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New York’s Midcentury Art Scene Springs to Life in ‘The Loft Generation’

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Many prophesied the demise of New York City during the Great and Temporary Exodus of 2020. But none had quite the dramatic vision of Jack Tworkov, the abstract expressionist painter, in the middle of the previous century. “Imagine a great catastrophe. And all this mowed down,” he mused then, looking at photographs of buildings, envisioning rust and dust. “And tourists wandering around in all that emptiness — where was the Flatiron, the Empire State — looking for past grandeur. Imagine good old New York someday just like Egypt.”

Tworkov is one of scores who come bearing aperçus in the German American writer and artist Edith Schloss’s memoir, “The Loft Generation,” discovered in rough-draft form after her death in 2011. It’s been polished into a glowing jewel of a book by several editors including Mary Venturini, who worked with her in later years at a magazine for expats in Rome, and Schloss’s son, Jacob Burckhardt.

Edith Schloss in Ravenna, Italy, in 1947, in a photograph by Rudy Burckhardt.Credit…The Estate of Rudy Burckhardt/Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York

Schloss was likely underappreciated as an artist, being a woman and mother in a macho era, but she was equanimous and resourceful. Jacob was sometimes left with a dog for a babysitter, and celebrated his first birthday crawling on a high terrace overlooking Naples. His father, Rudy Burckhardt, a filmmaker and photographer whose cityscapes had drawn Tworkov’s gaze, is here just another entrant in a Who’s Who of art-world characters, cataloged in a 16-page glossary accompanied by a photo of a list scribbled by Schloss: “famous people whose hand my little hand has shaken.”

They are a spiky, ambitious lot. We encounter the poet John Ashbery, to whom Schloss complained about being called “semiabstract” by a critic. “‘Isn’t all life semi?’” he replied consolingly. And the composer Elliott Carter, who sneered of folk music’s influence on modern urbans: “We are not shepherds. We are not coming out of the hills. We are not folk.” The dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham rears up “like a furry old faun”; the gallerist Leo Castelli has a Felix Unger-ish fastidiousness.

Schloss writes of a time, incredible as it may seem now, when painters in New York had the clout of movie stars. (These days, maybe even movie stars no longer have the clout of movie stars.) The Bob De Niro she gossiped with over a temperamental kerosene stove on the street was the actor’s father. Franz Kline, another abstract expressionist, with whom she danced the tango, “had a sort of Bogart-like cool and melancholy.” Strolling downtown alongside Willem de Kooning, the Dutch painter, leader of this set, “was like walking with Clark Gable in Hollywood.”

De Kooning and his wife, Elaine, a.k.a. “Queen of the Lofts,” are among the more completely filled-out figures in a collection of mostly outlines and shadows, darting in and out of time. At Bill’s studio, Schloss, who’d escaped Nazi Germany studying languages abroad as a teenager, first beheld the takeover of former industrial spaces that transformed real estate as well as art. So powerful was the romance of New York lofts, surpassing the Parisian garrets before them, that prefabricated luxury versions are now an industry standard. They were “stages for work and for a whole new free way of living,” Schloss writes, describing her crowd’s appropriation of cable spools for coffee tables as if they were The Borrowers, a perpetual ascension of creaky stairs, parlor games absent an actual parlor and meals taken at the Automat.

Edith SchlossCredit…Silvia Stucky

All five senses are shaken awake by “The Loft Generation,” which might as well be subtitled A Study of Synesthesia, punctuated by “cream-colored screams,” a hotly debated phrase the poet Frank O’Hara used to describe Cy Twombly’s canvases in ARTnews. Schloss got a reviewing gig there — she compares the work to embroidery or knitting — to smoothe Jacob’s admittance to a nursery school “only for the children of working mothers”; painting apparently didn’t qualify. There is sight, of course, with color insets of Schloss’s bright and optimistic daubings alongside work by her more dour-seeming contemporaries. There is sound, in her recounting of the unholy clamor of the Chelsea neighborhood where she and Burckhardt shacked up: the rattling of iron window shutters, mating cats, the fire and burglar alarms and “the intermittent swish of cars down Sixth Avenue, like long sighs.” (Next time you misplace the AirPods Pro, think of John Cage teaching Schloss to appreciate ambient noise as part of life’s symphony.)

There is taste, too: the wild rice with chicken livers eaten on the floor, naturally, and the photographer Francesca Woodman declaring “spaghetti is my only religion.” Also smell: the “juicy, semen-like” whiff Schloss gets from chanterelle mushrooms collected in Maine, say, or the odor of “mouse turds and straw” in a horse-drawn coach in Ischia. And plenty of touch and texture, like the fur-lined teacup and flip books of the Swiss surrealist Meret Oppenheim, whom the author addresses affectionately in the second person.

If nostalgia is a sixth and often fogging sense, it is absent in a book that feels manifestly present, clear and alive even while describing the past. Though Schloss reminisces about many friends she lost, and moments when she was overlooked, “The Loft Generation,” as the sly pun of its title suggests, is not dragged down by sorrow or regret. With her talent for art and writing and social life, Schloss may have spread herself too thin for greater renown. Or maybe her greatest gift was being in the blazing-hot There and attuned, basically happy as those around her strove and schemed. “Once, it shot through me like a high-voltage charge,” is how she remembers a Cage concert. “This is it, we’re on top of our time.” Rocked by Twombly: “This was us, and this was New York, and this was where it was at.”

After the scene broke up and Schloss settled in serener Italy, the World Trade Center would rise and fall. The Cedar Tavern, where she and her colleagues had gathered, would become a CVS and the artists would move to Bushwick. Good old New York. Still going.

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