photo: Rudy Burckhardt/©1947 The Estate of Rudy Burckhardt/Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York
Edith Schloss in Ravenna, Italy, 1947.
Edith Schloss in Ravenna, Italy, 1947. Photo: Rudy Burckhardt/©1947 The Estate of Rudy Burckhardt/Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York

Early in her book The Loft Generation, the artist and critic Edith Schloss recalls the painting that changed her life. Schloss — a recent German-Jewish émigré to the United States — was at a party in a New Jersey farmhouse in the early 1940s when she came upon it: “It was green and gray and black. In it leaned a curvilinear shape like a number eight, or two sliced 0s, egg-like shapes snugly fitting. There was something still and clear about the little thing … I’d never seen anything like it.”

The artist Fairfield Porter found Schloss there, entranced, and offered to introduce her to the artist behind the painting. Back in New York, he led her to a loft on 22nd Street: “When the door was finally opened, the man who stood there looked aghast at Fairfield and me,” she writes, “But then he caught himself, and with quick, cheerful politeness asked us inside.” Schloss was a disappointment, a mere art student. The then little-known Bill De Kooning was the man inside the studio; he’d expected Porter to summon a power-player, someone to rally around his blossoming career. But it was Schloss who got there first.

You’ve likely never heard of Edith Schloss. Although the New York Sun identified her as “an artist best known for knowing everyone who counted in Manhattan’s legendary postwar art scene,” she has been largely exiled from popular memory, without even a Wikipedia page. But Schloss, who died in Rome in 2011, once lived and worked in the center of the center of midcentury New York’s most illustrious culturati. The Loft Generation: From the De Koonings to Twombly is a patchwork tapestry of on-the-scene recollections of a radically transformative era for American (particularly New York) art and culture.

The collection — compiled by her son Jacob Burckhardt from archives spanning several decades, and edited by Mary Venturini, Schloss’s longtime editor at Wanted in Rome — weaves an intricate micro-history of an unprecedentedly energized and interconnected artistic community: that of New York’s postwar loft scene, where Schloss too found herself living, working, and family-making for nearly two decades. Among her intimates, companions, and creative interlocutors were Willem and Elaine De Kooning, Cy Twombly, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Allen Ginsberg, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Philip Guston, Meret Oppenheim, Giorgio Morandi, and Francesca Woodman. Even Robert Rauschenberg makes a fiendish cameo in the book, asking De Kooning to give him a drawing. “Years later in a museum I saw a blank page with some faint marks on it,” Schloss remembers. “It was signed Robert Rauschenberg and titled Erased De Kooning Drawing.”

As a painter, Schloss’s atmospheric sunshapes and evocative washes of color evoke the queer delicacy of her contemporary Helen Frankenthaler. Later Schloss worked in collages and boxes, like her friend Joseph Cornell. The book’s central focus is not Schloss’s own process but her engagement with the work of others, her observational acumen with the artistry that was happening around her. As she insists, “an able artist-writer puts a probe into another’s well of creativity.” The selections in the collection are restless in both form and content, migrating from urban history, art monograph, and elegy to the more traditional narrative and psychological territories of memoir.

Archiving the past is melancholic by nature, but Schloss was no sad sack. The Loft Generation is fast-paced and deeply funny. Schloss, who would end up writing for Art in America, Ms., and The Nation, among others, recalls that her career in art criticism began as a matter of practicality: The Hudson Guild nursery school she wanted to enroll her son in was “only for the children of working mothers, and as a painter, I was not a working mother.” A familiar tale of artistic pragmatism; sometimes you just need a damn paystub. The necessity became fortuitous. She convinced Tom Hess, the editor at the time of ARTnews, to give her a job, taking to it seamlessly: “Naturally, as a painter, I had always gone to shows, looking and looking, at the same time blithely discussing the work with the friends and colleagues who were with me. Now I went to shows looking and looking but spoke only to my notepad.” It was a strange position to occupy, halfway between artist and critic. When Schloss proudly informs the sculptor Helen Carter that she was “suddenly on the staff of the prestigious ARTnews,” Carter responds coldly: “Oh … how sad.”

Though Schloss alludes to her originary foreignness — “Coming from Europe, I believed in abstraction,” she remarks — The Loft Generation is divested from her early history, her first sentimental educations. The book begins in medias res, tossing the reader into the postwar mêlée of a rapidly shapeshifting New York. The city was and remains the sort of place a girl might sever herself from her past, if she desires. And Schloss is strategic, cagey almost, about which intimacies she exposes. The book is punctured by gaps and elisions; often our sense of her gathers texture from what is left out.

In an addendum to the book, however, Schloss’s son offers a chronological biography, where we learn Edith was born to a bourgeois Jewish family in Offenbach am Main, Germany, in 1919. Her father believed multilingualism was a “great asset for a girl.” She studied languages and drawing in London and France; and in 1936 — in large part to get her far from the Nazis’ escalating machinations in her home nation — Edith was sent to work as an au pair in Florence, Italy.

