EssaysWeekend

Single Point Perspective: An Arcadian Moment in the Heart of New York’s Lower East Side

by John Yau on June 8, 2014

Schneeman Nude group-2

George Schneeman, “Untitled (Nude Group)” (1969) (image courtesy Poets House and the Estate of George Schneeman)

For anyone interested in poetry (not the same as verse); underknown art and artists; the artists and poets of the New York School after the death of Franz Kline and Frank O’Hara (in 1962 and ’66, respectively); collaboration; collage; a do-it-yourself spirit; the Lower East Side (particularly from the late 1960s until the late ’80s, decades before it was gentrified); and the persistence of bohemian life, despite all the efforts to stamp it out, the exhibition A Painter and His Poets: The Art of George Schneeman, thoughtfully curated by Bill Berkson and Ron Padgett at Poets House (April 22–September 20, 2014), is a must-see. One reason is to see the painting, “Untitled (Nude Group)” (1969), in which thirteen people, many of them poets, sat nude in George and Katie Schneeman’s sun-filled apartment at 29 St. Mark’s Place. As far as I know, it is the first time this painting has been exhibited in New York.

Although I wasn’t familiar with Schneeman’s work at the time, he was one of the reasons that I left Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1974 and moved to New York. Cambridge and Boston were well brought up and polite, while, in my mind, New York was the artistic epitome of unruly and impolite. I would pass Robert Lowell in Harvard Yard and we would nod to each other. I saw the Jules Olitski retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1973 and realized that this was as good as it was going to get, and that wasn’t good enough for me. There was so much more to see and learn firsthand.

Fast-forward forty years. Each time I leave my apartment, I look up and see a collaborative lithograph by Schneeman and Ted Berrigan hanging above my front door. Under the “ten things” Berrigan claims to do every day, I read: “play poker, drink beer, smoke pot, jack off and curse.” He also cites O’ Hara’s Lunch Poems and Charles Reznikoff’s first novel, By The Waters of Manhattan. Schneeman, for his part, has drawn bowling pins, a ship, and flowerpots. This was the shared culture among the writers and artists that I met when I moved to New York – not the corporate norm that so many critics and magazines find it necessary to comment on, photograph members of, and broadcast. It is this meeting of artist and poet, of the mundane, joyful and crude, that I pass under, entering the world (I would like to think) with some trace of their spirit in my head.

Schneeman was essentially a self-taught artist who studied the Sienese masters, such as Sassetta, Giovanni di Paolo and the Lorenzetti brothers, while living in rural Tuscany from 1958 to ’66. Isolated from everything that was going on in contemporary art, he took his cues from early Renaissance painting while Pop Art, Minimalism, Color Field painting and Painterly Realism were gaining attention in New York and elsewhere. He learned the difficult technique of fresco and, starting in the early 1970s, began making what he called portable ones. He also worked in egg tempera, which, historically speaking, preceded oil painting. Although Schneeman had five exhibitions at Holly Solomon between 1976 and ’81, only one of which sold well, most of his career took place off the grid. From 1981 to ’96, he had solo exhibitions in his studio on the Lower East Side.

In 1966, after, as he says, eking out a living in the Italian countryside, Schneeman and his wife Katie and their three children moved to New York, ostensibly so that the children could grow up American. The decision to move to New York was most likely influenced by his friendship with the fiction writer Steve Katz and the poets Ron Padgett and Peter Schjeldahl, whom he and Katie had met and befriended while living in Italy. It is while living in New York that Schneeman becomes a modern artist. This is how he puts it: “In the late 1960s and early 1970s I was influenced to some degree by Pop Art and Minimalism, which in some ways are remarkably similar to early Italian painting.”

Schneeman’s never lost his passion for fresco, a bright, all-over light, or white and muted colors. In fact, it was while looking at Schneeman’s fresco portraits of poets, which are lined up in the vitrines at Poet’s House, that I was reminded of another overlooked New York School artist, the Italian-born Giorgio Cavallon, whose work was championed by Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery. Schneeman and Cavallon shared a similar palette of white and muted colors, influenced I believe by the harsh Mediterranean sun. This is how Bill Berkson puts it in the brochure accompanying the Poets House exhibition:

The culture George made for himself pervaded his own art, including his collaborations with poets and his portraits of them, which, like his paintings generally, are full of the same “gentility and asceticism” he wrote of discovering in the Lorenzetti brothers, Sassetta, and other early Sienese masters — qualities matched, and often overridden, in his other work, especially in his collaborations with poets, by a counterthrust of roughness and profanity.

It also occurred to me that if you consult the work of Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Dore Ashton and Irving Sandler — just to pick four well-known writers working from the 50s through the 70s — you will only get a partial history of the New York School of artists (forget about the poets) because they seldom if ever paid attention to those who were not part of the marketplace or didn’t show in a commercial gallery. As Corinne Robins pointed out in 1997, the seemingly inclusive chronicler Irving Sandler failed to mention any artist of color in his book, The New York School (1978).

On June 17, 1969, which was Ron Padgett’s 27th birthday, thirteen people who were more or less the same age took off their clothes and sat demurely on the couch and floor of Schneeman’s apartment, their knees drawn up. If their poses tell us anything, it is that they are rather shy around each other. The young men’s hair is almost as long as the women’s. The paint is thinly applied giving everyone a slightly washed-out look. The muteness of the colors and the thinness of the paint recall Schneeman’s love of fresco painting. There is a pale cerulean blue sky filling the window in the background on the upper left side. Some of the figures have been cropped, underscoring a collective energy that pushes beyond the painting’s borders.

Even now, more than forty years after Schneeman completed the painting in what I believe was one session, there is something bohemian, daring, innocent, sweet, utopian and, paradoxically, antisocial about “Untitled (Nude Group).” On an early summer day, in the midst of the Vietnam War, race riots and assassinations, a group of people got together and declared: we are white, naked and vulnerable. Alex Katz and Fairfield Porter, two figurative artists associated with the same group of artists and poets, never made anything remotely similar to Schneeman’s gathering of thin, naked young men and women. I see this painting as a kind of unspoken manifesto of a painter and thirteen of his friends, a challenge to not compromise, not become corporate. It is the mutual innocence of the scene that grabs me, the fact that thirteen people would participate in Schneeman’s dream to paint an urban arcadian scene full of young, beautiful nudes. It brushes aside cynicism without raising a finger. For anyone who has been paying attention to what has been going on in New York since the 1980s, something of that indefatigable spirit lives on, in Williamsburg, Bushwick, Ridgewood, Queens, Jersey City and elsewhere. Not every artist feels it is necessary to emulate the lifestyle of collectors looking to park their surplus wealth; Schneeman was never one to move to the Hamptons and take up tennis or surfing.

Single Point Perspective is an occasional series from Hyperallergic Weekend that features texts about single works of art and the currents they ride on.

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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  • Owen Houhoulis

    Great article. I would say, though, that while Katz & Porter did not make work as starkly daring as Schneeman’s “Nude Group”, Larry Rivers (also a member of the New York School of Poets & Painters) did. His nude portrait of Frank O’Hara is one example.

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  • Pamela Lawton

    Enjoyed seeing the work in this light. For the record, I think I remember seeing the painting at the NYPL exhibit “From A Secret Location on THe Lower East SIde, in 1998.

    http://www.nypl.org/node/57984

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