Is it possible to look at Julian Schnabel’s “St. Sebastian” (1979) with fresh eyes, as if the past 34 years of Schnabel Sturm und Schnabel Drang never really happened? As if it were a new painting fresh out of an unknown artist’s studio, landing inconspicuously in a storefront gallery on East 10th Street between 2nd and 1st?
I should state at the outset that, despite the reassessments of the artist’s oeuvre that have been surfacing over the past couple of years, such as Raphael Rubinstein’s spirited defense in the March 2011 issue of Art in America, I remain unconvinced that prevailing critical opinion has misjudged the majority of Schnabel’s work.
Rubenstein makes the case that Schnabel’s seldom-seen, massively scaled paintings cannot be fully understood except in their physical presence: a reasonable premise, but unverifiable without having the opportunity to view them anew with Rubinstein’s arguments in your ears.
I’ve seen a number of Schnabel’s sizable works over the years and found them as bombastic and misbegotten as most everyone else. I especially recall the quiet horror I felt in the presence of the so-called “Kabuki Paintings,” which he made in the mid-1980s by slathering inscrutable images and words over Japanese theatrical backdrops. At the time, the coarseness and insensitivity with which he handled the original artifacts seemed a perfect mirror of the reckless, culturally tone-deaf pursuit of political and military hegemony that had come to define the Reagan years.
But it’s now the 21st century, with a lot of water over the dam, and Oko, a shoebox-sized gallery in the East Village, has initiated an eight-week rotating exhibition of four of Schnabel’s early works in cooperation with the blue-chip powerhouse Luxembourg & Dayan.
To answer my initial question, I would like to say, without irony, “Sure it is,” which may sound like wishful thinking, and perhaps it is. But with “St. Sebastian,” a blank-slate approach was unexpectedly easy, primarily because, for all the image’s familiarity, I realized how different the painting looked, or rather felt, in the flesh (a point, then, for Rubinstein).
The painting doesn’t hang on the far end of Oko’s narrow, low-lit space, but on a side wall, so that the viewing area is uncomfortably squeezed, which accentuates the canvas’s scale (it’s 9 feet, 3 inches tall and 5 and a half feet across) and its graphic power.
The image, a hulking human torso, though named after St. Sebastian (famously shot through with arrows, most notably in not one (1457–1459), not two (c.1482–1485) but three (c.1490 or c.1506) renditions by Andrea Mantegna) has found another route to martyrdom, having apparently been scourged, beheaded and drawn and quartered. It might even be interpreted as the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew, which Michelangelo crowned with a self-portrait in his Last Judgment (1536–1541)
It would be tempting to project these associations against the artist’s reputation as evidence of the burgeoning ego that would dominate Schnabel’s subsequent media coverage (and, to be fair, overshadow his acts of generosity to younger and older artists he believed to be unduly neglected).
It is instructive to note, however, that a similarly lashed and truncated figure appears in “Accatone,” a painting from the previous year named after the 1961 Pier Paolo Pasolini film about a doomed street hustler. There are also torsos painted in blue outline in two 1979 works, “Procession (for Jean Vigo)” and the tellingly titled “Against Modernism (What To Do With a Corner In Madrid),” which seem to owe a debt to Susan Rothenberg’s horse paintings from a few years before.
These associated works appear to situate “St. Sebastian” as a general image of martyrdom removed from the saint’s customary attributes as well as from his status as a gay icon, a connection Schnabel later addresses in one of his “Fox Farm” paintings from 1989.
Nor does Derek Jarman’s film Sebastiane seem to have played a role (a movie distinguished, among other reasons, for having been filmed in Latin with English subtitles), despite its release three years earlier, in 1976. Given Schnabel’s nods to Pasolini and Vigo (among the many film references he has made over the course of his career), if Jarman were on his radar, it is reasonable to assume he would have cited him.
Still, it is far more interesting to attempt to look at the painting without prejudice or sideways glances.
What immediately drew my eye were the thick, slashing strokes delineating the torso’s wounds, which cluster around St. Sebastian’s pink/ochre trunk like broken tree branches. Apparently infused with wax, they are primitive and visceral, a network of encrusted pigment that delivers a real sensation of pain even as the image comes off as naively, awkwardly funny.
It’s the painting’s endearingly strange comedy — especially the bottom half of the body, which seems to flap away (and bring to mind the flagellation of St. Bartholomew) — that rescues it from post-adolescent self-pity and actually, in an odd way, ennobles it, as if invested with an amused stoicism.
The contradictory nature of the image is further complicated by the three-dimensional interventions on the surface: two depressions (one circular and one rectangular) on the right side of the painting and three vertical ridges that climb about two-fifths of the way up the canvas, on the left, right and center.
Rather than finding these features bothersome in their seeming arbitrariness, I appreciated their enhancement of the painting’s initial impression as a demanding, even overbearing physical object, but one with a keen relevance to the concerns of younger artists who are responding to encroaching virtual reality with aggressively tactile forms and surfaces.
A similar impulse might have been at play when this painting was created in 1979, a time when art had become divorced from the material object in the minds of many artists and thinkers. In such an atmosphere, “St. Sebastian” was as much an act of defiance as Frank Stella’s pinstripe paintings twenty years earlier. Schnabel’s move was in the opposite direction, a bleeding body thrust into cerebration’s sandbox, but no less confrontational.
Today is the last day of the first stage of Oko’s exhibit, in which Schnabel’s four paintings — “St. Sebastian,” will be followed by “The Patients and the Doctors” (1978),”The Mutant King” (1981) and “Abstract Painting on Blue Velvet” (1980) — are to be exhibited one at a time for two weeks each, an idea that struck me as shrine-like and off-putting until I actually went to the space and saw how small it was.
One piece per showing not only makes practical sense, but it also strips the work of enough of its trappings to deal with it in a concentrated, relatively unvarnished encounter — the kind of unforgiving scrutiny that “St. Sebastian,” for one, can take. I look forward to the next installment.
Julian Schnabel 1978–1981, a rotating exhibition at Oko (220 East 10th Street, East Village, Manhattan), continues through March 30. “St. Sebastian” (1979) will be on view through today.
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