Sweeping Genres On Broome

Downtown alternative art pioneer and ’70s provocateur Arleen Schloss getting a fresh look.

09/19/12
Special to Jewish Week
Photo Galleria: 

Think of your favorite cutting-edge art genre. There’s a good chance Arleen Schloss was there first, or close to it.

Public foot painting? First.

Public collaborative art? There to start the party.

Art on the Internet? A cyber-plain pioneer.

Xerox Art, iron-on art, fiber art, hot Play-Do art? Head of the line.

Now, as part of its grand retrospective on art around the Bowery from 1969 to 1989, Soho’s New Museum is treating Schloss to a double spotlight.

First, Schloss’ demonstration film on guerilla street postering is running continuously until Jan. 6 (with souvenir T-shirts available at the gift shop).

Then, on Oct. 18, the museum will hold a special one-night showing of some of Schloss’ landmark super-8 and hi-8 films (sample titles: “How She Sees It By Her,” “Windows of Chance/Change”).

Viewers can expect short but devilishly layered constructions of sight and sound, somehow kept light and beguiling to the senses; it’s all within the guiding spirit, in Schloss’ words, of “cabaret and spontaneous harmony.”

In this era of rampant artistic fusion, Schloss, 68, is the quintessential multimedia artist, or, in her telling, “cyber-agent.” Radiating from a performance-art base that took inspiration from boundary-shattering innovators like composer John Cage and collagist Ray Johnson (for whom she created elaborate homages), in the course of four decades she has ventured into film, video, music, dance and spoken word; she frequently merged some or all of the above genres at the same time. Her Broome Street loft, dubbed A’s, was for several years in the ’70s and ’80s the downtown artists’ favorite collective sandbox, attracting luminaries of the time like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Eric Bogosian, Phoebe Legere and Ai WeiWei, the activist-artist recently confined by the Chinese government.

Later A’s went electronic, turning into a groundbreaking Internet platform called A’s Wave.

A cultural ambassador of the Lower East Side in general and of the fast-morphing global art village in particular, Schloss spent a good chunk of her busiest years traveling to Europe or Japan to show her work to rapt audiences.

Interspersed throughout her otherwise ethnicity-free oeuvre is a recurring audiovisual riff on various alphabets, including the Hebrew. (She can still recite her Sunday school aleph bais, with a 4-year-old’s glee.). She built one multicast performance around the theme of matzah, a tribute to Passover freely modeled on the traditional seder and held at Delancey Street’s Katz’ Deli. And she still savors the irony in her invitation to perform in Linz, Austria, Hitler’s birthplace.

“I’m sure my being Jewish informs my art in every way,” she says candidly. “But I don’t know why.”

Nevertheless, it’s something in her personal manner — a step away from the popular stereotype of the urban alternative artist — that makes that special difference. It’s her at once flouncy and intimate catchphrases like “darling” (more like “dah-link”) and “oy vey” sprinkled with her Saturday-night-at-the-Brooklyn-Paramount “hey hey hey,” that make her, in her words, “the Jewish girl from Brooklyn.”

Recently, other major cultural venues, such as Midtown’sExit Art, have thrown a fresh focus on Schloss’ oeuvre as part of the pervasive rediscovery of the 1980s. A full-length documentary about her by director Stewart Ginsberg is slated for completion later this year.

But of course Schloss is more than a glittering relic from a countercultural golden age. She never went away.

Long-standing multiple sclerosis has slowed her down, but she still continues to make new work, such as a pared-down audio diary consisting of her voice, a miniature tape recorder and random, short epiphanies.

Also affecting her work cycles have been the recent deaths, in close succession, of her father and her beloved Aunt Ruth.

Ruth Goldstein had been a successful stylist, and from spare beginnings, her father, “Sir” Alex Schloss (he was knighted in Monaco), became a successful commercial painter and hairdresser, furnishing portraits and arranging coiffures for the entertainment and social elite. A cherished adolescent memory for Schloss is securing a seat at the “Ed Sullivan Show,” thanks to her dad’s show business connections, for the historic performance by Elvis Presley. Her mother Gloria, who Schloss talks to every day, also produced her own series of painted sculptural montages, including homages to the New York Yankees.

Schloss took pains to include her parents’ art among the panoply of avant-garde work that flowed through A’s showings.

The Schloss family’s religion was a middle-of-the-road American Judaism, with few trips to local Sheepshead Bay synagogues. “We believe at home,” she recalls her mother saying. But she treasures the memories of the lox and knish eateries of old Brighton Beach and the annual Passover seders with her English-born maternal grandmother, a master of p’tcha, or cold jellied calves feet.

It was, she says, her own family experience that played a major role in her signature preference for art collaborations, a choice she claims carries the feel of a “mitzvah.”

“Jews help each other out,” she explains. “They help other people out too.”

At the same time, she says, “I’m a hustler. I’ve always been a hustler. That comes from being Jewish. And my dad.”

She was called to the performing life early on. “I was singing all the time,” she remembers. “Everybody said shut up, including my parents.”

Edgy yet family friendly, Schloss was tapped by Nickelodeon, the children’s network, in 1989, to produce short, tartly narrative films for its programming.

In another departure from conventional artistic solitude, Schloss has opened her loft as a hostel for young traveling artists from the American hinterlands and abroad, at the sub-motel rate of $50 a night.

One recent turning point, she says, was inspired by the moving, traditional simplicity of her Aunt Ruth’s Staten Island funeral service.

“The rabbi blew my mind. I had wanted to be cremated,” she confides. But now, she says, she opts for an old-fashioned Jewish burial.

“Arleen found the lawlessness of the Lower East Side to her advantage,” says Ethan Swan of the education department of the New Museum. “Its cheap rents and random streets provided ample opportunities for her creativity to run wild.

“I’ve never heard Arleen utter the words ‘tikkun olam,’ but I’m certain it’s at the heart of her every act.”

He calls A’s, the loft communalized by Schloss as a workshop/showcase for the efforts of fellow artists, “a tzedakah that speaks to a greater purpose.”

Photographer-artist Lillian Binder remembers A’s not only as an artistic and social haven, but also as a spiritual one.

“It was truly a place of ingathering,” says Binder, “where artists, and just people, could leave their personal Egypt, or Mitzrayim — literally ‘restrictions’ — where they could find a genuinely free space in which together they could be free.”

Three decades after her big breakout as a pioneering young creator, Schloss feels well in step with today’s march of the increasingly conglomerating arts. The linking tool, she says, is technology.

“The newest work is reflective of the spirit of the ’70s and ’80s,” she says. “It transmits the physical manifestation of the digital revolution that we started and that continues to evolve and grow.”

Multidisciplinary conceptualist with a heart, heimische saloniste, globalist den mother — not to mention (you can look it up) Miss Brooklyn1962 — Schloss sums up her personal faith: “It’s about creativity, and loving everything.” 

Last Update:

09/20/2012 - 12:44

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.