New York

Julian Schnabel

Mary Boone Gallery | Uptown

Julian Schnabel is pursuing his sentimental education further into an area that might be called the miscegenated sublime. He is a Jew with a crush on Catholicism, a New York schoolboy with a crush on Europe. He is an academician whose academy is made up of potentially any major precedent, immediate or remote. Cimabue, Théodore Géricault, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer, Michael Tracy, and Robert Motherwell in particular were some of the many cameo presences sniffed or glimpsed in this show, but, as has been clear for some time now, Schnabel’s “cast” is as mutable as it is grand, assuring that his work must be considered not merely derivative but rather the product of a compulsive lechering after culture—culture in general, and any of its offspring strong enough to sound the loud gong.

This priapic state has long beset America’s offspring. Motherwell went to Europe in the ’30s to find Surrealism and a sense of mission among Frenchmen and Spaniards; he then joined many of them here, assuming the role of social and esthetic collating device in a newly internationalized New York. Archetypal relic: the “Elegies to the Spanish Republic.” Schnabel visited Europe in the ’70s to improve his English as well. Archetypal relic: his elegy to Blinky Palermo. Schnabel, however, if an academician of sorts, is not actually an academic, and he has not adopted Motherwell’s brand of intellectualizing summary. Indeed, after one of my visits to this, Schnabel’s most recent shrine to culture, I was left with the impression that I had witnessed a performance as heartwarmingly cracked as Tony Curtis playing the part of an early Christian.

In the show there were eight abstract or near-abstract paintings in oil on plywood, averaging about 10 by 5 feet. Of three smaller oil-wash paintings on maps of Europe, two were on view at any given time. (Both Motherwell and Beuys have painted or drawn over maps). One of these map paintings had a bachelorish, post-Edwardian frame; the other two were framed in cozy early Modern. There were also three huge combine pieces. (Motherwell: “I think that one of the major American contributions to Modern art is sheer size.”) Two of these were plate paintings. The third was a structure new to Schnabel: a weathered-looking wooden post-and-lintel supporting an ocher, marshy abstraction with a swathe of silver rimming most of its curved top. Titled Rest, this piece has the cosmetic aura of an icon that has suffered time. It is abstract in the way that the unrestored parts of damaged old paintings look abstract. It connotes New World sentiment about Old World experience. (Cimabue, Michael Tracy).

The plate paintings, one untitled, the other called The Raft, are very unequal. The Raft—whose title recalls Géricault’s great Romantic shipwreck scene, Raft of the Medusa—is painted over in silver and contains a thin, protruding branch, cast in bronze. Though the industrial shimmer of the silver offsets the enormity of the piece and the weight of its materials, it is far less articulated than Schnabel’s best plate paintings and less interesting than his “worst.” The untitled plate painting in this show is one of his best. It is a triptych, muddy-hued and sombre; in the center, larger panel, antelope horns are chained to a wooden cross, both cast in bronze. Like The Raft, this piece suggests a cruciform, and is designed like an altarpiece. The paint—brown, maroon, and blue—is mat and suggests the clammy, viscous consistency of barium. Only a few shards of crockery left unpainted in the center panel catch any light at all. The piece is, to say the least, Teutonic in feeling: Brunhilda chained to the vestige of some barbaric crusade. Yet for all its marrow-draining ugliness and oppressiveness, no fragment or particle is unaccounted for. A daub of paint at the base of the cross brings out a movement of maroon that slides across the panels, preserving the flicker of some atavistic and unpopulated narrative. A terra-cotta pot stands out among flatter dishes as a garden-variety reliquary of, say, a Nature otherwise obliterated. This piece, like many of Kiefer’s landscapes, is clearly intended to evoke a modern Carthage; as such it can be seen as a monumental bit of cultural ventriloquy.

The eight abstract or nearly abstract paintings are puzzling in that Schnabel’s own sense of them appears to be mixed. They are not at all “painterly” and look almost as though the result of dye transfer. Schnabel considers them as predelIe (the small, narrative scenes depicted at the bottom of medieval and Renaissance altarpieces), at once undermining their intriguing, nay, refreshing anonymity by reminding one of the eye-rolling conceit of which he is capable. It is unclear to which of the large works they serve as pendants; the untitled plate painting is clearly the “altarpiece,” but these paintings’ titles pertain more to The Raft. They can just about be read as the expanded story, in fact, of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa. A story that begins with The Act, a beautiful red painting with pale-blue lines, continues with increasing alarm to The Watch, a Rothko plus Reinhardt grid, climaxes with The Return from the Hospital, a complicated and quite resplendent saffron painting that includes the pentimenti of altered decisions and some disoriented Mediterranean/African images, and concludes with Euphora—an umber piece with images of a Nubian frond and an encased mummy. Even the African allusions loosely fit the scenario, since the Medusa was wrecked off the coast of Senegal. Though oddly tender, these paintings are also vague. What is clear, however, is that Schnabel continues to march after his army of heroes.

Lisa Liebmann