New York

Julian Schnabel, Lagunillas II, 2018, oil on found fabric, 11' 8“ × 14' 8”.

Julian Schnabel, Lagunillas II, 2018, oil on found fabric, 11' 8“ × 14' 8”.

Julian Schnabel

Art-historical accounts of the 1980s are dominated by the tale of two postmodernisms, which pits the critical rigor of Pictures artists against the fast-and-loose pluralism of neo-expressionists. In this morality play, Julian Schnabel has reliably borne the epithets of the archvillain. He is by turns the preening heel, the masculinist brute, or the avaricious avatar of the Reagan zeitgeist. There are stakes, then, in not allowing Schnabel’s persona—the pajamas, the real estate, even the films—to distract from taking a hard look at the paintings themselves, including those in his show “The Patch of Blue the Prisoner Calls the Sky” at Pace. If Schnabel’s actual achievement has been misconstrued, then the whole narrative framework in which he occupies such a crucial, contested role would also require reassessment. Therefore, a proposition: Since a gimcrack real-estate developer has now emerged from the morass of the 1980s to become, in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, the first white president, might that decade’s glitziest painter be the first white artist? That is, can we see in Schnabel’s work the eruption of a white identity politics?

The classic meditations on the “death of painting” by Yve-Alain Bois, Douglas Crimp, and Thomas Lawson all blamed the medium’s diminishing salience on commodification. The neo-expressionists’ insistence on painting’s viability was thus simply a cynical bid for financial gain. These arguments are powerful within their own blinkered logic, but what happens when we stop harping on market complicity and consider racial privilege instead? Schnabel’s signature strategy is to paint over ready-made surfaces, such as Kabuki theater screens, used boxing mats, or, in “The Patch of Blue,” weather-beaten cotton lonas that once hung over outdoor markets in Mexico. (His broken-crockery canvases were simulations of the same worn-in effect, like acid-washed denim.) To a striking degree, this imposition of bravura brushwork onto appropriated backdrops reproduces the situation described in the famous “Lordship and Bondage” passage of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, also known as the master-slave dialectic. The bondsman’s laboring body functions as a “ground,” providing the material support that enables the lord to conceive of himself as a self-sufficient “figure.” “These paintings represent the evidence of their own autonomy,” writes painter James Nares in the exhibition’s catalogue. Yet that autonomy openly rests on the backs of others.

Working through this vexed figure-ground relationship animates the experience of viewing Schnabel’s work. The paintings in “The Patch of Blue” call out for distinguishing between their surfaces’ inherited discolorations and Schnabel’s ensuing overlays of oil, ink, and gesso. Where does the brush respond to the fabric’s scuffs, tears, seams, and stains, and where does it run roughshod over them? From close study, a great irony emerges: However much Schnabel’s gestural strokes strain to evoke a lineage of Euro-American masters whose creative potency thrived off assimilation—Delacroix’s harems, Picasso’s primitives, Pollock’s totems—the overall compositions end up resembling the experiments of avant-garde artists who actively opposed that tradition. For instance, in a series of five untitled rectangular pieces, all 2019, the fabric’s stitching serves as a horizon line for biomorphic landscapes similar to the ones Max Ernst generated through the depersonalized operations of grattage, frottage, and found imagery. In Lagunillas II, 2018_, _a web of wavering red lines interacts with the faded impressions of tent poles and rope in a manner that recalls the play of chance and indexical tracings in Duchamp’s canvas Network of Stoppages, 1914. The work is arguably the finest in the exhibition, precisely because Schnabel does the least with it. The cotton’s palimpsest of anonymized labor is more compelling on its own.

To be absolutely clear, I am by no means attributing to Schnabel any of the virulence or vitriol apparent in the current occupant of the White House. If Schnabel deserves the title of first white artist, he earned it as a liberal who exemplifies liberalism’s hypocrisies—those claims to universality and free expression that depend on the disavowal of uneven power relations. Rather than reveling in the lucre of late capitalism, Schnabel is desperately trying to retain authority in a world he assumed was built for him. This desperation goes by many names; art critics have been calling it postmodernism.