In 1973 Nancy Hoffman introduced me to Ben Schonzeit in the backroom of her gallery on West Broadway. She had been open less than a year, and Ben was one of the artists in her original stable. His large Crab Blue It had arrived from his studio a few days earlier and was leaning against the wall. I thought at the time it was one of the most impressive, virtuosic Photorealist works I had seen. That first encounter was more than a quarter of a century ago and I have always considered it to be one of the quintessential, tour de force paintings of American Photorealism.
In the early seventies one could stand on West Broadway on any pleasant, sunny weekday and see less than a dozen people on the street between the Nancy Hoffman Gallery and OK Harris Works of Art. Almost all of the SoHo galleries, such as Leo Castelli, Paula Cooper, Ward-Nasse, and Ivan Karp’s Hundred Acres, could be visited in an afternoon. At night the streets were almost deserted. With the exception of Andy Warhol, there were no art world superstars. More importantly, none of the artists expected to achieve celebrity status. That was a phenomenon of the eighties and nineties.
There were a only a handful of restaurants and watering holes, such Elephant and Castle, Fanelli’s, the Spring Street Bar and Prince Street Bar. Fanelli’s closed on weekends, which was a holdover from their sweatshop clientele during lunch and ragtag group of artists in the evenings.
In those early days of SoHo, the drafty, raw sweatshop spaces with their large windows, rough floors, and service elevators provided large, inexpensive living quarters and studios for many artists. Unlike today, there were no boutiques. The area was not chic and with the exception of Lowell Nesbett’s showplace, the lofts were not glamorous. Schonzeit was in the same living and working space the he now occupies when I first visited him, but SoHo was a very different time and place.
When the National Endowment of the Arts recommended me to curate America 1976, which turned into one of the major visual arts projects for the Bicentennial, Ben Schonzeit was on the first list of participants I made up for the U.S. Department of the Interior. His large diptych, Continental Divide, was one of the most memorable works produced for the exhibit. I stopped by his studio four or five times while it was in progress and have visited him many times over the years. We have maintained a very cordial working relationship and friendship over the past three decades.
I saw The Music Room exhibit in 1978 and realized at the time that the vigorously rendered mural sized canvases and mirror and related works represented a major catharsis in his painting. In many ways, it and the other paintings and drawings based on the same image represented a sharp, decisive break with the tenets of Photorealism, or at least the photo-replicative aspects that had been so widely heralded in America and abroad in the mid-seventies.
Over the years we have continued to work together. He has been in almost all of the major exhibitions I have curated here and abroad and in almost all of the books I have written. I am familiar with his studio habits, his quiet, internalized restlessness that manifests itself in the hundreds of small, unknown drawings and watercolors, doodles on napkins during lunch, and imaginary landscapes. I also know that he would rather do a painting than think or talk about it.
Over the years I have followed the shifts in his studio procedure from the monumental airbrushed fruit and vegetable paintings to the most recent bouquets of flowers and decorative paintings. Our discussions of these matters tends to lapse into a verbal shorthand at this point. The following essay is based on both my longstanding familiarity and admiration for his work and involvement with contemporary realism and figurative painting. A booklet of color xeroxes with notes made up by Schonzeit was extremely helpful. In addition to several interviews, much of the information unfolded through a lengthy series of Emails. Due to our different working habits these were composed and sent out very late at night and answered by Ben the following morning. They dealt with the specifics of many of the paintings, generalities, his background and childhood in Brooklyn, and occasional bits of art world gossip.
And there were odd discoveries. Prior to discussing his witty, tongue in cheek painting of Buffalo Bill, I did not know or had long forgotten that William Cody, a.k.a. Buffalo Bill, was from Brooklyn, which is Schonzeit’s hometown. My oldest uncles broke and trained horses on a spread outside of Pawnee, Oklahoma for Pawnee Bill, Buffalo Bill’s partner in that now legendary traveling Wild West show. Nor did I know that his mother, Goldye, was the blonde singer I saw perform at Sammy’s Bowery Bar on many late night weekends in my youth.
The contents of this book will come as a pleasant surprise to many, including those that are familiar with Ben Schonzeit’s work. At best, it can only give an indication of the energetic and extremely open-ended character of his diverse oeuvre, for it truly reveals the veritable tip of a very large and most impressive iceberg.
- John Arthur