It doesn’t seem Schloss published writing on her family’s experiences with the Nazis, but we likewise learn from her son’s account that Schloss lost her grandmother and other relatives to the concentration camps during the war. In the book, her individual sense of this global trauma is left un-narrated, although in a haunting scene with a Holocaust survivor, we piece together how she may have understood the use of survival stories. The encounter happens at Anne and Fairfield Porter’s summer home in Maine:

“My former boyfriend Heinz Langerhans and his wife, Ilse Block, were Fairfield’s guests. Ilse had come to America straight from a concentration camp. One night, at the communal clambake, some of the Porters questioned her about her experiences. … She said in a low voice, ‘I cannot talk about that anymore. It seems like a bad dream now. It has to be. I do not want to believe my own memory. Otherwise I could not go on living.’”

Perhaps there are also stories we no longer tell ourselves in order to live. The moment illuminates one of The Loft Generation’s broader sensibilities: that some privacies are better left alone; some narratives are not to be granted eternity in the written word.

We do know Schloss found her way to Brooklyn in 1942. The export of industry, evacuation of the sweatshops, and birth of the American suburbs in the postwar period created an extraordinary convergence of circumstances resulting in low rents and empty lofts throughout the city. When Schloss met the Swiss filmmaker and photographer Rudy Burckhardt, she was already living in a Chelsea loft recently vacated by the German photographer Ellen “Pit” Auerbach. Burckhardt moved in; they wed in ’47 and lived together there for the next 14 years. The rents Schloss cites register as cruel jokes to the contemporary New Yorker: in the early ’40s their rent was $25; by the time she left the loft in ’62, it had increased only to around $150.

Loft life was barebones; break-ins were common. But the space lofts offered, with abundant storage for old paintings and fresh canvases, was indispensable. “The lofts were huge stages for work and a whole new free way of living,” Schloss writes, and art was for her and her friends the alpha and omega. She quotes Bill De Kooning as having said that “If after an atomic bomb there’ll just be Meyer Schapiro left in a cave, all will be saved.” What was the sacrifice of creature comforts to the opportunity to fashion an entirely other style of existence? Creative fecundity was prioritized over familial and financial success. Nevertheless, some among them attempted the juggling act. Edith and Rudy chose to raise their son in the loft, an unusual decision: “Babies among all that turpentine and paint rags, the toilet on the stairs, the drunk sleeping it off in the hall, the bad heating to most people was shocking.” (Perhaps more shocking to the modern reader: The couple not infrequently left their dog in charge of the infant.)

Schloss (center), Lucia Vernarelli, and Helen DeMott in a collage of the Chelsea rooftops, by Schloss’s then-husband, Rudy Burckhardt. Photo: ©1950 The Estate of Rudy Burckhardt/Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York.

After meeting Bill De Kooning, Schloss’s evolution from doting acolyte to artist and critic in her own right happened fast. She describes the transformation matter-of-factly; she became enmeshed in the “churning, seemingly uncontrolled attack that was dubbed action painting.” She saw that, unlike some of their peers, Bill understood “to spite skill, you had to acquire it first.” Shifting into critic mode, Schloss observes that the work of these painters began to reflect the chaotic pace of the times. De Kooning’s “vision aimed at total breakup”; abstraction ushered in big strokes, plain colors: “the marvelous movement of the loaded brush.” “But if paint and structure were the subject matter, these big abstractions also held the grating pulse of New York day and night. … The sport inside the picture was also the tale of the city.”

The men of Schloss’s circle have been exhaustively attended to by the cultural record. (There have recently been retrospectives of both Jasper Johns’s and Philip Guston’s work in New York galleries.) More provocative are her portraits of the women on the scene. Schloss appears at ease in a patently male-dominated landscape; nevertheless she acknowledges the ways women were effaced within it. At parties, after meals, “the men sat earnestly arguing,” going “on with the political conjectures they had begun at dinner.” Of the music scene Schloss notes that “I had learned already that it was a world of men.” She describes the artists’ wives as “unobtrusive” or otherwise “not around often.” Guston’s wife Musa “was silent, but then she always was … Like many wives of the famous, she had seen it all, heard it all.” She confesses, too, that everyone in their circle knew Paul Bowles was effectively stealing Jane’s creative labor (although he had done so with none of Jane’s strange magic).

