As an undergraduate, I took a seminar in contemporary art issues conducted by the theater designer Robert Israel, who once mused about coming across one of Robert Rauschenberg’s 1950s-era combines in a collector’s pristine white apartment. The artwork, composed of recycled scraps of garbage, “looked like it was peeing all over the place.”
Julian Schnabel’s “Mutant King” (1981) would have had the same effect. Featuring a single, inscrutable figure painted in a single color, brick red, on a filthy tarpaulin, it measures 9 by 12 feet, barely fitting into the storefront gallery Oko, where it is now on display as part three of the four-part rotating exhibition of the artist’s early work.
Strangely, the first thing that I noticed was how classical the painting is. The surface may be artlessly distressed, but the three seams running from the top to the bottom of the tarp are so perfectly aligned that the ones on the left and right are equidistant (about 11 inches) from their respective edges and the middle one cuts straight down the center.
The monochromatic figure, wearing some kind of rudimentary crown or cowl that could have been taken from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Edipo Re or Medea, is almost entirely situated between the left and center seams, with a truncated arm and a portion of the headgear extending into the right half.
There is also a dollop of the same brick red near the left seam, a form that, though floating unmoored on the canvas, corresponds with the terminus of the figure’s single arm, allowing you to read it as an outstretched, disembodied hand.
The left side of the tarpaulin is noticeably dirtier, which perhaps acted as an unconscious prompt to place the “Mutant King” there. But the figure in relation to the whole remains somewhat problematic. The scale and rawness of the surface all but upstages the rest of the work, leaving open the question of whether the red silhouette is simply something “done” to a richly textured found object (following Jasper Johns’ advice to take an object and do something to it) in order to transform it into art?
The paint, especially in the crown, arm and lower torso, looks dashed on — an indicative use of line and shape rather than a convincingly realized one. I have no reason to doubt that the silhouette, half-caricature, half-pictogram, is the result of an immediate, emotional outpouring, but the trick, of course, is to work through the moment of inspiration, rather than relying on it to deliver the work’s full import, while maintaining its verve and freshness.
Whatever their shortcomings, it can’t be said that “The Patients and the Doctors” (1978), the plate painting that was the subject of the previous Oko show, or the oil-and-wax “St. Sebastian” (1979), which began the rotating exhibition, are not worked through. In contrast, the sketchy strokes of pigment barely grazing the tarp’s weave in “Mutant King” undermine the blunt power the image seeks, allowing the figure to feel both divorced from and overwhelmed by the raw canvas surrounding it.
It is as if Schnabel is appropriating the stained fabric ground from Rauschenberg’s “Rebus” (1955) and replacing its allusions to everyday life with a cursory icon of a chthonic spirit, fusing Native American imagery with the emotive gestures of Abstract Expressionism and the breakneck speed of graffiti.
While these arguments constitute merely an abbreviated breakdown of a single painting, thereby inapplicable, in the interests of fair play, to the artist’s work as a whole, they do suggest a blinkered Romanticism that can lead to the hermeticism and arbitrariness replete in much of Schnabel’s work in the succeeding decades.
In Part 2 of this series, which focused on “The Patients and the Doctors,” I wrote that there is “something mishandled and unresolved” about the lines denoting the shapes laid over the cracked crockery, which “prefigures the impulsiveness and perfunctory application of paint that mars much of his later output.”
“Mutant King” points that inquiry in another direction — less towards technique and more towards criticality — which cuts to the relationship between artist and materials: when to intervene and when to step aside; where is the line between too much control and too little; is the first thought the best thought or just an occasional lucky shot?
Julian Schnabel 1978–1981, a rotating exhibition at Oko (220 East 10th Street, East Village, Manhattan), continues through March 30. “Mutant King” (1981) will be on view through March 16.