My friend Tobias Schneebaum, who died at 83 in 2005, was an artist and writer who split his time between his apartment in Westbeth, the artist’s housing complex in Greenwich Village, and such places as Papua, New Guinea in Indonesia and the jungles of Peru, where on a Fulbright grant he lived among the Harakmbut tribe in the 1950s. His first book, Keep the River on Your Right, is about his experiences (including one incidence of ritual cannibalism) with them in Peru, which changed his life forever.
He was always an artist, though he deliberately left the art world when he went to Peru. He made drawings all his life, and filled many notebooks with drawings while traveling. When I knew him, starting around 1995, he stayed home in New York except for trips aboard cruise ships, where to earn some money he lectured about the places they visited, and with the crew of the documentary film about him by Laurie and David Shapiro, Keep the River On Your Right, when he returned to both Peru and New Guinea, reconnecting in both places with the oldest of the surviving people in each place, who recognized him and greeted him with apparent affection. (I appear for about a minute in the film, floating in a gondola in Central Park with Toby and my boxer, Alice.) He had lovers among the men in these places, and it’s painful to witness in the film his separation from them, his tense ambivalence about leaving. His entire life he felt the pull of these remote spots where he’d found acceptance, warmth, and love as he never did in New York.
I met Toby at a cocktail party at the home of Claire and Barry Brook in Manhattan in the mid-’90s when Toby was 73. We quickly and easily became close friends despite the 50-odd years between us. He was instantly affectionate, eager to talk and listen, open to friendship, happy to share his life, trusting, and genuine--he never made a false move in the decade I knew him. I was with him the day he died.
His primary work in the last couple of years he had was a daily practice of drawing, and he generally made a drawing a day in a black leather notebook of which he filled several. He considered many of the drawings surrealist; some of them he captioned. We often spoke of having the drawings published, and he wanted them to be, but when he died, the notebooks disappeared and the drawings have never been seen by the public as far as I know (except for a few of them published at my request by Diane Williams' NOON). His collection of art from Papua New Guinea supposedly went to the Metropolitan Museum, but when I’ve contacted the museum to ask for information I was told they could not tell me anything at all, a mysterious injunction. I’ve never heard of nor seen an exhibition there containing any of the works from his collection. Toby had promised me a large painting of his own that I loved after he died; but his nephew Jeff turned out to be the sole beneficiary of Toby’s will.
The drawings here are from copies Toby made for me from the notebooks. The whereabouts of the originals remain unknown to me. There were hundreds more like these, all of them good. All of them should be published.
This (water-stained) photo I took of Toby in my apartment in 2003.