Julian Schnabel Navigation Drawingsby John Yau
Sperone Westwater January 8 – February 16, 2008
What aberration allows bad artists to make terrific films? Why is it that the clichés that make for turgid art become acceptable and engaging when they are translated into celluloid? I am thinking of Julian Schnabel and Jean Cocteau, who, besides being self-aggrandizing artists who have made interesting films (all of Schnabel’s films focus on a male hero who must overcome external and internal obstacles but ends up dying young narratives that seem of a piece with his histrionic painting style), also share a misguided obsession with Pablo Picasso. "I am as close to Picasso as you’re going to get in this fucking life," Schnabel once foolishly said (artistic necrophilia hardly seems like a noble goal), while Cocteau wanted to be the indispensable friend and confidante whose work Picasso would adore, praise, and promote (toadyism isn’t much of a virtue either). Not one to suffer fools lightly, Picasso, of course, gave Cocteau his comeuppance on numerous occasions, but, now dead for nearly thirty-five years, has been unable to rein in Schnabel’s rather unhealthy delusion, which has been enabled by many critics, among others.
Schnabel wasn’t always a dreadful artist, but he has always been a pretentious one. He has become abysmal because he believes that every mark he makes (or name he writes) is proof of his sincerity and genius. Early on in his career, he was an interesting artist whose blustery plate paintings were a welcome relief from the dry intellectual haughtiness of Joseph Kosuth, Carl Andre, and Frank Stella. But even as he was becoming famous, he was diving into the cornball. And, in this regard, I think that the art world has to take some responsibility. The reason I am saying this is because by the mid-1980s, Schnabel could do not wrong. I remember a well-known critic, now writing for the New York Times, espousing the widely held view that Schnabel was moving so fast that no one could keep up with him (and he definitely wasn’t the only artist of the eighties seen in this uncritical light). Perhaps that was the moment when critics declared their irrelevance, and self-indulgence had become a praiseworthy commodity.
In his exhibition of Navigation Drawings—some are already billing it a triumphant reentry into the art world—Schnabel recycles a strategy that has previously served him well, but which underscores the essential weakness of his work; he begins with a compelling but distracting found surface (he has previously used animal skins, velvet, corduroy, broken crockery, Kabuki theater backdrops) over which he applies the paint. The found surfaces help hide the fact that Schnabel, who likes to make big, sloppy strokes, has no feel for paint’s possibilities. It’s as if he is wearing boxing gloves and carrying a hammer when he picks up the brush. Paint on canvas and drawing on paper, not to mention conceptual rigor and curiosity, are not among this artist’s strong suits. He is good at other things, but not the basics.
For the Navigation Drawings, Schnabel painted in oil on nautical charts stamped “WARNING: NOT TO BE USED FOR NAVIGATION.” He often rotates the charts so that they are vertical, rather than horizontal, and then applies a few bands of paint with a wide brush. His repertoire of gestures is simple, easy, and without tension—vertical, horizontal, angled, a messy scrawl, a large hook-like form, variations on a looping spiral. Dominated by a reddish brown (the color of dried blood) and a deep violet, which, it seems, is the color of the pajamas he likes to wear in his studio and to his openings, Schnabel’s palette is dull, but this has been true since the beginning of his career.
In a number of the works, the artist responds to the configurations on the map. In “Yaquina Head to Columbia River” (2007), which he hasn’t rotated because its format is already vertical, the artist lays down a vertical brushstroke in the area of ocean, near enough the coastline to echo its jagged, upright edge. In at least five of the Navigation Drawings, the artist draws a cross with a paintbrush, dividing the map into quadrants. The play between the brushstrokes (figure) and maps (ground) is pedestrian at best, lazy at its worst. The marks were made by someone who is easily satisfied by everything he does. And that has been the problem since he began believing that he was the closet thing to Picasso, and many critics and curators were all-too-quick to agree with his inflated self-estimation.
In 1990, the artist made a large cycle of paintings on the wedge-like shapes of felucca sails, which he had obtained in Egypt. The viewer got to read the name of the singer and actress Jane Birkin over and over again, as if repetition were both a homage and a sign of the depth of his unrequited feelings. Schnabel’s obsession was apparently so momentous that it not only required repeating the singer’s name, but on a sail over twenty-five feet wide. These weren’t just rip-offs of Cy Twombly, they were vain misreadings of the older artist’s project, and this is certainly not the only example of the artist’s empty-headed narcissism that I could give. Now, in the Navigation Drawings, he has put a couple of brushstrokes on nautical maps. There is no investigation, and it shows. According to David Moos, who wrote the essay for the exhibition catalogue, some of the maps have “a personal significance for Schnabel.” The map of the “Hawai’ian Islands” means something because the artist “has often surfed there.” Is the viewer supposed to be impressed by this bit of biography? Just because everything is a sign doesn’t mean that every sign is significant.
There are more than three dozen works in the exhibition. As a genius, Schnabel knows that he can’t just make one or two drawings or paintings about something he believes in. He is compelled to make dozens, for any and all who will want a sign of his outstanding ability on one of their large walls (palpable proof of the owners’ incredible talent and privilege) so they can bathe in the mushy munificence of its glorious light.