Summer Exhibition

Museum Boymans-Van Beuningen

If Julian Schnabel represents real America, then it is Anselm Kiefer who represents real Europe—this was the impression given in this show, where the two were exhibited opposite each other.

Schnabel’s work confuses. One is reminded of the shock when, 20 years ago, Robert Rauschenberg slashed into the self-assured esthetics of the time. Junk and kitsch, all kinds of objects, umbrellas, car reflectors, lace, strip cartoons, van Gogh reproductions—all went to make the controlled explosion Rauschenberg created in his antiart. The floods of paint, the broadening circles of dripping color, were inescapable by followers of art; the question never seemed to arise as to whether or not this was good art. Similarly with Schnabel.

Schnabel prods awake the conscience amidst the mass of current painting. The medium is experiencing a revival of appreciation; Schnabel shows that this resurgence need not be stagnant or tied to tradition. His work evinces beauty, youth, and above all a courage to explore new ground.

But what is the fascination of a composition in blue, a quickly executed picture dotted with bits of a broken plate? How does one construe a painting equipped with antlers and other extrusions? How does one take in an attractive young deer prancing on a velvet background? Is it just kitsch?

Such questions do not arise for Schnabel himself. “Those plates,” he says in an interview in the Dutch magazine NRC, “were certainly not essential. Actually they make no difference, I used them then just like I use velvet now. It doesn’t matter if you make a painting red or blue. I don’t necessarily have to paint figuratively. Something abstract does not have to be abstract.”

One of Schnabel’s paintings consists of yellowish-white right-angled forms on a red velvet background, surrounded by a heavy frame. Abstract painting (from a huge wall symbolizing Fate’s inaccessibility), 1980, reminds one of Alexander Rodchenko’s The Dissolving of Surface, 1920. Schnabel says: “Everyone and everything influences me. Everything can be traced back to memories. A poem influences me, or an abstract painting or a sculpture, or something I have never seen. All the information is stored in a catalogue that I work from.”

Schnabel’s work is popular because it is vital, artistic, and kitschy. Vitality is suggested in the fragments of broken plates strewn over the canvas in huge sweeps; the work is artistic in its use of color, sometimes daubed on, but with a skillful use of the brush; the extravagant use of velvet, antlers, and such is kitsch. Schnabel’s work is as banal as Rauschenberg’s stuffed birds, wings, and everyday objects.

Like Schnabel, Kiefer is no painter in the pure sense. Sometimes his handling of paint is classic; he makes it look almost weathered, reminiscent of Rembrandt. But when he executes historical pieces, his paint is extremely thick and provocative, as is his version of German history and mythology. He dramatizes his art not only through his use of materials but also in his thematic substance. The German spirit-heroes of Valhalla are shown in a pantheon of heads that hardly conveys an impression of respect; it seems more like discourteous artistry, aimed at settling an old account. In Nothung! Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater (Beware! My father has promised me a sword), a sword is driven into the floor of a wooden cabin, while in Bilderstreit (Battle of the Paintings), a photo-painting worked up with sand, toy tanks battle on a palette-or tree-trunk-shaped whorl.

One sees here a striking contrast between the European Kiefer and the American Schnabel. Kiefer’s position is sanctioned in the past, while Schnabel is seeking out new directions. If the banality of the methods and techniques used in the conflict is not always pleasurable, the opposition remains fascinating.

Paul Groot

Translated from the Dutch by Michael Latcham.