Richard Schreiner, Palm Coast’s greatest artist and one of its most luminous minds, died today. He had been briefly, seriously, unexpectedly ill at the end of a life devoted, among other things, to deconstructing man’s illnesses with unflinching beauty. The artistry of his brush was rivaled only by the artistry of a heart that, to those lucky enough to have known him, had no bounds. And it ultimately failed him because he could not be bound by it. He was one of the few men I loved unreservedly, especially for his anger, which he wielded with an affection that brazed the colors of even his most virulent paintings. Two of those hang in my house, including the one in the portrait above, like sentinels to Richard’s memory. There is consolation in his work. There can never be consolation for Richard’s loss, except for the pleasure in knowing him now free to eternally damn the death that briefly taunted him, and to know him taunting god in turn, whose apology he may or may not accept.
The review of the retrospective reposted below first appeared barely a month ago, on June 9, the day his last show opened at Hollingsworth Gallery, where he made one of his last public appearances. We will always miss you Richard, we will always love you, and we’ll always be seeing you.
Richard Schreiner: The Retrospective
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
The titles of Richard Schriner’s paintings give you an idea of his themes: “Fat Bastard.” “Man Bat.” “Fear.” “Rage.” “Conflict.” “In-Laws.” “Congressman.” “Corporate Dog.” “Madman.” “Insurgent.” “Dictator.” “Manwort.” “Alzheimer.” “Crucifix.” “Final Sentence.”
Blunt as the titles are, the paintings by Palm Coast’s most provocative artist are more so. They’re whirls of assaults. Their subjects are either offending or being offended, trodden, clobbered, sometimes from self-abuse: the alcoholic sitting in the kind of deep orange lifted out of a Black Label bottle, the cop and his K-9s drunk on his own power, the artist—if it is an artist—smashing his own sculptures, or maybe those of others. If the violence isn’t overt in a Schriner painting, it’s almost always implied, even in one of his own favorite works: “The Poet,” a more introspective portrait of a man sitting with a book rather than a drink, a headless torso in the background, a wastebasket in the foreground.
The painting was inspired by “The Wasteland,” the T.S. Eliot poem, though these days the poem that comes to mind most, when the subject is Richard Schreiner, is “Sailing to Byzantium,” the W.B. Yeats poem that begins with that harsh line, so out of place in Palm Coast: “That is no country for old men,” and builds into the kind of imagery symbolism as if special-ordered for a Schreiner painting. “Sailing to Byzantium” isn’t just about the ravage of age, but about its premature ambushes, death’s inherent betrayal of life and the attempt by the artist, the “dying animal,” to make an escape by way of art and philosophy.
Schreiner might have painted just such a work if he were able. He isn’t. A few months ago he was at his studio at Hollingsworth Gallery almost every day, painting, teaching, leading tai-chi sessions, conversing with the stamina of a Left Bank philosopher. Then he was hit by a stroke. And another. He was diagnosed with amyloidosis—specifically, amyloid cardio-myopathy, a rare disease that leads to the build-up of so-called amyloid proteins made in the bone marrow, that then affect the heart, infiltrating and disrupting its proper functioning, and triggering strokes.
At 67, Schriner is in a wheelchair. He cannot paint anymore. He can barely speak, and when he does, he speaks in a faint voice that sounds as if it’s coming from very far away. Maybe Byzantium. He knows the score. He knows what it means when, as when he visited Hollingsworth Gallery with family two weeks ago, there was a lot of picture-taking of him with his work, him with his family members, him with other artists—the sort of memorializing of a beloved man when there’s still time.
“You have to have the courage to just see through it,” Schreiner says about his—what to call it? Disease? Condition? Sentence? “It’s part of my nature that I can’t worry about things like that. It’s just having the strength and purpose to just see through it.” And so he talks about accepting what happens. “What else can one do? You just stand there and see through it.” He’s choosing neither to be overly optimistic nor to think he’ll die. He thinks of himself as somewhere in the middle. “It’s not something I chose. It’s an existential thing. I live therefore I am.”
Existentialism has been central to his philosophy and his art, now the subject of the largest retrospective Hollingsworth Gallery in Palm Coast has devoted to any artist in its three years. The retrospective opens tonight at 6, with a free reception. Schriner is scheduled to be there.
