First Floor Gallery
October 13–28, 2006
George Schneeman’s painting and collages from the 1960s and 70s at First Floor Gallery offer a view into another world. The subjects are the great, still unsung New York Poets of the downtown scene: confident, young and owning this town (which is practically unrecognizable today). These large, full figure double and triple portraits of Harris Schiff, Ron Padgett, Ted Berrigan, and Alice Notley, among others in this community of poets, have a straightforward grace and ease of manner that personifies the bohemian atmosphere that made being an artist in NYC such an adventure and pleasure. Few in those times or these could rival Schneeman’s seemingly effortless drawing or application of paint. His tones are elegant, pale and modest, reflecting his love of Italian fresco painting. He applied large pieces of tissue paper in places to create flat, transparent areas of color. His subjects array themselves across his surfaces and subtly delineated space with a comfort that echos the comfort these artists felt in their own skins (many are naked) and with each other.
There are three achingly sweet portraits, of Schneeman’s wife, Katie, the painter Peter Flaccus, and the writer Peter Schjeldahl, that lay bare their sitters’ vulnerability with astonishing economy, delicacy, and insight. They are frescos from a much larger body of work that were shown in the seventies at Holly Solomon Gallery. I would like to have seen more of these small paintings, as they have only improved with time.
Schneeman has also been working over the years on a series of tiny collages, frequently no bigger than a postcard. While their hard edges and often-hiked up advertising color seem related to Pop Art, their source material—comic strips from the 1920s to the 40s, calendar girls and children’s book illustrations—offer a layer of feeling consciously omitted from Pop. The color is never really fully saturated but just off center, subtly and perfectly attuned to the eerily melancholy, though wryly humorous imagery.
Schneemans’ work is intimate and unpretentious; like Fairfield Porter, who also emerged from this community of poets and artists, Schneeman made art not to be received by an international corporate art world, but a small group of brilliant friends.