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— Essay by Daniel Thomas

Schoenbaum Turns 70

by Daniel Thomas

It must have been 1973 when Bruce Pollard — whose Pinacotheca gallery was the hothouse place for Melbourne’s most interesting new art — sent Sam Schoenbaum to see me in Sydney, where I was chief curator at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.  I think Sam typed me into a diary, of social interactions and bodily emissions, that merged into a minimalist ‘performance’ during which he lived and slept for a few weeks in the exhibition space at Pinacotheca and papered a wall with typescript sheets produced each day of the full year past.  Soon after One years work (1973–74), he also spoke me into the soundtrack of Still life: Breakfast piece, a minimal-motion (faint breeze in garden foliage) black & white video, that gazed fixedly at a large mixing bowl (much the same size as a 1975 tv monitor) while unseen human life went on in a kitchen and midsummer Melbourne backyard near Pinacotheca.

We — me and contemporary-art curators Kiffy Rubbo and Jennifer Phipps in Melbourne, Nick Waterlow in Sydney — recognised Schoenbaum as a Melbourne counterpart to Mike Parr, whose wordworks and performances we had seen at the short-lived artist-run Inhibodress space in Sydney.  The times were a-changing; it was the great paradigm shift from late-modernist Pop and Colourfield to post-modern Conceptual art, which in Australia for a while was better known as Post-object art.  Donald Brook, probably our finest art theorist, coined the term — and proposed that purest Post-object art was not visual art but literary art, namely poetry.

We didn’t know that art student Schoenbaum had been briefly a near-Pop colour painter.  If we paused for thought, we could have figured that he would be a cultural product of Marshall McLuhan’s 1960s ‘Global Village’ theory of instantly-available worldwide information. We didn’t know his life story had begun on 8 January 1947 in a post-war refugee camp at Admont, Austria, son of Yiddish-speaking parents displaced from Poland and, when he was four, displaced onwards from Austria to Australia, where the family settled in the respectable Melbourne suburb of North Balwyn.  They were what Australians then called DPs (Displaced Persons).  Not a North Balwyn type, today he has two official addresses: one in city-fringe Richmond, Melbourne, the other at Bondi Junction, Sydney, but lives at neither; he has lived bi-hemispherically, with shifts away from Australia.  At first there were long spells in the seedier zones of Amsterdam (late seventies) and Manhattan (eleven years to 1989). Lately he has migrated north–south–north every six months, avoiding winters, usually finding studios in Sydney/Melbourne or Berlin, plus short residences in Venice, Tokyo, Los Angeles and Miami.

Schoenbaum has circled back to his public launching-place. The Charles Nodrum Gallery is situated in Richmond, a few metres from Pollard’s onetime Pinacotheca.  Nodrum, another unusual gallerist/curator, takes special care of Australia’s recent past.

The artist has also circled back to painting, specifically to ‘landscape painting’ though seldom of specifically identifiable places.  There was a time when the homeless person seemed most attached to a worldwide ‘landscape’ of friends: he attended diligently to birthdays, deathbeds, sickness, emotional crises; New York curator Anna Canepa counts him her best psychological counsellor. There was always, as well, a special feeling for the sense of touch in the paintings, as if brushing skin. 

Now, however, we can recognise generic landscapes. Sometimes interiors as ‘landscape’: the spaces, angles, lighting within, or windowed views from, various studios — large or confined — in different cities.  Or else we recognise generic landscapes of cool moistness.  The only time I saw his parental Poland–Russia, from an aircraft window, it seemed swampland all the way to Berlin.  Right now Tasmania is increasingly saturated by extreme-weather events, and even in the nineteenth century, in Hobart and Sydney, W.C. Piguenit’s forte was broad-brushed slimey shores, cool swampland and sub-tropical humid airs.  Piguenit is the one Australian artist Schoenbaum acknowledges with respect.

Schoenbaum at 70 has been working for 40 years in 4 continents and is still going strong, apart from occasional near-death events now resolved internally by a heart pacemaker.

He is also a wrily humorous analyst of the human condition.  I once compared him with New York film-maker Woody Allen.

So herewith an appendix.

It’s a ghosted, word-play self-analysis of a placeless artist, a native of elsewhere. Schoenbaum is still a Post-object literary artist, a poet as well as a painter.


Australian art / history / art history / landscape

Travel in the jet age…

Australian artists travel more than Australian art

Schoenbaum’s displaced narratives

It’s always somewhere else…real Art…always chasing its tail (uroboric/umbilical)…ageing…. Urban nomad no longer searching for an archetype.

At 70, it’s not possible to classify whether it’s mid-career / emerging / storytelling–listener.

Schoenbaum claims that he has more energy than before, partly because it is focused and it reflects and reveals to him as it shifts in process. His history is that of a suitcase artist in the Fluxus sense; they arrive in the gallery without knowing exactly what goes where and the vital decisions that determine the exhibition are made in the space collaboratively; artworks collaborate with each other, exposing tensions of displacement.  It’s not until the exhibition is hung that one can find and feel the hinges and seams which provoke humour; celebrating displacements of narrative in image-making is as absurdist as a man not having a home and always seeking shelter.

Schoenbaum’s understanding of the place of self in contemporary art, post-1950s, is narrowed by choice. Non-linear pathways (clouds) open the palette of difference. Schoenbaum paints on a table. Then the work is placed on a wall, photographed with the iPhone and placed into the storage tank of iPhotos and then it becomes history.

Today we read pictures. The feel for language will always be. We think in words from… images.  We send kisses with an X and hugs with a zero.  For this artist,

the mind is also a suitcase…


Daniel Thomas

October 2016 on a northern Tasmania wetland seacoast

Since its establishment in 1984, the Charles Nodrum Gallery’s exhibition program embraces a diversity of media and styles - from painting, sculpture & works on paper to graphics and photography; from figurative, geometric, gestural, surrealist & social comment to installation & conceptually based work.