"I never had a problem with art as a social activity," artist George Schneeman tells his long-time neighbor and collaborator, poet Ron Padgett, in a conversation that appears in the retrospective Painter Among Poets: The Collaborative Art of George Schneeman, published by Granary Books. "I think that an artist has to have a certain disposition for enjoying collaboration."
That disposition must have something to do with taking the advice of friends. In 1966, living in Italy with his wife and children and diligently painting, Schneeman let Padgett and Peter Schjeldahl, whom he met there, talk him into moving to New York City’s Lower East Side. Upon arriving, Schneeman quickly made the acquaintances of many of the neighborhood’s writers and artists, taking part in the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, and it wasn’t much later that Schneeman began to share his canvases with friends.
"Never very intent on a career as a gallery artist," Carter Ratcliff writes in an essay in Painter Among Poets, "Schneeman chose instead to be a friend of the poets." Among those with whom he collaborated were Ted Berrigan, Larry Fagin, Dick Gallup, Alice Notley, Allen Ginsberg, Bill Berkson, Anne Waldman, Padgett, and Schjeldahl.
Schneeman's interest in collaborative art was sparked while in Italy, where he took note of the work of early-Renaissance painter Giotto di Bondone. Some of Giotto's paintings are believed to have been done by more artists than Giotto alone, and in Schneeman’s eyes, "the variety of hands makes the painting more interesting." If some of the Italian’s works are "so overpoweringly Giotto," he says, then "the mixed ones are one-of-a-kind because you never get the same mixture again. A ‘pure’ Giotto is not as interesting as an ‘adulterated’ one."
Schneeman’s collaborative works follow this principle. In order for a piece to be artistically successful, he has learned, it must be done without forethought or blueprints. "I don’t have a visual preconception of the work," he says. When he and the poet meet, Schneeman, often with the "upper hand" as far as materials are concerned, lays out on the table a number of objects to be considered in the work. These materials have included the obvious—pencils and paints—and the unusual, such as newspaper and magazine clippings, parts of comic strips, photographs. Some projects use silkscreens. One piece was ceramic.
Padgett praises Schneeman for his flexibility with all of his collaborators, though Schneeman doesn’t look at it that way. "As long as the poet is providing energy, that’s all I need," he has said. But that energy has been expressed in many different ways. Schneeman describes Berrigan and Padgett as being highly involved, while Larry Fagin "doesn’t do any of the visual work. He doesn’t touch the pieces."
According to Schneeman, what makes these collaborations successful "is that people want to do them for the pleasure of it, certainly not for commercial purposes." What’s more, they aren’t the works of perfectionists, nor are they steeped in their own theories or regulated by apparent standards of pictorial or poetic quality, as Ratcliff states. They spring from an air of camaraderie and randomness; each is a "social activity."
"Basically galleries don’t want to show them," Schneeman says. "They’re personal works. I like that."