Julian Schnabel, “Abstract Painting on Blue Velvet” (1980). Velvet on velvet with welded steel frame, 90 x 84 inches. (Image via

The final installment of Julian Schnabel 1978–1981the rotating exhibition of four of the artist’s early works, has arrived with “Abstract Painting on Blue Velvet” (1980). If you’re seeking closure, however, I doubt that you will find it here.

“Abstract Painting on Blue Velvet” (1980) is actually not a painting in the strictest sense (i.e, it doesn’t use paint); it is instead a large, squarish fabric-on-fabric collage: three shapes in grayed-down aquamarine on a deep ultramarine field.

The shapes are all on the right half of the canvas. A vertically oriented, off-kilter rectangle occupies the upper right quadrant; directly below it, in the lower right, there is an elongated, downward-pointing triangle with two slight appendages at its top corners. This shape meets a simpler, similarly elongated, upward-pointing triangle, the latter overlapping the former.

Together, they resemble a woman’s shift twisting in the breeze. Aside from an alignment along their right contours, there is little relationship between the double triangle and the rectangle above it. Nor does their aquamarine color register much of an impact with the deep blue field. The whole assembly just sort of hangs there, inert.

The ultramarine velvet, like the tarpaulin in “Mutant King” (1981), is divided by vertically oriented seams, two instead of the tarp’s three. The blue velvet is less precisely stretched than the tarpaulin was, resulting in the seams tilting a little toward the right and losing whatever formal rigor they might otherwise have had.

And that, pretty much, is that. The overall effect is fairly negligible, though I should add that the shallowness of the gallery space served the art more poorly than in the previous shows. It could have been because there is so little happening on the velvet surface, but even when pressed against the opposite wall I felt the need to step back several more feet in order to take in the piece as a whole.

The four paintings featured in Julian Schnabel 1978–1981 may take extravagantly dissimilar approaches, but they are linked through an adventurous sense of materials coupled with an occasionally underwhelming use of them. In this respect, “Abstract Painting on Blue Velvet” comes off as the most desultory of the group.

The aquamarine shapes look like scraps of found fabric, casually snipped out and pasted on. There is some fraying along the edges, and the bottom triangle is slightly stained, darkening the color. The intentionality behind these elements — whether they were found or not, whether Schnabel did the cutting or manipulated the color — becomes inconsequential in the face of the work’s general shabbiness.

*   *   *

I embarked on this series to discover whether I’m missing something about Schnabel, whether there is a piece of the puzzle that would be revealed in his formative work. As some of the readers’ comments have made plain, there a number of people, including artists whose opinions I respect, who admire and defend Schnabel, while others regard him as a fraud.

Although I was surprised by my positive reaction to “Saint Sebastian” (1979) and “The Patients and the Doctors” (1978), my doubts began to creep back with “Mutant King,” and now, with “Abstract Painting on Blue Velvet,” I’m left with more questions than answers.

Does the early work simply hold promise, or is it powerful enough in itself to justify the fuss it kicked up when Schnabel first hit the scene? Does the restlessness evident in his materials and execution arise from an overabundance of creativity? Or does it betray a lack of commitment, intellectual shallowness or emotional immaturity?

Divorced from the context of his later career, the four works feel like the opening paragraphs of very different books, as if they were visual correlatives to the even-numbered chapters of Italo Calvino’s meta-novel, If on a Winter Night a Traveler.

The beauty of Calvino’s book, however, is that those chapters entice us along until they end abruptly, leaving the rest of the story unfinished and the reader with a sense of its untapped potential. Schnabel’s narrative, however, hasn’t been left to the imagination, and what he has done since has been a decidedly mixed bag.

In any event, it’s possible for art to be influential due to what it stands for or suggests regardless of how well it’s done. I look at Schnabel’s contribution to the post-minimalist effort to reopen painting to non-art and anti-formalist elements as more suggestive and scattershot than developed and concrete. If you’re seeking what he has to offer, you’re likely to get something out of his work; if you’re not, you won’t. He doesn’t do much to bridge that gap.

Julian Schnabel 1978–1981a rotating exhibition at Oko (220 East 10th Street, East Village, Manhattan), concludes with “Abstract Painting on Blue Velvet” (1980), which will be on view through March 30.

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Thomas Micchelli

Thomas Micchelli is an artist, writer, and co-editor of Hyperallergic Weekend.

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