by Jeffrey Cyphers Wright
George Schneeman. Zig Zag Jag. January 22, 1986. Collage; 5 1/4″ diameter. Image courtesy of Pavel Zabouk Gallery
George Schneeman (1934 – 2009) added vivacity and zeal to a fizzing atmosphere. In scores of his artworks, he collaborated with a stellar group known as the Second Generation of New York School poets. He was also considered by many to be a master collagist.
His overall oeuvre has been on display recently because of two shows. “A Painter and his Poets: The Art of George Schneeman” is a large survey focusing on collaborations and is at Poet’s House (until September 20). A complementary show of collages at Pavel Zoubek Gallery in May completed the picture.
Schneeman’s friends and collaborators, the poets Bill Berkson and Ron Padgett, curated the show at Poet’s House. It includes over a hundred works. In the front display room are book and magazine covers and fresco portraits of poet friends that were originally shown at Holly Solomon Gallery. All down the hall and into the back galleries paintings, silkscreens, lithographs, drawings and prints fill the walls.
Schneeman was a particularly appropriate artist for poets to associate with. He studied poetry in college and when in the army in Italy, became friends with Charles Wright (the current poet laureate). On moving to New York and beginning a family with Katie, the couple’s home became a locus for a burgeoning poetry scene.
George Schneeman. Ten Things I Do Everyday. c., 1969. Silkscreen. With Ted Berrigan.
Looming large in this group was the pioneering poet, Ted Berrigan. Affable and wickedly witty, Berrigan was famous for many things and one of them was his inclination to collaborate. (Disclosure: I once did 6 collaborations with him for The Alternative Press.)
In addition to the new generation, Allen Ginsberg was around and lent his aegis to the scene. Likewise, the artist Larry Rivers lived in the neighborhood and the collaborations he had done with Frank O’Hara served as models for the young Turks.
Bawdy by nature, Schneeman had a lust for life. Largely self-taught, he spent much time in Italy where he studied the late Gothic Sienese painters. He also absorbed the culture, developing an ability to blend the gutsy and the ethereal. The paintings have a bright, direct style, like Mediterranean sun on dry grass. They possess a sere heat that captures the energy of those exchanges between artist and poets.
In an essay for the Poet’s House catalogue that accompanied the exhibition, Peter Schjeldahl described the collaborations as “snapshot X-Rays of visual and verbal imagination stammering on verges of angelic eloquence.” Phrases like “For example” (with Ron Padgett) were hand-lettered, becoming whimsical updates that ironically echo needlepoint homilies like Home Sweet Home.
While Schneeman devoted much of his work to the powerhouse poetry scene of the Lower East Side, his individually made collages are scintillating. At Pavel Zoubek Gallery, the jewel-like compositions are bold and elegant. Simple and elegiac in tone, they only contain a few elements.
In a series of circular works not shown before, each collage is formed from only two pieces. The two abutting images are cut from ads and illustrations in old magazines. The imagery plays on our ability to romanticize the past while being drawn into a narrative of desire. The interlocking forms set up an intimate and enigmatic dialogue.
In “Zig Zag Jag” (also the name of the show), a female’s fetchingly crossed legs are paired with muffin tins. An edgy harmony is reassembled as the ideal confronts the real — a typical trope for this irreverent yet righteous artist who balanced society with individuality.