The East Village of New York City in 1966 was a bohemian paradise. You could rent a decent sized apartment for about $200 a month; Saint Mark’s Church on East 10th and Second Avenue, one of the oldest churches in the city, was hosting rock bands, experimental theater, and poetry readings; and the 1960’s sense of “anything goes” was in full swing. Just two blocks down the avenue from the church was the Gem Spa newsstand and its famous Egg Creams, on the corner of Saint Mark’s Place and Second, and within a stone’s throw or two of that lived a good chunk of the second generation New York School Poets: Ted Berrigan, Alice Notely, Ron Padgett, Anne Waldman, Lewis Warsh, Bill Berkson, Dick Gallup. This community of poets, all in their 20s and early 30s, often hung out at each others’ apartments, cooked and ate dinners together, and riffed off each other for inspiration and collaboration.
Enter the artist George Schneeman. Ron Padgett had met Schneeman several years before where he had been living in Italy, and Schneeman – with his affable openness, good humor, and background in poetry – fit right in with the group when he and his wife Katie decided to move into the ‘hood that year. Schneeman had already worked collaboratively with other American writers who had visited in Italy, but here in New York he would find a lifelong home and a cadre of friends for whom and with whom he would create some of the most warm and joyful works of their respective careers.
A Painter and His Poets, on view at Poets House in Battery Park City, New York, until September 20, 2014, collects almost 100 of Schneeman’s works that involve these, and other, poets – book covers, posters for readings, artist/poet collaborations, and portraits of the poets themselves – in the largest retrospective of Schneeman’s collaborative works to date (the artist passed away in 2009). What stands out as the viewer wends her way through the poetry stacks to view the many pieces of the show is the sheer sense of fun these friends had creating art with each other. If there had been a group credo, which of course there wasn’t because this was an anti-credo kind of group, it might have been “Making art is serious work, but the work doesn’t have to look so serious.” If there was no sense of joy in the end creation, or in the process itself, then what was the purpose of making it?
The works are characterized by the happy accidents that happen when collaborators have no plan for the outcome and no real aesthetic agenda. Most of the pieces are on simple poster board or paper, and Schneeman’s contributions are often found-images from old magazines, books, and newspapers. A typical work session might start out with George gluing one of these images – the front grill of an old car, a stylish fedora, a snippet of sheet music – onto the page and passing it off to the poet for the next stage of contribution. Most likely, whatever the poet added would be a non-sequitur, whatever lines or words had been roaming around in his or her head and needed to find a home, or maybe some random association the poet made with the image. Meanwhile, George would be cutting and pasting on another sheet, and the poet and artist would exchange, building up image – maybe another generally non-related image or a swath of paint – and word until someone, usually George, declared the piece done. Surely, in this reductive description, the final outcome must sound like just a jumble of unrelated nothing. But there is clearly some magic that happened in the process of two like-minded people working together without agenda, with love and admiration for each other, with the idea of making something fun and interesting uppermost in their minds as opposed to trying to make “art.”
Often the line between visual artist and poet and who contributed what when became blurred. In “My Knee” by Schneeman and Michael Brownstein, it’s likely the first image was that of the man in the scarf in the upper left of the piece. Or was it the collage-within-a-collage on the lower right, a pasture of brown cows superimposed with an upside-down anatomy illustration, a couple of colorful seashells floating above the plain, and a hand-drawn cow leaping over the crest of tree? Of course it’s likely Brownstein contributed “My Knee” and “and no planet” with the indecipherable cross-out next to it. Could it be that Brownstein imagined the man had fallen off the tilted chair and hurt his knee? Or did Brownstein’s knee hurt that day? Does the “planet” refer to the odd landscape? And what of “Sexy Anina”: the cat or the maiden or both? Somehow, the question of narrative and meaning becomes moot in the sheer pleasure of the mash-up and how, beyond all reason, it hangs together, it works.
Dick Gallup, in his contribution to the excellent 2004 book on Schneeman, Painter Among Poets, from Granary Books, likens the work of collaboration between poets and visual artists to “recess” as opposed to the rigor of the “adult special ed” they engage in when working in isolation on their own. Gallup calls the collaborative session with Schneeman “Equal parts of fun and consternation, which is just how recess should work out.” The metaphor is perfect: the imaginative play of kids – unaware of standards of good play, bad play, right play, wrong play, trying to sell their play for profit or impress anyone with it – fosters a creative freedom that is intense and satisfying, but most importantly fun. Kids play and create as a natural act, and so did Schneeman and his peers. It’s refreshing to smile or even laugh out loud at a work of art in a world where ever more self-important theories of art and writing are espoused and the –isms (conceptualism, formalism, post-genderism, post-millienialism) not only often stand between a work and its viewer but are sometimes even needed to understand and appreciate a work. Schneeman would have none of this. He disliked theory, he even disliked perspective in paintings. In another essay from Painter Among Poets, art critic and poet Carter Ratcliff calls this “modernist ‘difficulty’…the dreariest of academic virtues. In place of ‘difficulty,’” Ratcliff continues, “[Schneeman] puts a clarity so unqualified that one doesn’t know how to account for it.” I propose we don’t even have to “account for it,” we just get to enjoy it.