Julian Schnabel

“It is, of course, a luxury to create art and, on top of this, to insist on expressing one’s own artistic opinion. Nothing is more luxurious than this. It is a game and a very good game, at least for me; one of the few games which make life, difficult and depressing as it is sometimes, a little more interesting.” (Max Beckmann, 1941).

For at least two reasons this statement can lead into a discussion of the work of Julian Schnabel: first, in its implicit assumption of a special discipline accorded to art; second, in the mixture of sincerity and self-satisfaction allowed the artist. This show indicates the problematic issue of a direct critical approach to Schnabel’s work for the same reasons. The difficulty lies in deciding what of the work is theatricality, and what an effective artistic vision.

What should first be noticed is the mature quietness of Schnabel’s latest paintings, which rearticulate the feeling of vastness in American art. These strange mental landscapes, in which Georgia O’Keeffe meets Jackson Pollock, show no more broken porcelain (even if that device is interesting), but rather a coherent image of space, of vastness. The return to the physicality of a natural place as indication of space in the paintings avoids the earlier work’s saturation with art-historical references, a saturation which also seems a determining factor in much of the work of the so-called trans-avantgarde.

In these paintings Schnabel does not refer to artistic iconography but tries to catch those uncanny instances when a person and the world confront each other in an indescribable moment. The indication of this moment in the works is both literary (in the strong use of titles) and iconic (in the intensified use of painterly effects, which overcome the subject matter). Painting is used both to obscure the literary element of the work, and to disclose the physicality of the painted canvas, which acquires the qualities of a glass—not a lens, but an extended surface in which opacity and transparency alternate, just as a wide-angle lens both expands and distorts a view.

The meaning of such an art today is ambiguous. If the painting is convincing to the viewer, the need that produces it is still the private inquiry of the artist. “Nothing is more luxurious than this.” Of course, Schnabel has the advantage of being American. The sociological structure that has been worked out for artists in America over the past thirty years enables him to stand alone. In addition, he no longer has to compete seriously, since the market will absorb without distinction anything he may produce, now that it has “labeled” him. Schnabel’s work could look European three years ago, when the focus was on European art; now, when European artists are busily establishing themselves in New York, it can easily become American.

The point is, however, that his work is not regressing, caught though it is in this mechanical process, but seems more at ease and continues to improve. Once out of competition, Schnabel does better as a “good artist” than as the monstre sacré he incarnated some years ago. His work now looks neither Modern nor traditional, innovative nor trivial, but seems the result of a serious concern with painting, touching all levels of it in an effective personal way. It no longer constitutes an insistent attempt on Schnabel’s part to distinguish himself and his work from the historic and esthetic context of our time, but runs for pleasure, like a horse free in the woods. Here Beckmann’s quotation finds its full meaning.

Denys Zacharopoulos