“Must we learn again the simple, forthright experience of actually seeing a painting?” William Gaddis
“In the end, we cultural theorists are the coroners of history, writing our forensic reports on a marble slab table about a murder victim—painting.” Dr. Hope Ardizzone, Cultural Theorist/Author
One might arguably make the case, after viewing Julian Schnabel’s retrospective at The Brant Foundation Art Study Center, that he is the heir to Barnett Newman’s painterly legacy, for no artist since Newman has placed such importance and urgency on the act of painterly gesture. Possibly a stretch, though Schnabel has never shied away from the grand gesture or statement, but given (or despite) the expansiveness of Schnabel's thirty-year career he does come very close to Newman’s ideal of an Artist.
Newman believed that to create oneself through the process of making an object is an ethical act of decision making and passion. In 1947 he outlined this philosophical position in a short essay titled “The First Man Was an Artist.” Newman wrote that early Homo sapiens had become something more, something human, in this way, by asserting themselves not through the making of objects for use, but through the creation of objects for poetic, aesthetic expression, which he said was the purer, superior act. Through this secondary approach to creating objects, Newman argued that one became “formed,” differentiated from others, feeling a sense of purpose in the world. “Man’s hand,” he said, “traced the stick through the mud to make a line before he learned to throw the stick as a javelin.” It is therefore more human, (in Newman’s language “superior”), to draw a line in aesthetic wonder, as it demonstrates Man’s tragic separateness from others in the world through so doing. “In conclusion,” he said, “we must get back to the true nature of painting to understand that it involves thought, that it is the expression of intellectual content.”
In 1947 these ideals held a sense of urgency, a sense for which it is virtually impossible to find an equivalent in today’s art world. In the second half of the twentieth century—the age of Pop, New Realism, Minimalism, Post-Modernism, Gutai, Arte Povera, etc.—few artists pursued Newman's edicts about the primacy of Idea and Action into Mark as the sine qua non of pure painting. Newman called his marks—his vertical lines—“zips,” giving them a new word in the vocabulary of painting; he felt the act was that important. It is reasonable to argue that, though he hasn’t come up with any special name for his mark making, like Newman, Schnabel considers the act of applying paint to surface an act of primal urgency and importance.
Schnabel's career began in the late seventies when he was propelled to notoriety by his broken plate paintings—a series of large-scale works that involved broken ceramic dishes set into a tessellated canvas. When they debuted at the Mary Boone Gallery in 1979, the paintings sold out even before the exhibition’s opening night. That is pretty much the way that Schnabel’s apochryphal biography typically begins, continuing on to filmmaking, photography, interior decorating, etc., etc. It is perhaps a less cynical way of seeing Schnabel’s work to remember that the pieces at his first show at Boone were simple, usually monochrome, gestural paintings on old dropcloths, such as Portrait of God (1981) and The Mutant King (1981). The connection to Newman is not as specious as one might initially think. Around the time he painted these last two works, he visited Annalee Newman’s apartment in New York. He said of this visit, “There were some inspired Newman paintings there. They weren’t beautiful in the sense of luscious, masterfully painted incidents. Their beauty was a trace of an investigation into a musical analog…they were a palimpsest, a collection of signals that triggered an emotional and intellectual vision that resides in and outside of painting.”
The best examples of his work in this retrospective are his Olatz series from the early nineties, with the name of his wife written in blobs of white; the Big Girl (2001) paintings, all featuring a girl blinded by a horizontal mark; and Rebirth I: (The Last View of Camiliano Cien Fuegos) (1986), picturing a pair of disembodied eyes peering out of abstract forms on a Kabuki backdrop of cherry blossoms and a summer sky. In these pieces, as well as his others, he distances us from his subjects through his paint; he instead draws attention to the act of the painter, and by extension to the importance of the painter, causing the subject to recede before us. We approach what we don’t immediately recognize or understand and use our own primitive tools and methods to apprehend and understand. Others have adopted similar strategies: Basquiat, Baselitz, and Keifer come to mind. We find, however, that when it comes to painting, Schnabel has gone so off-book when it comes to making a painting that these artists seem like rigid formalists by comparison.
The paradox of Schnabel, wrote Raphael Rubinstein in Art in America in 2011, "is to be at once highly visible as a cultural figure and deeply invisible as a painter.” It is in paintings like Accatone (1978) where we can see the presence of Schnabel the painter disappearing and the painting taking on a life of its own. The hastily sketched, decapitated, and dismembered figure on a Corinthian plinth struggles against a field of red, worked wax—a signature ground for early Schnabel, which has a small ledge cut into the ground, giving it a haptic sense of dimensional space. This simple, yet rich, image helped usher in a new school of painting in the late seventies (Bad Painting, typified by Neil Jenney, Lois Lane, or Susan Rothenberg) and harkens back to that first artist drawing buffalo and horses on some cave wall. Through oil, wax, and plaster Schnabel has fashioned a man, inscribed in a state complete immobility, unified by the multiplicity of its own possible variations. One is left to complete the picture, to fill in the gaps, not sure if it is a man contemplating the infinite space around him or an entirely new creature altogether.
For Schnabel, it is probably harder to arrive at that pre-lapsarian condition of painting than we might imagine. It is the condition of our times that irony, deconstruction, and appropriation feel more like our natural state than the sincere gesture of painting a figure and giving it grounding in space. For all the overblown dialog of Schnabel as celebrity artist, when encountering works like Accatone, one finds an artist capable of rendering art of a very high order indeed, one of empathy, form, and space. - Bradley Rubenstein
The Brant Foundation Art Study Center is at 941 North Street, Greenwich, CT 06831.
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.