Elisabeth S. Schleussner, a former art and architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun who championed Maryland artists and wrote poetry and fiction, died June 10 from a heart attack at her Sarasota, Fla., home. The former Rodgers Forge resident was 88.
Ms. Schleussner, who wrote under her maiden name, Stevens, was known for her sharp intellect and engaging writing style. In addition to her works of journalism and criticism, she was the author of 20 books of fiction, poetry and drama.
During a career that spanned six decades, she had been art critic for The Sun, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Trenton Times. Her reviews and articles were also published in Art News, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Mademoiselle, LIFE magazine and others.
Jay M. Fisher, deputy director for curatorial affairs at the Baltimore Museum of Art, said that as an art critic, “Betsy stands out as the most experienced when it came to reviewing art because she was an artist herself.
“Even though she had a charming sense of humor and was light-hearted, she was very serious when it came to reviewing art,” Mr. Fisher said. “She was also an art historian and always brought that perspective to her reviews.”
The former Elisabeth Goss Stevens was born in Rome, N.Y. She was the only child of George May Stevens, an advertising executive, and Elisabeth Stryker Stevens, a homemaker.
She was raised in the New York and New Jersey, and graduated in 1947 from Columbia High School in Maplewood, N.J.
After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in 1951 from Wellesley College in Massachusetts, she worked briefly in Washington before enrolling at Columbia University. There, she wrote her thesis on Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and in 1956 received a master’s degree in modern literature with high honors.
While living in New York City with her first husband, Farrell Grehan, a noted National Geographic and LIFE photographer whom she married in 1959, she attended the Arts Student League, the School of Visual Arts and the New School for Social Research.
From 1959 to 1960, she was on the faculty of Staten Island [N.Y.] Community College and later taught at Fairleigh Dickinson University and Rutgers University.
She began her journalism career in New York City in 1962 creating black-and-white illustrations for Artnews magazine and political journals that covered events such as the Cuban missile crisis and the desegregation of the University of Mississippi. She then began writing freelance articles to accompany them. She was hired as a reporter by The Washington Post in 1965 and became the paper’s art critic and cultural reporter.
After her first marriage ended in divorce, she married Robert C. Schleussner Jr., an engineer and executive, in 1966, and they lived in New York.
She worked for The Wall Street Journal, writing “The Gallery,” its editorial page art column, from 1969 to 1972, then was art critic for The Trenton Times from 1974 to 1977. In 1973 she was awarded an art critic fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
After her husband’s death in 1978, she joined the staff of The Sun as its first full-time art and architecture critic.
“Since her initial column, Elisabeth Stevens has written in the manner of a true art critic. She has evaluated, explained and enlightened,” wrote Baltimore artist Bennard B. Perlman in a letter to the editor. “She has brought knowledge and experience into play, and used it to the great advantage of the reader.”
“Over the course of her work as an art critic she interviewed major artists of the time, including the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, Christo, Judy Chicago, May Wilson, and Red Grooms,” wrote Laura S. Forne, her daughter, in a biographical profile of her mother.
“Her journalistic interests were broad, ranging from articles on dissident Russian artists … historical collections and muralists working in inner city neighborhoods,” wrote Ms. Forne, an editor who lives in Berlin, Germany.
In 1982 when Andy Warhol visited the University of Maryland, College Park, Ms. Schleussner wrote: “Was this slight man with the white hair protruding from his head like a thatch, who peered through thick glasses, actually the audacious, outrageous Mr. Warhol? In the 1960s, after all, he was the much-touted doyen of the Factory, a silver-walled, East 47th Street Manhattan studio where the rich, the talented and the famous gathered. ….”
When Villa Pace, the Greenspring Valley home of Metropolitan Opera diva Rosa Ponselle, was open to the public, Ms. Schleussner described the villa as an “ostentatiously furnished home” and a “self-perpetuating personal museum” to the great soprano.
She left The Sun in 1986 and continued writing criticism, books and poetry.
Throughout her life, Ms. Schleussner wrote poetry and fiction, and some of her works were published in Confrontation, the Chariton Review, Mademoiselle and Wind Literary Journal. She also contributed to The New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Atlantic and McCall’s.
Her books — many of which she also illustrated — included “Fire and Water: Six Stories,” “Children of Dust: Portraits and Preludes,” “Horse and Cart: Stories from the Country,” “The Night Lover” and “Cherry Pie and Other Stories,” among others.
She was also author of “Elisabeth Stevens’ Guide to the Inner Harbor,” published in 1981 by Stemmer House, an Owings Mills firm. The Washington Post described the book as “a chatty and useful guide to [Baltimore’s] enormously popular Inner Harbor.”
Her final book, “Blood and Other Stories,” will be published this summer by BrickHouse Books, a Baltimore-based press.
The late U.S. Poet Laureate Josephine Jacobsen, who lived in Baltimore, described Ms. Schleussner’s work as having “a depth of emotion and simultaneous control … a haunting quality that will linger in the mind.”
She had been a member of the American Studies Association, the Authors Guild, the Popular Culture Association, the College Art Association, Society of Architectural Historians, the Society of Journalists and Authors and the Baltimore Bibliophiles.
She maintained an extensive library devoted to literature and art, and was active in the Baltimore literary scene until she moved to Sarasota in 2002.
“And what is the connection between art criticism and reportage and fiction and poetry?” Ms. Schleussner wrote in an autobiographical profile in a 2007 for Contemporary Authors Online. “My stories and poems are dreams and visions that ‘appear’ and are augmented by fragmentary observations. My journalism is preeminently rational; facts are the groundwork; imagination, insight, taste, past experience and knowledge are employed to interpret what the facts mean.
“Journalism starts with who, what, why, how and where,” she wrote. “Fiction and poetry start with visual and intuitive fragments that, like colored glass shards in a kaleidoscope, form an evanescent mirrored whole.”