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Quattrocento on the Bowery: The Collaborative Art of George Schneeman 

by Tim Keane on May 31, 2014

Easter Sunday Staten Island 1968 (photo by Larry Fagin)

Easter Sunday, Staten Island, 1968. From left to right, front row: Katie Schneeman, Gwen Rivers, Emilio Schneeman, Joan Fagin, Elio Schneeman; 2nd row: Emma Rivers (toddler on knee of Tessie Mitchell), Sandy Berrigan, Bill Berkson, David Berrigan (boy with baseball bat on knee of Ron Padgett), Wayne Padgett (toddler on knee of Pat Padgett); 3rd row: Lewis Warsh, Anne Waldman, Ted Berrigan, George Schneeman, Dick Gallup, Carol Gallup; 4th row: Susan Kimball, Peter Schjeldahl, Jim Carroll, unidentified woman, Linda Schjeldahl, George Kimball. (photo by Larry Fagin)

Collaboration, when it arises out of inspired spontaneity rather than professional calculation, can achieve startlingly beautiful outcomes, holding the potential to free each artist from his or her ingrained style and public reputation. Ideally the result is a novel expression of two artists whose identities are comingled, or evaporated, in the mix. Collaboration can become a gesture that returns art making to its essence — an intimate aesthetic journey instead of a public ritual revolving around self-reproduction.

Painters and poets collaborated often in the New York School. Larry Rivers teamed up with Frank O’Hara for works such as the lithographic prints that make up the Stones series (1957–59) and Portrait and Poem Painting (1961). Painters like Alex Katz, Wynn Chamberlain, Elaine de Kooning, and Jane Freilicher frequently painted their writer-peers. Rudy Burckhardt enlisted poets and painters for key roles in his many films. Joe Brainard, whose work pivoted nonstop between poetry and visual art, joined New York poets for such hybrids of poetry and art as Bean Spasms. But perhaps the most prolific exemplar of free-spirited collaboration from the New York art scene of the 1960s was the painter George Schneeman, the unofficial artist-in-residence of the Poetry Project at St. Marks Church from its earliest days. In fact he remained in that role well into the current millennium.

Schneeman’s art both dovetailed with and diverged from the painting of his New York peers. Like Alex Katz and Fairfield Porter, he worked frequently in a style of exuberant portraiture that balanced a vibrant palette with simplified forms. In his collaborative collages, the deployment of advertising, consumer packaging, cartoons, how-to manuals, and newspaper clippings resituates those elements into finely painted compositions. The resultant works integrate secondhand kitsch into spontaneous phrases and gnomic sentences and original, imaginative drawings. Schneeman’s art redeems the mundane into multi-textured and highly refined creations.

Schneeman & Edwin Denby photo

Edwin Denby and George Schneeman, New York City, 1978 (photo © Ron Padgett)

A Painter and His Poets: The Art of George Schneeman at Poet’s House spotlights Schneeman’s particular temperament. The show is co-curated by his most frequent poet-collaborators, Bill Berkson and Ron Padgett, who have positioned about one hundred medium and small-scale paintings and collages, as well as fascinating archival materials, throughout this sizable facility’s many sections, side rooms, and corridors. Running until September 20, the show features Schneeman’s collaborations with the so-called “second generation” of New York poets, as well as his numerous portraits of these poets.

Poet’s House is an appropriate location for a painter whose dedication to non-commercial artisanship — he is said to have once built himself a harpsichord — made him a renaissance man among his peers on the Lower East Side. Now his output is finding renewed exposure beyond the Bowery. There was a 2004 exhibition at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, and the recently concluded Zig Zag Jag at Pavel Zoubok Gallery in Chelsea, which spotlighted his judiciously calibrated, sublimely erotic late-period collages and collage paintings.

George Schneeman was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1934. After studying philosophy and English literature, he served in the US Army in Italy and stayed on living there with his wife, Katie. He adjusted to the rural Tuscan lifestyle, scratching out a living teaching English to locals while mastering the practices of Sienese masters like the Lorenzetti brothers, Sassetta, and Giovanni di Paolo. His literary ambitions drew him back to poetry. According to Anne Waldman, Schneeman was a devotee of Pound’s Pisan Cantos. The Cantos, like Schneeman’s visual work, proceed from an American improvisational caprice even as they insist on a classical discipline over the medium. This is his apparently contradictory status. Schneeman had a traditionalist’s temperament and a postwar New York proclivity for experimentation. Although he died in 2009, his presence is still so palpably immediate to his longtime poet friends that it seems as if he had never departed.

