There was a time in the 1980s when you could divide the art world between those who thought Julian Schnabel was a great or important artist — which aren’t necessarily the same thing — and those who hated him and thought he was a maladroit charlatan. If, starting in the 1960s, Andy Warhol opened the door further on subject matter, then one could say that Schnabel walked boldly through that door in the 1980s. One difference between the two artists is temperament, with Warhol being cool and even aloof towards his charged subjects (car crashes, electric chairs, public disasters, and movie stars) while Schnabel came across as either an unabashed romantic or a pretentious jerk who serves up his subjects in an overheated style on a field of broken dishes and later velvet, tarpaulins, sails, animal skins, canvas flooring from boxing rings, and Kabuki theater backdrops.
As for the massive scale Schnabel worked on, and his use of uneven, unconventional surfaces, Frank Stella set the precedent, while his theatrical decadence owed more than a little something to Alfonso Ossorio and Michael Tracy. This is what I said about his work in 2014:
In an age when originality is dead and authenticity is considered a relic of the past, his paintings are Romantic throwbacks — bigger, more comforting versions of the real thing.
This is how Raphael Rubinstein characterized Schnabel’s work: “messy grandeur and devotional passion.” One description that Roberta Smith offered was “blithely painted portraits across craggy surfaces made of broken crockery.” Another was: “Mr. Schnabel’s ham-fisted style has its strengths, even when he’s just going through the motions.” As Smith also pointed out, there was a lot of “fuss” over Schnabel for good reason, even if his drum beating self-aggrandizement has made him look like a delusional bloviate.
The problem of course is that in a world in which anything can be art, it’s hard to know what standard to apply to Schnabel’s work. As Jack Tworkov wrote in his journal on March 3, 1958: “Our aesthetics admits that anything is possible.” Three years later, in 1961, Frank O’Hara published his delightfully mocking, “Personism: A Manifesto,” in the little magazine Yugen. This is one of his declarations:
Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them. I like the movies too. And after all, only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American poets, are better than the movies. As for measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you. There’s nothing metaphysical about it. Unless, of course, you flatter yourself into thinking that what you’re experiencing is “yearning.”
Are Schnabel’s paintings as good as his movies, including Miral (2010), about an orphaned girl growing up in Palestine that received many negative reviews and sank without a trace?
These thoughts and memories were brought up by the exhibition Julian Schnabel: New Plate Paintings at Pace Gallery (February 24–March 25, 2017). As the gallery press release states, all of the paintings were “[i]nspired by the roses growing in the cemetery near Van Gogh’s grave in Auvers-sur-Oise, France.” (It seems that he is making a movie about the tormented Dutchman.) The gallery also states in the artist’s biography:
Filmmaker and Neo-expressionist artist Julian Schnabel’s large-scale paintings are materially and thematically monumental, drawing on a wealth of influences from Cubism to the practice of Cy Twombly and themes such as sexuality, obsession, suffering, redemption, death, and belief.
Do you ever feel like you are getting the hard sell or being bludgeoned into submission?
Once Schnabel gets an idea, he sticks to it through thick and thin, convinced perhaps that genius can overcome all obstacles. In the late 1980s, in a series of paintings on deep red velvet, he wrote this phrase or part of it on each work: “There is no place on this planet more horrible than a fox farm during pelting season.” The artist saw this phrase written in red ink on a ten-dollar bill he got as change. It is too bad he did not do something to it, starting with replacing the period with a comma, and adding something of his own. He preferred hyperbole to being creative.
In 1964, Jasper Johns wrote in his sketchbook: “Take an object / Do something to it / Do something else to it. [Repeat.]” Schnabel and many others of his generation seem to have not gotten that message or mangled it in the reception, preferring the less challenging approach: take an object and do something to it [and then do more-or-less the same thing to it, repeat].
In his current show at Pace, Schnabel returns to what started the fuss in the first place: plate paintings. The problem is that there is uniformity to them, where sameness outweighs difference, and it should be the other way around. The paintings are big, sometimes made of two or four boxy panels joined together. As Thomas Nozkowski said of “large scale, macho-man abstractions” … done in the early days of Soho, years before Schnabel came along, they are “like the 800 pound gorilla that sits wherever it wants to.”
Schnabel paints the entire terrain of broken crockery green, suggesting that the fragments are sharp-edged leaves, and we are standing above them, looking down. Sometimes, along the top of the painting, he colors the shards black and adds a scattering of white marks. The final touch is a swirl or two of pink and white here and there, often where the broken china offers a rounded edge, to create a rose blossom. The uneven surface is what I end up looking at.
In my head I kept hearing the name Rodney Ripps, who was included in the Whitney Biennial of 1979, painted on artificial leaves, and showed for a time with Holly Solomon. Hard not to think of Gustav Klimt’s recently auctioned “Bauerngarten” (1907), the differently colored flowers growing in a field of greens. I was also reminded of a diminutive painting by Jess, “Petals of Paint” (1964), that I had seen at the Armory Show an hour earlier. In Jess’s still-life, the artist built the petals and leaves out of paint: it was like looking at pulled taffy and wads of chewing gum. Schnabel’s rose paintings do not supersede this company.
The paintings are collectively titled “Rose Painting (Near Van Gogh’s Grave)” and numbered. In the catalog accompanying the show there are twenty paintings, all done between 2015 and 2017. From a distance, they are quite handsome, one by one, but, after a while, they become tiresome. They are a quick read and there is nothing to puzzle over. We can account for everything we see. The colors are generic, green leaves and pink and white roses. The title is directive: it tells us that these are serious paintings or evidence of what Rubinstein calls “devotional passion.” I don’t get the passion. What comes across is green paint slopped over broken dishes, Schnabel’s stock-in-trade, punctuated by eddies of pink and white. In some areas, the paint is thick and in other areas practically a transparent wash. What I do see is an awful lot of self-flattery in the form of yearning. They are not metaphysical, but they are almost poignant.
Julian Schnabel: New Plate Paintings continues at Pace Gallery (510 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 25.