In the many, many accounts of New York’s art scene of the 1940s and ’50s — that postwar generation that flung paint rebelliously and made setting up house in derelict industrial spaces look cool — Edith Schloss might get a passing mention. Maybe a footnote. Before reading her recently published memoir, The Loft Generation: From the de Koonings to Twombly: Portraits and Sketches 1942-2011, I admit I’d never heard of this painter and writer.
“Most histories of famous periods in art or of famous artists present a world where only a few actors play at the front of the stage and the rest of the cast are glancingly mentioned or are nameless,” writes artist and writer Mira Schor, in the introduction to Schloss’s posthumously released memoir about her life as a 20-something art student in Manhattan, and later years based in Rome. “In fact, and with no disrespect meant, in such histories Schloss might herself be one of those nameless extras.”
Schloss is far from deserving to be a nameless extra, though. Her work was varied and imaginative, ranging from boxed assemblages to brightly colored landscapes and abstractions. In reading her (loosely organized) recollections of living at 116 West 21st Street in Chelsea’s heyday, you discover that she also knew everyone and participated in big moments. She was at the afterparty for Willem de Kooning’s first-ever solo show, in 1948, when he still had zero buyers or reviews; she dressed up in matching pasteurized cow outfits with Meret Oppenheim for the 1951 Basel carnival and they won the costume contest; she met Nikki de Saint Phalle when she still went by ‘Mrs. Matthews’; when Marisol famously wore a mask to a 1961 panel talk at the Artists’ Club, she had agreed to go because Schloss wore a mask in camaraderie (although hers was a Halloween one, not the white Japanese mask that boosted Marisol’s legendary status).
The fact that Schloss hobnobbed with people whose canvases, sculptures, and fur-lined teacups are now prized at museums (back when some of these artists were nobodies who came over to Schloss’s loft to mooch kerosene and dinner), is what might lure you to her book in the first place. What’s refreshing, though, given that New York’s midcentury artists have been idolized and written about to death, is being privy to Schloss’s feminine experience of a time usually characterized by hard-drinking machismos. “In Edith’s writings one can usually discern a solidarity with the women,” writes her son Jacob Burckhardt, a co-editor of the memoir, in the chronological biography that helps fill in what Schloss didn’t write about her own life. “And a skepticism of the men (especially the ‘big boys’).”
While many reviews have name-dropped several of the art historical celebrities who appear in Schloss’s book, fewer point out how unusual Schloss’s firsthand female perspective was in that cast of characters. Schloss, herself a painter trying to juggle time at the easel with raising the son she had with her often absent husband, Rudy Burckhardt, shares what it was like to be a woman artist in her social orbit. Extramarital affairs were par for the course, barely worth mentioning. There were bigger fish to fry. Schloss laments that Oppenheim was praised more for her personality than her art, writing in an unsent letter to her Swiss friend that “the men Surrealists had an easier time of it than you, one of the few women of the movement.” Meanwhile, the aloofly stylish Elaine de Kooning had “a way of eliminating other women from the room,” and “spoke with a bright, ‘cultured,’ knowledgeable air, which fooled the men who adored her, but not other women.”
Schloss teases the lofty male-led discussions at the Artists’ Club, quoting what Marisol said when she finally broke her silence at the now-mythic 1961 panel talk there. “Next panel should be different,” Marisol said, according to Schloss. “All these men going on about space, poetry, what Picasso did, music, all that boring thing … Next panel should be women.” (It probably wasn’t.)
Perhaps the most feminine thing about The Loft Generation, though, is how Schloss has challenged the concept of the lone genius toiling in his studio. Instead, she frames this cohort of artists as neighbors and friends, a communal generation sharing a proverbial roof in Chelsea. They might challenge each other, but they also fed off each other.
“She writes about a community of artists and how important art emerges not only from the work of solitary geniuses but also from the way such ‘geniuses’ work within a fertile, competitive, interdisciplinary community,” Schor writes. “This community is the subject of The Loft Generation.”
The Loft Generation: From the de Koonings to Twombly: Portraits and Sketches 1942-2011 by Edith Schloss (2021) is published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux and is available online and in bookstores.