On April 26, 2014, a reunion of those well-known New York School poets convened at Poet’s House. Filled to capacity and spilling into the back courtyard despite a light rain on a warm spring day, the event was by turns affectionate, illuminating, and humorous, a celebration befitting the properties and effects of Schneeman’s art.

In town from Paris, his close friend, the poet Alice Notley addressed the confused reactions that newcomers are likely to have on first seeing Schneeman’s art. She recalled her own initial bewilderment when she asked herself of his painting, “is this new or old fashioned?” Speaking as much about Schneeman’s demeanor toward his friends, she spoke movingly about his “privacy of relationship” — an attribute she detected from his sensitive landscape paintings, which evidence the artist’s rapport with and respect for the natural terrain.

Poet Maureen Owen recalled how, upon her arrival on the scene in 1968, Schneeman “radiated excitement” and brought “high energy” to the graphic designs for her upstart magazine Telephone. And reflecting on the subtleness and revelations that characterize his painting, Owen referenced Elizabeth Murray’s premise that “the subconscious is what you paint.” Anne Waldman recalled his devotion to poetry and his personal authenticity, posing rather wryly the useful question to the audience, “Have you noticed how many inauthentic people there are?”

Poets Bill Berkson, Peter Schjeldahl and Ron Padgett each recalled meeting the painter while traveling in Europe in the mid-1960s. Schjeldahl lauded the painter for his aesthetic zealotry, a passion for art “to the point that you think of it all the time.” Padgett explained how their shared indifference to the marketplace created a relaxed sensibility that balanced the serious challenge of making art in conjunction with another — and doing so extemporaneously.

Stars Fell 2008

George Schneeman and Bill Berkson, “Stars Fell” (2008), egg tempera on Arches, 22 x 30 in (© Poet’s House and The Estate of George Schneeman)

This week I asked Bill Berkson if he might explain the process behind his collaborations. In an email, he explained their synergistic method so plainly that it warrants complete presentation:

In the 1960s and early 70s, collaborating with George was more chaotic (as in friendly chaos) than later. For the earlier works, the poet … might even begin by drawing or pasting down an image, all sorts of materials — clippings from old magazines, various brushes and paints, Rapidograph pen, even a handy silkscreen apparatus…Words then got mixed into the general material rush. Spontaneous for me: no notes, very rarely any use of already written poems. Our later collaborations, between 2002 and 2008, were different primarily because they were by appointment. (We knew we were getting together to do them.) Also, the materials were defined: ink and gouache, or later, egg tempera, on big sheets of elegant drawing paper. I would draw some words in pencil, and George would make them bolder with his paint and add images.

Given the demanding improvisational process into which Schneeman drew these poets, it’s no wonder that the show’s title alludes to their relationship as A Painter and His Poets.

The show begins in the Cheney Chappell Exhibition Space, where, in a series of vitrines, smaller works are displayed among archival photos of the artist and his poet friends. Included in the vitrine are Schneeman’s engaging book covers, the most memorable of which is the design for Dick Gallup’s Where I Hang My Hat (1970). The cover’s large block lettering suggests a Dr. Seuss title while the painter’s imposition of a white projection screen — like a blank page about to be illuminated— stages a perfect image on which to open a book of verse.

The highlight in this space is a series of fresco portraits painted on cinderblocks. Dating from the late 1970s, these portraits of poets demonstrate Schneeman’s rigorous and dispassionate attention to his human subjects. Much like in the magical frescoes of the quattrocento, the presence of the sitter emanates gently from minutest details rather than through a totalizing first impression. Like a poem, such painting requires close scrutiny.

