Julian Schnabel at C&M Arts
Julian Schnabel: Selected Paintings through June 4, 2005 at C&M Arts, 45 East 78th Street, New York, 212-861-0020.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, April 21, 2005
Eighteen months ago, on these pages, I treated the latest paintings of Julian Schnabel to severe deprecation. In regretting any absence of resistance to the hubris of his own indulgent markmaking I invoked the memory of his classic, 1980s “plate” paintings, which notoriously integrated smashed crockery into the fabric of their support.
C&M offers a rare, and I must say, welcome opportunity to examine vintage Schnabels in depth. They offer a reminder of what made him such a novelty after the uptight, minimalist-conceptualist 1970s, lending new meaning to the phrase, “bull in a china shop.” The cumulative charge of these robust works, holding up nicely for their age, have a sometime skeptical critic hankering for another look at the perhaps too hastily dismissed recent efforts.
That said, even a no-holds barred “Maximalist,” as catalogue essayist Robert Pincus-Witten describes Mr. Schnabel, benefits from a good editor. Both floors of the tony uptown gallery are packed with paintings. Packed is also the word for the individual works, with their trademark excess of imagery and material, both in quantity and type. But there is energetic variety in pace and a clear sense that choice examples have been found which give this show sparkle. A narrative of restless curiousity and protean inventiveness comes across in this overview of the 1980s, with just a few hints of future directions, which is denied in presentations of new works (at PaceWildenstein in 2003 and Gagosian in 2001).
The smashed plates retain a sense of loutish outlandishness. In some works, like “The Patients and the Doctors,” (1978) and “Divan,” (1979), the actual, rather cheap crockery retains its color and pattern, and there is a sense of it as a happening—the actual crash is occuring in real time, which is the viewer’s. Their decorative elan recalls Gaudi’s Parc Gruell, their immediate inspiration, while the implicit theatricality reminds of Mr. Schnabel’s long years of employment in commercial kitchens. In works of a couple of years later, like “Aborigine Painting,” (1980) there’s a contrast to the appropriationist emphasis of the first plate pictures, as the plates, submerged in color, sink into the wood support.
Even so, of course, they retain their plateness, not to mention their chutzpah. The pictures are invariably made up of separate panels, often in different support materials, that take away from any sense of the conventional easel picture, which the scale and surface would unlikely admit anyhow. That said, by the critical standards of the time it was painting per se rather than the unconventionality of the approach which made waves. To the institutional avantgarde these seemed reactionary with their expressionism, their novocento imagery, and their gaudy excess, while to more classically-minded connoisseurs their intentional badness made them seem like just another assault from the iconoclasts’ endless armory. The evocation of Francis Picabia’s “transparencies” was enough to suggest Dadaist intentions.
Mr. Schnabel was “maximalist” in the sense of giving to painting not so much “everything but” as everything “in” the kitchen sink: It wasn’t only smashed crockery that he threw into his pictures but slices of animal hide, Mexican and Greek souvenir pottery, a magesterially weathered log found on the beach. Supports include at once luxurious and rubbishy materials like tarpaulin, velvet, found doors. It was as if he were offering himself up as a one-man Baroque to complement the arte povera renaissance of the previous decade, with its emphasis on humble materials and dreary absences of color. A secular Jew, Mr. Schnabel even threw in an opulently Catholic iconography to match his forms and textures: “Resurrection: Albert Finney Meets Malcolm Lowry” is the title of a 1984 paintings using grafitti-writer’s aerosol, wax and moulding plate on ecclesiastically purple velvet.
Of course, it could be argued that Mr. Schnabel traded in a stereotype of Catholicism as all emotional physicality and pietist excess. But however oafish and insolent his use of pictorial languages and his appropriations of Catholic motifs, the impulse seems borne of a genuine, and expressively desparate, nostalgia for a lost order in which images could generate veneration.
At a certain level, however, his imagery set out to shock. “Ethnic Types #15 and #72” throws an Indian and an African face into an exotic mix of animal hide cutouts, with picture-book Romanesque chalicies and crudely painted animal motifs to keep them company. Like his contemporaries, Eric Fischl and David Salle, Mr. Schnabel’s racial imagery seemed to swing with the pendulum against the political correctness of the 1970s artworld.
“Ritu Quadrupedis,” (1987) can literally be read as a manifesto painting: made up of the words of its title drawn in big white block letters, except for the first two “Us” which are brown, with an appropriated religious banner covering the “U” of “Ritu”, the letters fill a cruciform (Greek cross) tarpaulin support, over which yellow paint is then splattered and besmirched, at times suggestive of footprints. In its hubristic ambiguity the image is typical of Mr. Schnabel: The phrase comes from religious literature; St. Teresa, for instance, was said to have walked around her convent “ritu quadrupedis,” on four legs, as a sign of humility. But that is not a virtue that springs to mind with Mr. Schnabel, who instead stresses animal passion and brute indifference to received conventions.
This certainly tallies with the mystique of the artist as presented by the catalogue accompanying the exhibition. Photographs have the bear-like Mr. Schnabel standing outside his Hampton’s house in pyjamas, wearing sunglasses like a Blues Brother. Or seated in a theatrically humungus studio, again in pyjamas. Like his painting style and iconography, this studiously nonchalent sartorial choice seems publicly private.
A note in the catalogue by C&M chairman, Robert Mnuchin, recounts the experience of viewing works hanging on the fence of the artist’s Hamptons tennis court. This might seem a trifling anecdote but at a certain level it suggests itself as a mixed metaphor (brash and courtly, sporting and aspirant, alienated and at home) of this at once complex and rather simple modern painter.