When Alfredo Elias moved to New York from Miami, he needed a place to stay near The French Culinary Institute, where he planned to study pastry making. But he never pictured himself standing by a lamppost on Broome Street at 2a.m., waiting for Alphabet Artist Arleen Schloss (known in her community as “A”) to escort him to her “Live Arts Hotel”.
A flight of wooden stairs led to her doorway, framed by a series of red letter A’s. The surrounding wall was plastered with multi-Colored flyers touting artistic and political events dating back to the early 1980’s. Once inside, he found that the 2,400 square foot loft was Divided into living quarters not by walls, but by Japanese screens and an in the case of his space, an overturned piano. “I don’t mind,” he told her, “I play a little piano.”
Outside the loft was the sculpture garden; a massive terrace filled with works of art, including a rainbow water sculpture by Ray Kelly and a mosaic horse purchased off the street for a dollar. Pitched amongst the sculptures he saw a couple of tents where two tenants camp out full time: one a Swiss photographer, and the other a struggling poet. Most Everyone at the loft was from another country, and most everyone was pursuing an artistic dream. Other tenants included musicians, performance artists, writers and actors.
So it came as little surprise to discover that the proprietor, Arleen Schloss, has been entrenched in the underground New York art scene for thirty years. Although she was born in Brooklyn, she is a self-described “Mother of the Lower East Side”. Over the years, her Broome Street loft has served as a performance space for Warhol-protégé Jean-Michel Basquiat, actors Eric Bogosian and Steve Buscemi, performance artists Karen Finley and Penny Arcade and singer-songwriter Phoebe Legere. Sonic Youth lead singer Thurston Moore first performed at the loft as part of The Coachmen. Moore later met Sonic Youth’s original drummer Richard Edson at A’s as well.
Art has been incorporated into every aspect of this loft, and even something as mundane as the refrigerator has been turned into a political/artistic canvas, every inch covered with various flyers, photos and slogans. The humble bathroom has been transformed into a colorful Gallery including an eye-popping piece by mail-artist pioneer Ray Johnson.
The thirty years of interdisciplinary experimentation at A’s loft, which she refers to as “loft communication” are the result of her own eclectic artistic sensibilities. Both embracing cutting edge technology and recognizing the right collaborators have shaped her outlook. She often refers to artistic endeavor as “Chance Operations”. It can be described as collaborating with artists from various disciplines, and acknowledging the random situations and tools that inspire art. Consequently, “Chance Operations” can be seen throughout the trajectory of her career.
In the late 1970s, a new color Xerox printer at the Jamie Canvas art supplies store in SoHo made it a meeting point for artists. They were all either Incorporating this new technology into their art, or using it to create flyers to promote their art. Arleen used the Xerox to make copies of copies of the alphabet, experimenting with “the Art of Degeneration”.
The communal use of this Xerox machine also forged communication and collaboration for a new generation of artists. On October 24, 1979, Arleen opened her doors to some of these emerging artists she’d met at Jamie Canvas, and Basquiat kicked off the first night of performances at the loft.
In the early 1980s, Arleen and other artists such as R.L. Seltman developed a performance series called “A-Z at the Storefront of Art and Architecture”. In 1982, this developed into Storefront for Art and Architecture, a non-profit organization housed in a contemporary landmark building on Kenmare Street.
In 1983, Arleen and collaborators including Ray Kelly and E.F. Higgins III created 99 consecutive nights of performances at a spot called No Se No on Rivington. Soon after, a group of sculptors and welders took over an abandoned lot next door and used the space to create art out of random scraps of metal scrounged from all over the Lower East Side. Through this collective experience, they founded The Rivington School of Art. “We were all getting together and helping each other,” she says.
New laser technology in the mid-1980s inspired her to combine linguistics and light shows as she recited poetry with lasers in her mouth. In the 1990s, digital technology spurred her interest in interactive electronic arts. By the early 2000s, the Internet was intrinsic to her art forms, and she displays much of her work in a virtual Museum at http://www.nyundergroundmuseum.org
Through the shifts in technology and artistic styles, the one constant has been her loft on Broome Street. It has been a hub, a kinetic center for creativity on the Lower East Side. It’s been a laboratory of sorts, for artists to experiment with technology, mixed media and New music, exchanging ideas and techniques. The loft embodies Arleen’s favorite slogan: “Art is Action, Object is Artifact.”
But while several other artists in her collective used to have lofts in the area that they opened up as Performance spaces, she is now the only one left. When asked the inevitable Question about gentrification, high Rents and out-priced tenants in Manhattan, she is honest:
“All my friends who had lofts here had to leave…and everyone said to me ‘Sell! Sell!’ But where do I go? I love being in the center of the city, opening my doors and communicating with people from all over the world.”
While she misses her fellow artists and collaborators, she realizes the city has changed, and adaptation is the only solution. “We all work on survival,” she says.
She is right, of course. When her generation of artists started out, Technology and geography facilitated their Underground arts scene. And sitting in her sculpture garden, drinking some wine, saying hello to artists living in tents, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic for an era when rents were cheaper, time wasn’t so strictly calculated in dollar Value, and Manhattan had more room for Weird creativity.
But then again, since Arleen Schloss’ originality was born of something as uniform as the Xerox machine, maybe Young artists shouldn’t fear the uniform. Starbucks coffee shops springing up on Lower East Side corners now. The new generation will find another meeting spot, another way to make a connection. Another “chance operation.”
Alfredo Elias no longer lives at A’s loft. But he does stop by on a regular basis. His time at her “Live Arts Hotel” spurred him to create sculptures out of some of the pastry he makes at The French Culinary Institute. And of course some of it he shares with Arleen to eat. Either way, Arleen Schloss savors it with the same Zeal she has for all the artistic expression discovered at her loft.