Edwin Denby

George Scnheeman, “Portrait of Edwin Denby” (1978), fresco on cinderblock, 81/2 x 7 1/2 in (© Poets House and Estate of George Schneeman)

For instance, Edwin Denby’s hair and beard are painted a saintly white, lending the poet an ethereal aura gradually offset by Schneeman’s meticulous rendering of the poet’s lean face and the bold, exacting coloration of his vivid blue eyes and blue vest. Similarly, on first glance, Ted Greenwald appears pedestrian — plaid shirt, sideburns, ’70s-style comb-over. But that’s only the surface. The handiwork draws out a vigorous reflectiveness and a stoic resistance in Greenwald’s gaze. Like Masaccio’s famous painting of St. Peter, Schneeman’s painted poets maintain their status as regular individuals within a recognizable locale even as they radiate from the stone base, like ghosts in our midst, escaping the past in which they had seemed captive.

In addition to such small gems, he was no stranger to the large canvas. A centerpiece is “Ted” (1967), a large collaborative collage painting — marked “Valentine’s Day 1966″ — featuring the bearded poet Ted Berrigan, dressed in what seems to be an Army-issued fatigue shirt, his last name splayed across the right side of his chest. Berrigan’s semi-abstract figure is slouched in an easy chair while snippets of his verse burst from the colored swatches that fill the checkered space around him. Pop culture is always lurking like a trickster. An upside-down, fan-like, folded copy of Life magazine, the cover of which features a rainfall of colorful pills and capsules, dangles from Berrigan’s thick hands while the poet’s painted words assure us that “God is alive + well in Mexico.”

“Liz Taylor” (1969), a collage made in collaboration with Michael Brownstein, features a late-1960s magazine photo of Elizabeth Taylor, her profile inlaid with white cutouts. Her busty décolletage and long hair suggest the fading movie star as an Italianate madonna. Set on the left margin of the white paper, her classical silhouette harmonizes with a Renaissance painting of a cityscape along with an eerily drawn black hand and assorted socks of various colors. As in many of these collaborations, the poet and painter retain a blankness within the composition.These spaces lend the precise imagery and suggestive words a bounciness that invites the viewer into the funhouse. On a more erudite level, these collages dissolve distinctions between the mild and the vehement, much like Brownstein’s words declaring that, “some smile/others sputter with rage.”

IMG_0282

George Schneeman and Ron Padgett, “Not Not Not Not Not” (1999), mixed media on paper (© Poet’s House and Estate of George Schneeman)

Erotic joy abounds throughout the exhibition. There are massive paintings of the unclothed poets that recall the nudes of Gauguin and Matisse. The libidinous leaps in reference set in motion by the poet’s puns, interjections and phrasings, which are often arranged at unusual angles or parallel to tumbling illustrations, are further electrified by spare yet carefully chosen doodles and abstract coloration. Some works include swatches torn from newspapers and magazines, glimpses of Vargas girls and samplings of glamorous models from advertising. The warm humanism prevents the cool ironies from overtaking the works’ genuine passion for life.

Location and displacement are recurring themes. “Copenhagen” (1968), co-created with Ron Padgett, features gloved hands, a red packet of the eponymous tobacco and a cryptic envelope banded with typescript. Like the colored markings on the envelope, the associative truancy of language is the collage’s message. Language is a form of travel. The typed statement “Copenhagen is the capital city of Denmark” is followed by a redacted line about “Cloves” which is itself followed by the bulletin: “Lined into left field for a base hit.” The poet and painter invite us to trip out — to see these seemingly random elements as intermingling materials that constitute our daily lives.

The overall impression one takes away from this show is how the most ordinary intuition, in word or image, when arranged with an exactitude and just the right degree of disharmony, produces a mirror in which we can see our seemingly humdrum lives as wild works of art. In one particular poster, the poets words, illustrated by a bicycle pump, a 1950s-era car and a smiling girl’s face inform us, “Life is a dream/ when you wake up/ you are not dead.”

IMG_0287

George Schneeman and Anne Waldman, “Imaginary Relish” (2005), mixed media on paper (© Poet’s House and The Estate of George Schneeman)

In a 1977 interview with Alice Notley, Schneeman sought to explain his version of Platonic idealism, upon which he draws to find art within the unremarkable. He points out to Notley that our proximate activities are far more than they seem to us in hindsight. “I think it’s a good idea to make people see,” Schneeman writes, “that everything that everybody does at every minute is in some other level than what it actually is.”

We might not be able to give that level a name. But after this superb show, you might begin to understand how ordinary magnificence is, quite literally, at hand.

A Painter and His Poets: The Art of George Schneeman continues at Poets House (10 River Terrace, Battery Park City, Manhattan) through September 20.

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