New York

Julian Schnabel

Pace/MacGill Gallery

Is there such a thing as a hyped art object—not hype about art, but an object that is inherently exaggerated? Can the spirit of hype invade the art-making process itself? Etymologically, “hyperbole” alludes to excess, to overshooting the mark; we begin to doubt the claims made for an art when we no longer know what mark it means to hit, when the postures it strikes seem purely rhetorical. Julian Schnabel’s new sculptures in the inaugural show at The Pace Gallery’s Greene Street space perfectly exemplify this condition; they have internalized several important characteristics of hype understood as a general condition—as the decadent atmosphere in which art exists today.

Spectacular size, intended to overwhelm the spectator, obscures the point of the work, or rather, becomes its major point; we begin and end our perception of the sculpture with its grandeur. At the same time, Schnabel’s calculatedly faux primitivist manner—overtly signalled by the incorporation of a bronzed African sculpture into one of his pieces—simply contributes to the hyperbole of the spectacle. This gesture of appropriation beautifully bespeaks the post-Modernist way of “realizing” an artistic identity: take a symbol of the vital Modernist past, embalm it ,and then introject it wholesale. Schnabel typically has this quasi-Gargantuan approach to being himself. He swallows whatever is in sight; it disappears into his insatiable maw and reappears as a pile of bones. This is part of what it means to be rhetorical—to traffic in dead ideas.

The question we must put to Schnabel’s sculpture is whether its inflation exists for a general impressiveness—which would make it expressively defective, a “vice of manner,” to borrow T. S. Eliot’s phrase, or whether it is done for a particular emotional effect, that is, to embody a feeling, and in doing so to work it through. I think that Schnabel’s sculpture is essentially a matter of the former rather than the latter. Schnabel simulates feeling generally. His grandeur would be viable if it were the expressive correlative of a specific feeling—if it served rhetorically as a giant magnifying glass, focusing the feeling until it became excruciatingly intense. Instead his work is filled with pseudo-pathos, or at best stilted pathos—the sense of pathos almost automatically generated by the archaic/archaeological look. This is perhaps why his archaicizing—his attempt to convey a sense of intransigent primary feeling—seems disingenuous. His sculptures are the false idols of a faux savagery—the end of the line that began with Paul Gauguin.

For me, the best of Schnabel’s sculptures are four quasi-columnar, atmospherically painted abstract pieces, in a sense reprising his Rest, 1982, a work in which Schnabel brings both strength and tenderness together. The pieces incorporating objects are, on the contrary, at once bombastic and bathetic—forcing feeling rather than regulating it. Some of the crumbling, “ruin” sculptures, which look as though a whirlwind had destroyed them and piled up the pieces, do communicate a sense of primary destructiveness. Indeed, Schnabel seems to waver between forced nostalgia—as in the work incorporating a merry-go-round horse (Gauguin’s hobbyhorse redivivus, or, rather, stylized into a stereotype?)—and unforced, even facile destructiveness. Nostalgia is a rhetorical strategy, employed when there is no specific emotion being recovered from the past. It leaves us with the general effect of profundity, but no affective substance. I think that in these sculptures it is Schnabel’s dominant mode—a species of sentimentalism, rather than authentic feeling.

In a sense, the problem with Schnabel’s sculpture is its corporeality, which seems belabored. The bodiliness of Schnabel’s sculptures seems a pretentious affair, all too stylized—artificed—in its awkwardness. Indeed, clumsiness is no longer a sure sign of bodiliness. No doubt paradoxically, this is why they seem expressively vague, and as such expressive failures.

Schnabel’s problem with expressivity is not particular to him, but a problem of post-Modernism in general. His method is inherently rhetorical, for it involves the use of preexisting manners, which seem passé, overfamiliar, to generate a fresh sense of artistic value, and with that fresh expressivity. But its regressiveness may be its most important aspect, signaling that it is in fact about bankruptcy of feeling, the collapse of old artistic values, and the inability to create new ones. Rhetorical inflation of existing styles becomes a way of concealing a regressive attitude (it is, in effect, a symptom of the psychomoral crisis of Modern art as a whole). Post-Modernist rhetoric seems, ambiguously, to celebrate loss of authenticity, to obscure the loss by regression to old modes of authenticity, and to create a new artistic authenticity and expressivity out of the old modes. Schnabel’s sculpture bespeaks this ambiguity, this crisis of intention. However, its fantasy of regression is finally more about the failure of artistic intention and expressivity than it is about its regeneration under art-historical pressure.

Schnabel presents post-Modernist bankruptcy of purpose masquerading as post-Modernist abundance of means. The fact that Schnabel is typically at his best when he is being unsubtly destructive—his usual means of generating expressivity—indicates as much and suggests that his work, by and large, proposes no constructive values. In a sense, his quotation of the African sculpture is a destruction of it, an acknowledgment that it has lost value, just as the grossness of his painterly handling destroys more feelings than it evokes. Where art that is a sum of destructions—to borrow Picasso’s description of his own work—once constituted a new, expressively powerful transfiguration of values, it is now, in Schnabel’s sculpture, nothing but a pseudo-expressive, rhetorical display. It should be noted that the spectacular, if somewhat crowded, installation also amounts to a rhetorical strategy—another cynical manipulation of the spectator—that confirms the expressive problem the sculptures brilliantly exemplify. Indeed, Schnabel’s sculptures constitute brilliant failures, that is, brilliant articulations of failure of feeling, not of nerve.

Donald Kuspit