New York

Julian Schnabel

Sperone Westwater

Now for some whopping exaggerations and reckless paradoxes: The abstractionist of Minimalist persuasion always paints the same picture; the abstractionist of Expressionist bent always paints a different one. The former works in a received world of agreed-on perfections; the latter swims in the wilder waters of intuition and guesswork. Expressionists lack a proscriptive list of desirables that might guarantee the credibility of their work. Is this why Julian Schnabel has embellished maritime maps in his new series “Navigation Drawings,” 2007? They chart, give direction, proscribe. Then again, maps, like Kabuki stage flats, kitchen linoleum, worn tarps, and pottery shards, have long been a staple of his drawings.

Some of the drawings are rendered on old Stanford maps, the kind that were hung from rollers on predigital schoolroom walls. Here, the maps have been pulled so far down as to reveal their buckram leads—which are also incorporated into the drawings, their formerly hidden gray-blue color now playing sky to the landscape/waterscape metaphor (inlets, soundings, fathoms, islands, coastlines, latitudes, longitudes). The maps depict esoteric places with sensational names: De Adra a Cabo de San Antonio y de Cabo Tres Forcas a Cabo IVI, Punta Eugenia to Cabo San Làzaro, Bahiá de Cádiz, Point Conception to Point Sur—sites spelled large in roman caps that add a free-associative weight to the paintings, like the newspaper fragments caught in the wax of Jasper Johns’s encaustics. Johns’s Maps are also a point of departure. But Johns is no Expressionist.

The purpose of Expressionist drawing is ambiguous. For the Classicist, drawing served as preparatory study for an ideal painting yet to come. For the Expressionist, drawing itself is the painting—one created sur le vif, generated by extemporaneous means that leap to mind and hand, be it pencil, brush, crayon, collage, found ground. The results may relate to a later image, be it perfect or imperfect. The Expressionist establishes anew the standards of judgment with each sortie. Other than one’s personal taste and conviction, there are no agreed-upon principles of aesthetic judgment in Expressionist art. I like. I don’t like. Schnabel is notoriously no stranger to intractable conviction. Still, the tracks of propulsive impulse can become models of taste and style—think van Gogh, Beckmann, Pollock; think Schnabel. The chestnut that Expressionists possess no editing consciousness is thus held in abeyance if not disproved. Who can tell?

Schnabel’s drawings retain the stamped warning NOT TO BE USED FOR NAVIGATION, itself a provocation, sparking motions and counter-motions, initiating the process of painting. The blank page is anathema to Schnabel; for the classicist, it is home plate. The topographic and typographic eccentricities of the nautical maps create a visual obstacle course, generating new shapes and patterns that the artist intuitively embraces or from which he shrinks, includes or eradicates, leaves intact or wipes away in his often dank palette. Schnabel’s discomfited touch has become an identifiable option in the repertory of the modern brushstroke; for many, it is the touch to be emulated. A certain post-Polke slacker touch, adopted by painters from Martin Kippenberger to Albert Oehlen, seems relevant to this disaffection, though Schnabel is as much a contributor to the mode as he is beneficiary. Similarly, American variants in the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat and George Condo easily come to mind, though in one way or another all, including Schnabel himself, hark back to Cy Twombly.

Schnabel has developed a peculiar stock of characteristic shapes: a toplike shape suggestive of a human figure; a tau formation, often obliterated at the juncture where the vertical element of the T meets the horizontal bar; simple crosses. (In a group of rather lighter works, these cross drawings feel like an exercise in ascetic restraint—a rare desire on the painter’s part to keep the work fresh and the touch light.) Akin to the crosses, there is also a passel of parallel strokes or bars. And certain strokes may be barbed or pointed, suggestive of the bailing-hook initial of the artist’s first name. Did I fail to mention that Expressionists always paint self-portraits?

Robert Pincus-Witten