“The Patients and the Doctors” (1978) is Julian Schnabel’s first plate painting. It is also the title of a prose poem/essay he wrote for the February 1984 issue of Artforum, a ham-fisted manifesto that did little to dispel his reputation for defensive bluster.
The essay has since lodged in my mind as the defining Schnabel document, invariably resurfacing whenever I encounter one of his artworks or see one of his movies (though I confess I have watched only two of his five features).
Opening with “Agony has many faces,” the text reads as a stream-of-consciousness brief against an art world that would dismiss his seriousness of intent simply because he has become rich and famous:
Agony has many faces. One need not talk of agony but it is the reason why I began to work. It is the reason why I continue to work. When I’m working I feel OK, but a need to make something isn’t a need to feel better. You have a feeling about something; you’re working when you’re looking for it.
But there’s an arresting contrast between the essay and the painting, which is now on view as part two of a rotating exhibition featuring four early Schnabels at Oko in the East Village.
If the text is all about agony, the painting comes off as bright and friendly. The glinting shards of vintage crockery and the earthy color of the Bondo that serves as the painting’s ground emanate a warmth and vulnerability that subvert the blunt aggressiveness of the overall structure.
At 96 inches tall by 108 across, the painting is made up of four sections abutted together, with the second panel from the left built out so that it juts 12 inches into the room. Like “St. Sebastian” (1979), discussed last week, it mixes two and three dimensions, but its clearly defined architectural thrust would seem to identify it more as a sculptural object than “Sebastian,” with its shallow depressions and slight protuberances.
Even so, I found myself examining it dead-on, as I would a painting, and ignoring the angled views, which I found less than compelling. The surface, despite the relief-like agglomeration of broken china, seems to support this approach: shapes rendered in outline, resembling a Greek krater sitting atop a pillar, start out on the built-up panel and continue, as if across an unbroken plane, into the adjacent section on the right.
Despite its Rauschenbergian Neo-Dadaist tilt — objects stuck to a surface interrupted by expressionistic gestures — ”The Patients and the Doctors” works best as old-fashioned, all-over painting.
A streak of cadmium yellow paint on the upper left mirrors a cluster of yellow ocher crockery on the bottom right. The interplay of glossy porcelain shards, eddying over the roiling, clay-like Bondo, creates a skittering energy across the surface, swelling here and dissipating there.
The barely intelligible shapes outlined on each panel — in addition to the aforementioned krater and pillar, there’s what looks like a barren tree and two cones or horns — simultaneously stabilize, layer and disrupt the three-dimensional surface, at one point darting fetchingly under the broken rim of a green plate.
But there is also something mishandled and unresolved about the line, which earlier observers have pointed out, especially in the green capital under the krater. Schnabel’s use of line is much more effective in “St. Sebastian,” a year later. But the ungainliness evident in “Patients” prefigures the impulsiveness and perfunctory application of paint that mars much of his later output.
Nonetheless, the painting on the whole manages to project a brittle, brute cohesiveness as well as an open, even ingratiating sincerity. I couldn’t help but wonder how it would look if it were mounted in the same room with other artworks that refuse to stay put on the wall, like Rauschberg’s “Bed” (1955) or one of Lee Bontecou’s untitled reliefs made from sooty, stitched canvas pushing outward from its welded steel frame.
The company of such slashing, sardonic works would certainly accentuate the nostalgia implicit in the materials of “The Patients and the Doctors,” despite the equally implicit violence of the china’s destruction. (It should be noted that most of the shards maintain a proximity to their matching pieces, evoking not a shimmering mosaic but a cacophonous smashing of the plates.) Still, I think it would very likely hold its own.
Julian Schnabel 1978–1981, a rotating exhibition at Oko (220 East 10th Street, East Village, Manhattan), continues through March 30. “The Patients and the Doctors” (1978) will be on view through March 2.
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