New York

Julian Schnabel

PACE | 534 West 25th Street

As usual, Julian Schnabel begins with a readymade “found” practico-inert canvas, here Kabuki theater backdrops. It is important for Schnabel that the canvas be used and discarded, worn out; with his prepared canvases of broken crockery, the sense of abandonment is simulated. On these vulgarly picturesque, used and abused canvases, Schnabel starts from scratch, painting in a style that might be called profligate grandeur, with vigorous, abrupt gestures that seem to reawaken life—with an energy as peculiarly picturesque and extravagant in its own right as that of the canvas. A reciprocity is established between the dead canvas’ artificial scene and the seemingly natural live strokes—between the “grand gesture” and the heroically scaled spectacle of a canvas. It is as though Schnabel wants to make good an “art” that has gone bad—that was never much good in the first place.

Strange, grotesque, and hallucinatory effects result. The works are full of staged “panic,” in the sense in which that term implies a regression to what the god Pan stands for. In Rebirth I: (The Last View of Camilliano Cien Fuegos), 1986, the placement of the painted eyes turns the many-rooted tree trunks into claws. In general, the visionary emerges from the banal, that is, the scene is turned into its “obscene.” In Eulalio Epiclantos After Seeing St. Jean Vianney on the Plains of the Cure d’Ars, 1986, a mischievous “satyric” head emerges from the deserted plain, and eyes a nipple-tipped “nymphic” bush—signaling the sexual drama that is played on a grand symbolic scale in these works. In Stella and the Wooden Bird, 1986, a royal female child holds a monstrous (yet domesticated) mother figure on a golden chain—a creature that nourishes her and the world at large through its many fountainlike breasts. A bird—quickly sketched, to make it look all the more like a flash-in-the-pan vision—looks on, in what to me is a potentially predatory way. It is a disguised family portrait. Aggressive and aggressively articulated life symbols rebound from the dead—the fakely alive—backdrop, and play off against one another.

Schnabel’s determination to make something vital out of something dead—even if that means that death infects the vital, making it morbid—is perhaps most poignant in his straightforward landscape series titled “Rebirth,” especially Rebirth III: (The Red Box) painted after the death of Joseph Beuys, 1986. The painted landscape makes good use of flourishing white leaves (ambiguously dead and alive—spring blossoms and bleached white wintry leaves) in the pink (supposedly the color of baby flesh) backdrop. Death of a Mountain Guide, 1986, has the same death-in-life, life-in-death ambiguity.

Schnabel’s restlessness—the unsettled, unstable character of his images, the source of their irreality—indicates his “refinement” and remythologizing of a traditional grand vision of life and death. Both his manufactured signs and their improvisational handling are historically conditioned; they are traces of an “overlanguaged,” well-known history of art and meaning. Schnabel “finishes” them anew by making them seem unfinished, untold, as though an important narrative remained to be told, or as though the old narrative of the primitive struggle between life and death were still urgent. He is a poet retelling a nightmarish bedtime story we’ve heard innumerable times, but it always seems different in the retelling, because it touches new nerves with old primal anxiety and desire. Schnabel shows a touching courage in this belief, and great courage in writing large what is by definition intimate—turning the psychomoral allegory that is central to life, insofar as it has a traditional center, into a spectacle. It is to his credit that in doing so he avoids self-defeat, even though one sometimes feels the heroic ambition represented by his spectacular scale and adventurous manner exists more for its own sake than to overwhelm us with a common truth by making it seem insidious once again. His extroverted pictures in fact exist “ironically,” for they are risky, improvised introversions—uncertain steps taken into the underworld of connotation.

Donald Kuspit