Skip to article

Art & Design

George Schneeman, 74, Poet-Artist, Dies

Published: January 30, 2009

If George Schneeman was an “unfairly obscure” painter, as The New Yorker once called him, he did not mind it very much.

For Mr. Schneeman, making art was a deeply personal act, though also a highly social one. He was known in an intimate New York circle for his long, fruitful collaborations with a flock of well-known poets, among them Peter Schjeldahl, Anne Waldman, Larry Fagin and Ted Berrigan.

Mr. Schneeman, who began the collaborations in the late 1960s, was not the first painter to work in double harness with a poet: Larry Rivers and Frank O’Hara had done so in the late ’50s. But he was undoubtedly the most prolific. Over four decades Mr. Schneeman produced hundreds of collaborative pieces that were neither pure visual art nor pure verbal art but something tantalizingly indefinable between the two.

Considered vital works of postwar Modernism, Mr. Schneeman’s collaborations were exhibited on occasion in museums and galleries. But most found their permanent places in his home and in the homes of friends.

Mr. Schneeman died on Tuesday. His death of heart failure, in Manhattan, came after two recent falls, his family said.

Painting, playing poker till dawn and boiling up pots of midnight pasta for friends in his apartment in an East Village tenement, Mr. Schneeman was sometimes described as New York’s last bohemian. That was not quite right. Seventy-four at his death, he was certainly younger than some of the artists who still animate what were once the city’s unfashionable neighborhoods.

As a painter, Mr. Schneeman was largely self-taught. He sold his work periodically, but earned his living mostly through a series of part-time jobs, including gardening, art school teaching and English-as-a-second-language instruction. His wife, Katie, worked for years as a housekeeper and cook for the financier Jack Dreyfus.

When Mr. Schneeman did exhibit his work (it appeared often at the Holly Solomon Gallery in SoHo in the 1970s and early ’80s), it was usually well received. But there was a problem of commerce.

“It’s very difficult work to show in a gallery, because it’s not as easily sold as work just done by an artist,” Ron Padgett, a poet and frequent collaborator, said in a telephone interview on Thursday. “People who buy art, they don’t want poets messing up the work the artist is doing.”

Mr. Padgett edited “Painter Among Poets: The Collaborative Art of George Schneeman” (Granary Books, 2004); an exhibition of the same title was held that year at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in Manhattan.

Deeply influenced by early Italian Renaissance painting, Mr. Schneeman worked often in egg tempera, producing many small fresco portraits, as well as landscapes of Tuscany, where he and his wife kept a modest apartment.

He also made ceramics, collages and much of the furniture in his two homes, including, for each, a harpsichord, which he taught himself to play.

But it was for his work with poets that he was best known. Painters and writers both confront a blank, white expanse, and Mr. Schneeman found long ago that it was far more companionable for them to face it together.

Some collaborations took conventional form, as when he illustrated friends’ books. Poets also came to his apartment to have their portraits painted. Being threadbare poets, many sat without their clothes.

Other work transcended category. With Mr. Padgett, Mr. Schneeman produced more than a hundred pieces, including “Yodeling Into a Kotex,” a mixed-media book containing text, drawings, old advertisements, photographs, wallpaper samples and much else, published in a limited edition by Granary Books in 2002.

Mr. Schneeman’s collaborative method was blissfully anarchic. “We would simply get together at his studio, using whatever materials were at hand,” Mr. Padgett said on Thursday. “We would work spontaneously, sometimes on as many as five pieces at once, going back and forth between them, adding and subtracting and changing.”

The poets could grow bossy, Mr. Schneeman recounted afterward, but he did not mind it very much. He was comfortable around writers, he often said, because he had studied English as an undergraduate, earning a bachelor’s degree in literature and philosophy from St. Mary’s College in Winona, Minn.

Born in St. Paul on March 11, 1934, Mr. Schneeman began painting in the late 1950s while stationed with the Army in Italy.

Besides his wife, the former Kathryn Pratt, whom he married in 1959, Mr. Schneeman is survived by a brother, Dan; two sons, Paul Schneeman and Emil Alexander; and two grandchildren. Another son, Elio, a well-regarded poet, died in 1997.

Despite the esteem in which his work was held, Mr. Schneeman remained only an occasional presence in the pages of art magazines, much less the popular press. Because of this, friends and admirers agree, he missed the chance to sell more work, to attract a wide following and to build a large career.

But Mr. Schneeman also missed having to press the flesh; work a string of rooms filled with wine, cheese and chatter; and make only art that the market would bear. And that he did not mind at all.