ArtWeekend

The Quietly Radical Paintings of George Schneeman

In a real and deep sense, Schneeman was an integral part of a historical moment taking place on the Lower East Side before gentrification.

George Schneeman, “Cigarette/Girl (Feb. 26 2006), egg tempera on panel, 10 x 11 1/2 inches (all images courtesy of the Estate of George Schneeman and Pavel Zoubok Gallery, New York, unless otherwise noted)

I happily own a large lithograph that George Schneeman and Ted Berrigan collaborated on. This prized possession hangs above the front door of my apartment, and I pass under it whenever I go out. In the lithograph, Berrigan cites Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems and Charles Reznikoff’s first novel By the Waters of Manhattan, while Schneeman has drawn a ship and bowling pins. Here are some of the ten things that Berrigan says he does every day: “play poker, drink beer, smoke pot, jack off and curse.” Schneeman and Berrigan’s print is a celebration of a world in which art and daily life are inseparable, which is one of the reasons I moved to New York in the mid-70s.

In 2014, I reviewed the retrospective exhibition A Painter and His Poets: The Art of George Schneeman, which was thoughtfully curated by Bill Berkson and Ron Padgett at Poets House. That exhibition included the amazing painting “Untitled (Nude Group)” (1969), in which 13 people, many of them poets, sat nude in George and Katie Schneeman’s sun-filled apartment at 29 St. Mark’s Place, while blood was being shed all around them, in race riots, assassinations, and the Vietnam War.

George Schneeman, “Untitled (Stocking Vase)” (1980), ceramic, 8 x 5 x 5 inches

The current exhibition, George Schneeman: Going Ape at Pavel Zoubok, which closes today, offers another side of this self-effacing, under-appreciated artist: ceramics and small egg temperas on panels in which he made copies of his collages.

Schneeman, who started painting while he was in the army and stationed in Italy, was self-taught. After getting out of the service, he and his wife Katie stayed in Italy until 1966, when they moved to New York so that their children could grow up in America. They settled in the East Village because Padgett and Peter Schjeldahl, whom Schneeman had befriended in Italy, convinced him that this was where he wanted to be. The rest is history.

By all accounts Schneeman did hundreds and hundreds of collaborations with poets, including Padgett, Berkson, Berrigan, and Schjeldahl, as well as Larry Fagin, Dick Gallup, Alice Notley, Allen Ginsberg, and Anne Waldman, many of whom were part of the second wave of the New York School of Poets. It is not surprising that Schneeman never became a commercial success. Collaborations with poets are hardly what collectors pine for. According to the poet and critic Carter Ratcliff: “Never very intent on a career as a gallery artist, Schneeman chose instead to be a friend of the poets.” But in a real and deep sense, Schneeman was an integral part of a historical moment that took place on the Lower East Side between the 1960s and ‘80s, before gentrification. He contributed designs for flyers, posters, and calendars to the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, where generations of poets have done readings. Even if you did not know him, his presence was felt in the thriving literary scene that centered in the Poetry Project.

George Schneeman with Bill Berkson, “Untitled (Ten Ways to Watch It)” (ca.1970), mixed-media on illustration board, 10 x 13 inches (courtesy of the Estate of George Schneeman and Bill Berkson and Pavel Zoubok Gallery, New York)

There is a lot in this small exhibition to recommend. The collages Schneeman did with Berkson are diaristic accounts of whatever they were watching on television (baseball or perhaps a movie) or talking about: the title of the great noir film Out of the Past (1947), starring Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, and Jane Greer, directed by Jacques Tourneur, is written on one collage. The film actress Ann Dvorak, who retired in 1951, is another name that is likely unknown to many, but it has also found its way onto another work. There is a richness of pop culture associations mingled with crude phrases in the mixed media work “Ten ways to watch it” which also includes a seated male nude and the memorable phrase, “Have a heart like a steel banana.” The writing and images (drawn, painted, collaged) are slight and yet powerful: they have a gritty urban feel to them.

The selection of ceramics, which Schneeman taught himself to slip cast, includes three in brown and black dating from 1980-81. These are incised with portraits, two of which are identified as “Rene (Ricard)” and “Susan Rothenberg,” while the third is untitled. On another ceramic, “Untitled (Stocking Vase)” (1980), which is primarily white with an orange stripe at the top and near the bottom, the artist has depicted a pair of stockings draped over a coat hanger — a meeting of domesticity and the erotic.

George Schneeman, “Untitled (The Locket)” (1967), acrylic and collage on canvas, 37 1/2 x 29 1/2 inches

There is a portrait in acrylic and collage called “Untitled (The Locket)” (1967), in which Schneeman depicted his wife Katie the year after they moved to New York and were living in a small apartment on East 7th Street near Tompkins Square Park. According to Katie, he bought the locket in a junk shop across the street for her as a Christmas present. It cost 35 cents. Thinly painted in muted ocher and surrounded by white, reflecting Schneeman’s love of fresco, making the locket the composition’s focus. In the upper left corner Schneeman has affixed a framed holiday greeting from the Casablanca Bar in year 1946, which includes a real thermometer. This too likely came from the junk shop and probably cost less than 35 cents. This is Schneeman’s aesthetic: use whatever is lying around the house. In a country devoted to materialism, Schneeman’s gesture strikes me as radical and rebellious without announcing that fact.

George Schneeman, “Hunting/A Weight” (Mar 1, 2001), egg tempera on panel, 9 1/2 x 12 1/2 inches

Done between 2000 and 2006, the paintings after collages were done in egg tempera on panel. They constitute a distinct body of work within Schneeman’s oeuvre and should be better known. They are made up of fragments: an image of a woman’s hands gripping her insteps, her feet shod in red high heels. From the title, “Hunting/A Weight” (2001), she appears to be standing on an old-fashioned bathroom scale, while “Hunting” refers to a miniature pilgrim carrying a blunderbuss on the left. In this and other paintings, there is a clear invitation to supply a narrative. Their juxtapositions never feel arbitrary, and they cannot be quickly unpacked. This where they get their staying power, and yet there is something mysterious and even sweet about them. Perhaps a show solely devoted to these works, which are like no one else’s, is what should happen next.

George Schneeman: Going Ape closes at Pavel Zoubok (531 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) today.

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