Before Julian Schnabel became a successful Hollywood filmmaker, he was a painter—and remarkably, he still is. I say “remarkably” because only an artist with the obduracy of a Zen ox could withstand the art world pressure against doing more than one thing. Not only doing more than one thing, but doing it well. The Puritan allegiance that supports this notion in today’s so-called “advanced” culture is deplorable. Is Ai Weiwei a bad architect because he is a good photographer? In the case of Schnabel: Can he be a good filmmaker and still continue his career as a painter? By extension, we might ask: Are we still allowed to call Schnabel an artist? The ongoing examples of this blatantly hypocritical thinking are enormous. Envy and nearsightedness are rampant. It is similar to those who once thought a child could outperform Franz Kline or Cy Twombly. In fact, we are living through another revival of this sentiment, which translates as follows: Either you stay in your box or your investment value goes down.
After seeing a reasonably good exhibition at the Museo Correr, concurrent with the 54th Biennale di Venezia, titled Julian Schnabel: Permanently Becoming and the Architecture of Seeing, my deepest beliefs were confirmed. Schnabel is still an artist to be reckoned with, not because his work is avant-garde—a concept that disappeared as an aesthetic principle in the Western hemisphere in the late 1960s (only to be reclaimed by the Chinese in the late 1980s). The exhibition makes evident that Schnabel continues to make paintings that resonate with a force that opens doors and reclaims memories, qualities lost upon American critics absorbed in virtual angst and promotional subterfuge. Apparently, there are not many who share my enthusiasm or agree with my point of view, which in recent years fails to surprise me. For example, on the afternoon in mid-July that I visited Museo Correr, I was the only visitor there for a space of 45 minutes. Lucky me! I could focus on the work and not overhear inane and predictable comments, such as: “How much do you think that one costs?”
The exhibition, curated by Norman Rosenthal, was a selective survey of Schnabel’s work—all paintings except for a single sculpture—including three super-large tarpaulins in the opening gallery: a sweeping gestural work, “Anno Domini” (1990); a standing portrait of “Catherine Marie Ange” (1990); and another abstract gestural work, “Portrait of Rula” (2010). Scattered throughout the exhibition in no particular chronological order were relatively recent works where large splotches of paint are poured or brushed over a photographic image transferred to canvas. In “Untitled (Antonioni was Here)” from 2009, the ground of the painting is an enlarged color photo of a faded desert plateau with a single palm and an elephant rearing its trunk. The picture is turned sideways, possibly taken in the 1940s or ’50s. Over the image-ground and slightly off to one side, a large splotch of paint supports the hand-painted words addressed to Antonioni, as indicated in the parenthetical title. While the description doesn’t sound like much, the work itself is visually stunning, calling attention not only to the Italian filmmaker’s work from 1975, The Passenger, but also to an earlier “plate painting” by Schnabel from 1980 called “St. Francis in Ecstasy,” also included in the exhibition (but without an elephant).
Another series of appropriated imagery with hand-painted calligraphic marks are the intensely ironic paintings from 2010 using National Geographic maps, undoubtedly from the 1940s (preceding Israel), titled Palestine: The Bible Land. Here Schnabel creates chaos out of order as his marks suggest alternate roads over existing ones, further layering signs with signifiers and amplifying their freighted allegories. A larger work on canvas, “Untitled (di che pasta sei fatto)” from 2009, with the bold, hand-painted letters of PASTA over an appropriated scene from an old restaurant, continues the artist’s metaphorical engagement as he distills letters from Palestine to spell Pasta. Given the artist’s recent and controversial film, Miral (2010), which deals with a young Palestinian woman, the concluding works in this exhibition resonate with Schnabel’s process of sublimation as he attempts to reveal the tragic and comic elements of a Middle East conflict—two cultures living within the same space yet struggling to destroy one another, often mindlessly and without hope of resolution.
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.