Julian Schnabel: A Light That Failed – Edward Lucie-Smith

JULIAN SCHNABEL – A light that failed

Julian Schnabel currently occupies an ambiguous position in the art world, which his new solo exhibition at Pace is likely to do little to clarify.

He is undoubtedly famous – but famous for what?

Schnabel was born in Brooklyn in 1951 but made his first impact on the American art world while still a student, working for a B.F.A. degree at the University of Houston. When I made a visit to Houston in 1980, the local art world was still reverberating with tales of his ambition and self-confident grandiosity. By that time, he had already left again for the brighter lights of his native New York. He made a major breakthrough with a solo show in 1979 at the Mary Boone Gallery, where everything was sold in advance. The next year he participated in the Venice Biennale, side by side with German Neo-Expressionist grandees Anselm Kiefer and George Baselitz. In 1981 he was the youngest artist included in the Royal Academy’s epoch-defining survey show A New Spirit in Painting, one of six Americans included. This was interesting in more than one way: the big show at the R.A. seemed to mark a return to traditional forms of expression, and to figurative art in particular, as opposed to the upsurge of Minimal and Conceptualist modes.

Julian Schnabel
Julian Schnabel The Dairy London 2014 © P C Robinson Artlyst 2014

That year I happened to be once more in the United States, and I paid a visit to the Long Island estate of Alfonso Ossorio, a wealthy Filipino gay man who was both a major collector and also a well-known artist linked to, but not quite firmly part of, the Abstract Expressionist movement. Ossorio made a particular speciality of assemblages inspired by the work of Jean Dubuffet – shells, bones, driftwood, nails, dolls’ eyes, cabinet knobs, dice, costume jewellery etc. attached to a panel surface.

Shortly before my own visit, Schnabel had made a kind of state visit to Ossorio, which left the latter purring with feline delight. At that time Schnabel was known most of all for his so-called ‘plate paintings’, where fragments of crockery were attached to the whole of the surfaces on which the paintings were made. He seemed to feel that this gave him a definite affinity with Ossorio’s own method of production. “So I asked him,” Ossorio told me, “what method he used to stick to the plates down. And when he told me how he did it – I thought to myself ‘well, it’s all going to fall off.’”

Indeed, when I went back to the city, I began to hear rumours of technical problems with Schnabel’s paintings – of restorers’ studios cluttered with deciduous Schnabels.

Looking back, this now seems like a metaphor for what has happened to Schnabel’s once mighty reputation as an artist, though he has compensated by making a substantial reputation as a film-maker. One can make an ironic comparison with the fate that has befallen the work of a New York artist from the next generation down, Jean Michel Basquiat (1960-1988). Basquiat died untimely of a drug overdose, after an extremely brief career which coincided almost exactly with Schnabel’s moment of glory. As a film-maker, Schnabel then made a major contribution to the rise of Basquiat’s posthumous reputation with a biopic released in 1996. Now Basquiat’s work at auction sells in major millions of dollars. I wonder, however, if Pace will be able to find a market for Schnabel’s current work that is in any way comparable? The show seems like an attempt to revive a reputation – a reputation as an artist, rather than a more stable one for other things, such is film-making – which is now in terminal decline.

Julian Schnabel
Julian Schnabel May  2017 From The re-use of 2017 by 2018. The re-use of Christmas, birthdays. The re-use of a joke. The re-use of air and water. Pace London

The show at Pace advertises itself as the first held in London for a long time. This is not quite true. There was a major show at the Dairy Centre in Wakefield Street in 2014. Time Out reviewed it kindly, saying “[Schnabel’s] monumental self-belief is leavened by glimpses of self-awareness and humour. Imagining how these new works will wind up his po-faced detractors only adds to the fun.”

I wish I could say as much here. The Pace show is dedicated to the idea of ‘re-use’. The full title is:
“The re-use of 2017 by 2018. The re-use of Christmas, birthdays. The re-use of a joke. The re-use of air and water”:

It consists, we are told, of “12 new paintings that originate from 18th-century calendar prints discovered by the artist in a second-hand store in New York City. The gallery enlarged the original calendar prints’ pastoral scenes. Schnabel paints on them, establishing a new picture without losing the first and emphasising the constant multiplicity of vision.”

The ‘painting’ bit consists of some suitably large-scale black scribbles on a fading-away coloured surface which is – yes – a faithful enlargement of the original print. In other words, this is appropriation art at its dreariest. Forgive me while I yawn.

Words/Top Photo: Edward Lucie-Smith © Artlyst 2018

Pace London Until 22 June

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