Hand in glove with this new style of living was an interrogation of conventional monogamy. Like other radical changes in the zeitgeist, of course, this freedom too was doled out to men and women inequitably. Mostly it seems the men in Schloss’s world were now able to conduct their affairs in the open, while the women were expected to not make too much of a scene about it. Schloss writes that the younger girls looked up to Pit Auerbach as an example of how to “grow older gracefully,” but Pit was “much more sensitive and sentimental than she let on. She thought she was not affected by [her husband] Walter’s other involvements, believing herself to be a modern woman, but she suffered deeply.” Looking back, Schloss realizes that Auerbach “was not a happy person,” that her rocky marriage had left Auerbach feeling “unclean.” Although everybody slept around (there is a funny scene where Jane Bowles halts a party full of people to say she had a “strange feeling” they’d all been lovers), there remains a sense that it was the wives who suffered the fallout.

For the younger women of Schloss’s set — like Schloss, like Elaine De Kooning — access to a man’s man’s man’s world demanded a pound of flesh. The women were offered scraps and set against one another. Schloss and Elaine eventually became close friends, but as she writes in the book’s prologue, they began their relationship fractiously. “In the beginning,” she remembers, “I didn’t even like you.” When Schloss first met the De Koonings, she didn’t recognize Elaine as anything other than Bill’s wife. Elaine was justifiably annoyed, but Schloss protests that Elaine also approached most intra-gender relations antagonistically — that she “had a way of eliminating other women from the room.” In another scene, after Bill makes an unwanted pass at Schloss, she is quick to defend him against charges of womanizing. “What he had was some kind of working-class unscrupulousness or realism,” she remarks. “He took what he wanted where he found it; the rest is false sentimentality.”

This was the way things were, and you made do or got nowhere. Theirs was an in-between time, after the war but before the Pill. A woman could have this or she could have that. If Schloss writes admiringly that Elaine “chose not to slave as a wife, but to dedicate [herself] to her art and the art world,” she’s also implying that these possibilities were mutually exclusive. It wasn’t simply that their roles were unstable and shifting,  but that women were swinging like pendulums between them. Those in Schloss’s circle often appear wary, certain in their knowledge that their newfound “freedoms” were precarious. In this scarcity economy, every woman was starving.

The last third of The Loft Generation takes place in Italy: The two sections — “Italy With the Family: 1950-1951” and “Return to Italy” — are separated by a decade, and signal for Schloss two quite different eras of her life. In 1950, she and Rudy were new parents; in the latter, she is expatriated from the U.S., separated from her husband, and living as a single mother in Rome, the city where she remained for the last 50 years of her life.

After the New Year in 1962, Schloss writes that she took Jacob and fled to Rome to temporarily “put an ocean between Rudy and myself” — a rift The Loft Generation stubbornly refuses to narrate. Another absence. She notes only that she was “bereft,” and laments vaguely at another moment that she “was sad because of [her] private life.” It is perhaps odd for a memoirist to push her reader away at moments of narrative intrigue, but Schloss is decidedly not a gossip. She occasionally extends crumbs (recalling, for example, that many in their circle thought Frank O’Hara a bit much), but her principal interests are the tangible labors and creative energies guiding her own work and the work of the countless artists she surrounded herself with.

In the Italy chapters, The Loft Generation begins to curl back in on itself. For one thing, there is less to distract Schloss in Italy than there’d been in New York. This means we’re occasionally rewarded with greater (but not total) insight into her interiority and her bawdiness. There are the encounters with artists like Oppenheim, Woodman, Morandi, and Twombly here, but largely alone, Schloss appears less focused and remains steadfastly avoidant regarding the personal minutiae of her inner life.

The Loft Generation is interested not in the ways our specific identities generate a shared history, but in what we make with what we are given. In 2010, Jacob filmed a video of his mother giving a guided tour of her Roman apartment. She was near the end of her life but still brimming with energy. The lines in her face indicate a vastness of experience, a delight in pleasure. The camera tracks her around the apartment, shifting between the direct gaze of the testimonial to an ambling regard of the objects she’d accrued: pottery, collages, paintings, and other works, housewares, and various personal memorabilia. Schloss shows us a photo of her and Meret Oppenheim in cow costumes, remembering that they’d won a prize for the costumes at a Swiss festival. (Oppenheim “was a feminist,” she notes, in a tone that reveals no strong affinity with the identification.) Later she shows off the painting series she was working on at the end of her life, scenes from classical mythology depicting Danae, Leda, the naiads, and others.

The tour calls to mind Schloss’s own portrait of the assemblagist Joseph Cornell, whom she’d visited at his home years earlier in Flushing, Queens. “I lost all sense of time,” she says of her first encounter with his work, his small boxes with their collection of uncanny objects. “Each defined a little space — a stage, a shrine, inhabited by a few sparse forms — touched off unremembered memories, drew me into unheard-of distances.” Like Cornell’s ability to transport the looker through time and space, Schloss’s own assemblage of objects, her essays and letters to late friends in this book, unravel an expansive history. In her index of inanimates and remembrances, Schloss extends the reach of the ghostly archives of an artist, a scene, a moment.

Edith Schloss, 20th-Century Woman