The retrospective is overdue, as are many things that have to do with Richard Schreiner: he’s never been the Artist of the Year in the 12-year history of that award, though he should have been the moment he became an integral part of Hollingsworth Gallery. He should have had a retrospective a long time ago, though, in Hollingsworth Gallery co-founder JJ Graham’s defense, Schriner had quit painting for years. He’d spent 37 years teaching art and heading a Long Island school district’s art program before moving to Palm Coast five years ago, disgusted with the art world and vowing never to paint again.
Then he walked into Hollingsworth. Something happened, as it often does when artists and patrons walk into that place. He got inspired. He got back to work. And a very close relationship developed between Graham and Schreiner. There would always be time for a retrospective. And suddenly there wasn’t.
As much as Schreiner’s illness has been demolishing him, it’s been wrecking Graham, too, as he poured his energies into preparing the show for the past month or more, scouring Schriner’s hundreds of canvasses, stretching them, deciding what to exhibit, and speaking of the show as a lot more than another monthly Hollingsworth offering.
“I don’t want people to mistake that I’m just doing this because he’s sick, but maybe that is a little bit of why,” Graham says. “It’s more to try to inspire and to get through this. I don’t give a fuck what the doctors say. People get better all the time, and for him to be able to see this is I think is going to give him a charge, it’s going to kind of quicken him. That’s what I want to be very clear about. It’s not a eulogy. This is a retrospective. The fact that he got sick just lit a fire under my ass. I was going to do this all along, but I was kind of waiting for his word. He was painting. He’d pretty much laid down his brushes before this gallery opened. He was pissed off at the art world. To see him come here, reignite, and watch him take off the head of the CEO of BP and put it on a dog, that portrait right there—it’s Rick Scott, it transformed into a freaking donkey—to see how his mind works, and then go and see it on a much larger scale, to me just hanging the show is a journey. I know Richard, but by the time I finish this show I feel like I know so much more about him. And I don’t care if we don’t sell a damn one of these. This isn’t decorative art. This to me is high art, and it’s about vision.”
The show was already a charge for Schreiner even as Graham was bringing it together. Two weeks ago when he was first wheeled into the gallery and saw his canvasses spread out all over the place, many of them already on the walls, Schreiner welled up. He hadn’t seen his works together in years. He couldn’t paint, but memories of painting them flooded back. “I did a better job than I thought, in some ways,” he said.
There were also the occasions when Graham would go to Schreiner’s house to pick out canvasses. “Every time JJ comes to the house and he pulls out the art work, he’s alive. You see him, he opens up, he lights up, he gets to talk about his art work,” Schreiner’s wife Arleen said at the time of Richard’s visit at Hollingsworth.
She speaks of his early days as an artist—he studied at Yale and Columbia University, where he completed his doctorate in education under the guidance of Maxine Greene, the celebrated philosopher of education whose career was devoted to making art an integral part of any education. And she speaks, herself struggling through words, of his latest days, contending with a besieged heart. “Yesterday he said he’s not afraid to die,” Arleen said. “It’s part of life, and it’s OK. But if you sit down and you talk to him, his mind is all there. He’s brilliant.”
She goes on: “His will is iron. The doctor said, having gone through these two strokes, having gone through this second one, how hard it is for him to eat or drink—he has an iron will. He just does. And he’s always been true to himself. He’s never done what other people want. He could have sold everything if he would just do pretty things for people’s homes. Never. He was always true to himself. Never once did he give in, not even when I asked him to do something. It’s a funny story. I wanted him to do a sailboat for my family room in New York. I just wanted him to do it. My brother has the painting. He did the sailboat all right. It is so eerie, and there are no people on it. It’s just the boat. But I got my sailboat.”
Graham gave the Schreiner retrospective a French title: “La viscère de la bête noir,” which, to keep close to the intent, translates as “the bowels of the dark beast.” It fits the paintings. It doesn’t fit the man behind them. Schreiner is his works’ sharpest contrast: luminous, serene, wry, and still sailing.
He’s been reading Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, one of the great works of prison literature written when Boethius, the 6th century philosopher, was unjustly held before his execution at the hands of a king Schreiner could have painted in his sleep. “It’s about all the bullshit out there,” Schreiner says of the old classic in language also characteristic of the undying animal. “It’s all about you, what you have inside you. It’s what makes any of us. Nothing is going to make it better in terms of money, this, that, connections and all that stuff. It’s you being rounded as a person.”
It’s also why the retrospective could just as easily have been called “Sailing to Byzantium,” that Byzantium of Schreiner’s own, “of what is past, or passing, or to come.”