Like a classic fable, painter Edith Schloss’s memoir begins suddenly and inconspicuously. In The Loft Generation: From the de Koonings to Twombly: Portraits and Sketches 1942-2011 (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2021), we meet a young Schloss at a party in a New Jersey farmhouse where she’s spellbound by a small “green and gray and black” abstract painting that “leaned a curvilinear shape like a number eight, or two sliced Os, egg-like shapes snugly fitting.” A tall patrician painter named Fairfeld Porter materializes, offering to escort her to meet the artist who’d made it. A week later, Schloss follows Porter into the wintertime canyons of Chelsea, to a rundown factory building, up steep wooden stairwells to a small door that is grudgingly answered by an obscure, struggling artist inside named Willem de Kooning.
The rest of Schloss’s story isn’t — as a conventional autobiography would tell it — straight history. Instead, using an approach adopted by Modernist art-world memoirists like Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf, The Loft Generation is nonlinear and associative. Schloss’s project — edited into book form by a creative team that included her son, Jacob Burckhardt, and Schloss’s Italian editor, Mary Venturi — doesn’t serve up comforting nostalgia for gritty old New York, either. The memoir is steeped in granular physical details and is blunt about its ambivalences, even those leavened with humorous anecdotes. Spoiler alert: dedicated artists don’t necessarily make model citizens.
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So absorbed as it is by its motley cast of characters, the memoir downplays facts about its author’s life, details that are filled in through a preface by artist Mira Schor and an afterword by Jacob Burckhardt. Born in Germany in 1919, versed in multiple languages and immersed in European art from working as an au pair in Italy in the 1930s, Schloss escaped into Britain as World War II erupted. Sponsored by a Quaker group in America, she made it to New York City, studying with Harry Sternberg and Will Barnet at the Art Students League, and setting up a home studio in a loft at 116 West 21st Street, across the street from the building where she’d met de Kooning that fateful winter afternoon with Porter. Soon thereafter she married painter, filmmaker, and photographer Rudy Burckhardt, the bohemian scion of Swiss aristocracy, with whom she remained until, in the early 1960s, their marriage dissolved and she relocated to Italy.
At the outset, Schloss’s neighbors, the young de Koonings — Bill and Elaine — form a center point in an avant-garde art scene that hasn’t yet fully materialized. Willem’s cryptic aphorisms about the compressed abstract brushwork visible in Renaissance portraits convince Schloss that past masters — whose techniques she had assumed to be out of her reach — can inform painterly idioms developing in postwar New York. And de Kooning’s passion in the studio produces “flows and drips and spatters of paint, linear demarcations and gashes like frontiers […] waterfalls of paint and wide swaths of cancellations.”
Rivaling those raptures about de Kooning’s rugged finesse, Schloss describes seeing dancer George Balanchine’s innovative choreography in which “streetwise American bodies […] build compositions made of movement.” This emphasis on bodily expressionism is shared by Schloss’s fellow workers across art forms, who “striv[e] for joy and clarity of movement, pure and fine beyond time.”
Poet Edwin Denby, the leading interpreter for these new movements, is the memoir’s most engrossing figure. A diplomat’s son and trained dancer, Schloss’s Denby is built on compelling contradictions — carefree and melancholy, urbane and insecure, aristocratic and streetwise. He advises young artists to come away from a cocktail party with two phone numbers, “one for business and one for bed,” and the poet’s extended sojourns with Rudy Burckhardt frequently strain Schloss’s marriage. Arguably America’s most prescient writer on the subject of dance, Denby is also a vital mentor to downtown artists-turned-art journalists like Schloss and Elaine de Kooning,
Avatars for the new art, like Denby, recur throughout The Loft Generation, serving as living motifs in an interpersonal songbook even as it far too cursorily name checks overlooked pioneers, such as painter Nell Blaine, co-founder of the Jane Street Gallery, and Schloss’s two closest friends, painter-poet Helen DeMott and painter and printmaker Lucia Vernarelli. Burckhardt immortalized the trio in a photomontage, “Over the Roofs of Chelsea” (1950), prompting Denby to christen the friends “Chelsea Girls” well before Warhol and other downtown denizens would adopt that moniker.
