Julian Schnabel

Julian Schnabel was just 30 years old when his relieflike paintings made him one of the most successful and controversial artists of his generation. Art is consciousness, the psychic manifestation of knowledge, Schnabel has said. In Basel—where his paintings were first shown in 1981—he has installed the “Recognitions” series in the Kunsthalle and his works on paper from the years 1975 to 1988 in the Museum für Gegenwartskunst.

Schnabel’s combination, or collage, works are still sensitive and seductive in their delicate use of color, the sensuality of their materials, and the liveliness of their forms. And their iconography still proves elusive. The artist’s working method is well-known—his open use of pathos, his theatrical attitude, his use of Christian and Jewish symbols. In Schnabel’s works, motifs function as optical fixation points—the gestural brushstrokes, the flecks of paint, the abstract forms. Organized almost hermeneutically in fragments, they resist every attempt at interpretation. In this way, Schnabel attains the muteness of Sigmar Polke’s work, articulating sensations that can be felt but not named. Instead of taking a conceptual and rational approach, he uses an atmospheric sensation as a symbol of an emotional state. His choice of materials and technique are always subordinate to this goal.

This discursive illegibility directs the viewer’s attention to the work’s emotional energies, to the pulsations of its various elements, and to a comprehension of the whole. Through layering and transformation, Schnabel changes the identity of the individual elements of the painting, yet their individuality is not sacrificed to a binding idea; rather, their differences exist next to, over, and with one another. Schnabel uses materials that carry with them social, autobiographical, and historical meaning. Thus, a sense of the past—one that is near or far, known or exotic, invented or appropriated—permeates the paintings. As in archeology, time and history are fragmented, comprehensible only in layers, because they extend beyond our consciousness.

In the “Recognitions” series—named after the novel by William Gaddis—a large white script dominates a bleached tarpaulin. Some of the script paintings monumentalize the novel’s chapter titles: “La Macule,” “Pope Clement of Rome,” or “Flaying the Unjust Judge.” Several cross-shaped paintings conjure up the time of the religious wars in Spain, with their inclusion of vestments, broken mirrors, and colors and forms that recall blood and destruction. As Thomas Kellein writes in the catalogue, these elements give an impression of the power and violence within religion that still exists today. Although Schnabel values the craziness and lack of articulation in Polke, the gravity of these paintings suggests that those qualities are absent in his own work.

Ingrid Rein

Translated from the German by Charles V. Miller.