The Everyday Practice of Art:The Loft Generation by Edith Schloss
Young people must assemble their lives. Sometimes a person can feel like a pile of sticks precariously balanced against each other as they begin to make decisions on their own. Until all at once it is true, it has taken form: This thing that was once an idea becomes solid. There was a place once where young people made art together, a small community in the neighborhood of Chelsea in New York City. It was not the first, and it will not be the last. But if you go to see it, it won’t be there anymore. One of the young artists and art writers in that community was Edith Schloss.
The Loft Generation is a woven book of Edith Schloss’ writings and art reviews, many of which first appeared in ARTnews from 1954-1960. The writings are carefully interlaced to create not a memoir or a critique, but a series of odes. I read this book on several flights to and from Florida as my small family and I witnessed the death of my grandfather and arranged the distribution of his things. My dreams were wild then, of voices in the dark. It was difficult to spend much time on any one thing, and this book was like a rush of cold air into the lungs: It ferries through spectacular moments, then moves easily on.
Edith Schloss was born into a bourgeois Jewish family in 1919 in Offenbach am Main, Germany. She spent a pivotal summer in high school nannying for a family in Florence, Italy, where she became familiar with the Renaissance masters. Carting kids around, she felt absolutely hopeless in the face of these paintings and sculptures. “After such perfection, how could there be anything else? How could I ever dare to paint?” she wondered.
And yet she did. In the face of the glory of these creators, she went on to immerse herself in art for the rest of her life. The Loft Generation is the evocation of many people—including the de Koonings, John Cage, and John Ashbery—who had also dedicated their lives to an art practice, as she had.
Her writing is quiet, perhaps even naive. But Schloss is enamored by the minutiae of her subjects, and the exactness and delicacy of her details ripple out like water. Trying to focus on one aspect of the book would be to let the entire thing go. Her son, Jacob Burkhardt, and Mary Venturini, who collaborated in editing the book, were attentive to Schloss’ style of never staying too long, of moving through the world with a lightness. When she writes about artists who are now revered, they do not hold the weight of fame in her eyes. Some were not even famous when she wrote about them. Either way, Schloss encompasses them loosely, like a sketch. The entire book is made up of these rough maquettes: the clopping of an invisible horse on the street, the beauty of Jane Bowles, the creak of an apartment, the cry of a child. All hold the same space, and float in fractals of an incomplete and entirely alive picture.
Schloss was part of what is now called the New York School of painting. At the time—the 1950s—abstraction was a way of life. Chelsea was just becoming known as a center for art, and artists were making a living where they could, but always, doggedly, making art first. The pages of Loft Generation are a flow of colors and figures, an abstract painting in themselves, or a party where people are familiar, so close that you only see them as swaths. Form and color were an everyday practice, revolutionary in that they manifested in the mundane. “Look at the quotidian,” Schloss writes, “look around you, take what comes next, and celebrate it the best you can.” This is not a school at all, but a loft, somewhere intimate, in the everyday.
Throughout Schloss’ vignettes, I couldn’t stop seeing allusions to boats being carried on a great ocean. Many of the artists’ apartments Schloss describes as ships. As she moved through life, the people with whom she collaborated and befriended were small vessels to whom she could reach out her hand and be centered. Home was not a physical place, but a choice to see one another over choppy waters. Schloss herself rarely stayed in one place for long. Her family was forced to leave Germany due to the Nazi occupation, and after living in several locations in Europe, she arrived in America in 1943. While The Loft Generation focuses on her time in New York City, it is a loose base, as she spent many summers in Maine and eventually moved to Rome, Italy, with the intention of staying “just for a few months” but remaining until she died.
I once met Edith Schloss on a trip to Rome. I was twenty-years-old and sick that weekend. Rome was a short stop on a trip through Europe. I remember her apartment as if it had no ceiling. The whole thing had soaring dark wood walls and a crooked hallway like a labyrinth. From a high cabinet she instructed me to take down a painting she had made, of gods and goddesses floating through an abyss. She gave me a print of the sun and the moon holding one another in a confetti of color. I got the distinct impression from her—and this comes across in The Loft Generation—that even though she barely knew me, she was deeply interested in me. Twenty-years-old, drowning in tissues, balloon-headed—and still. This was 2011, within the year she died. Schloss was not discriminatory in her fascination. It was enough to carry the spirit of her subject forward. Within an open, childlike nature, her wisdom comes through. Time evens out. The entire history of art distilled into a moment as she said to me, “You have a face like a Botticelli.”
Schloss’ paintings are embracing. She has not had many solo shows as an artist, but a series of her paintings strike me as The Loft Generation closes. She describes Francesca Woodman, first a student of hers, and then a friend, as a comet in the sky and a vigil in the forest. In her paintings, the thing that holds the eye is form through a chaos of color. It’s as if the eye has been working, through an abstraction of line and color, to at all once see forms all around: humans dancing, flowers blooming, an island in the distance. Her paintings have a way of morphing into themselves.
Michelangelo famously said that he did not make his sculptures—he just took the stone away, and the sculpture appeared. This statement has always been dubious to me. I don’t see the value in genius. What Schloss understood in her writing is that the miracle of art is not the thing itself, but the practice. What comes out of the stone is a culmination of returns, so ingrained it has become natural. In a snippet of conversation Schloss remembers having with Elaine and Willem de Kooning and the poet Edwin Denby, the sheer audacity of creation rears up: “You make something out of nothing, pretending it was all there in the first place,” Willem de Kooning says. “You believe it, and when you believe it, pretty soon someone else will believe it too.”
How much more of a miracle can that be? To have the ability to make something, anything, craft it each and every day, until, all at once, it is real.