Fittingly, music and musicians play lead roles, too, with close-ups on two divergent but comparably influential New York-based composers, John Cage and Elliot Carter, the latter of whom Schloss admires, as she does New York poet John Ashbery, for an “American respect for civilized sincerity and the European past.”
The scene’s key power brokers share that midcentury balance between informed respect for artistic tradition and ecumenical openness to the authentically radical. Against the protests of staff and subscribers, Art News chieftain Tom Hess recruits poets and non-academics, including Schloss, to invent fresh poetic vernaculars for writing about the new art, while vanguard Manhattan gallery owners prove that a seasoned business savvy can also involve creating audiences who didn’t know that what they craved was the unforeseen or the unexpected.
In this vein, The Loft Generation recuperates iconoclasts whose contemporaneous influence on the era of her peers has dimmed in these intervening decades. Schloss remembers artist Franz Kline, who in the early 1950s renewed the disciplined drive of Action Painting, in “Big black strokes, joined and dovetailing, splintering and cutting, rushing like the force of machines and transcontinental trains […] a thundering kind of painting, mysteriously right.” She homes in on poet James Schuyler’s long unappreciated lyricism, and reads his poetry’s liberal use of brand names and household products as a literary harbinger of Pop Art.
Such concise insights overlap with damnations by faint praise. Though his Bronx bad boy public persona fascinates Schloss and her peers, the actual artwork produced by jazzman-turned-painter Larry Rivers is “more bland than daring” and her effortlessly charismatic friend Frank O’Hara is at his best as an “occasional poet” creating verse “full of oddments and candle ends … [that] cherished and touched sharp bits of city life as they came, making the stale and dreary turn quicksilver for a second.”
And painter Philip Guston, “whose work was also suspect,” practices an “Abstract Impressionism” that “hovered rather than moved” though his later break with abstraction, earns her gradual respect for “turn[ing] his early symbols of obscure kinkiness and oppression and the sly humor of the funnies into something of his own, gruesomely cheerful [and] crazily bracing.”
As an individual, Schloss comes into a more focused view when she has left the proverbial loft party for a less crowded European scene in 1962, beginning a reflective period that provides a long autobiographical coda. Living in Italy, she befriends aging Modernist Giorgio Morandi, who fatalistically informs her that movies and TV have forever displaced painting’s lost cultural power, and the American expat Cy Twombly, whose studio methods exert as direct an influence on Schloss’s practice as de Kooning’s had decades earlier.
Not everything ages well. The absence of opinions revised with the benefit of over a half century’s hindsight leads Schloss to ignore or belittle work by women peers, an oversight that curiously extends to Schloss’s artistic development, about which she says barely a passing word. She discounts Betty Parsons’s far-sighted New York gallery — which brought world-renowned women artists like Joan Mitchell and Agnes Martin their earliest representation — as an appetizer before “the main course” hanging at galleries run by the likes of Sidney Janis and Leo Castelli.
And yet in its final stretches, an inexorable solidarity with women exerts psychic resonances on an aging Schloss. She mentors American artist Francesca Woodman during the latter’s semester abroad in Rome. In a misguided effort to better understand the art of Woodman, who took her own life at the age of 22, Schloss nearly romanticizes suicidal self-destruction when she describes Woodman: “Making herself an object in the framework of her objects, she stretches her own tender skin and offers it to the impervious eye of her camera.”
Schloss bookends the memoir with reverential letters addressed, respectively, to deceased artist-friends Elaine de Kooning and the Swiss-German Surrealist Meret Oppenheim. In the book’s most prolonged and supple prose poetry, she pays homage to Oppenheim’s intrepid metamorphic imagination. As in so much of its finely distilled prose, The Loft Generation creates here another mirror-memoir, as literary portraiture doubles as veiled self-portraiture, and the high-wire creative risks taken by others are always partly Schloss’s own doing, too.
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.