It’s been more than 20 years since, inspired by a door in Barcelona, Julian Schnabel smashed a set of crockery and glued the pieces to a canvas, creating a group of paintings that became as integral to the 1980’s as Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings were to the 1950’s. From April 22 to June 5, a selection of these monumental paintings will be exhibited both uptown and downtown in Pace Wildenstein Gallery’s showrooms at East 57th Street and Greene Street.
“I was in Barcelona and I had rented a cheap hotel room and there was a closet that was a certain measurement that was an interesting size to me,” said Mr. Schnabel, who was in San Sebastian, Spain, working on the script for his next movie, Before Night Falls , an adaptation of the memoir of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas which begins shooting in Mexico on June 14. “So I took the measurements of the closet and that is what became the armature of The Patients and the Doctors .”
The double exhibition is the first time since 1986 that most of these pictures have been seen in New York. In addition to The Patients and the Doctors , an abstract painting which the artist still owns, the show includes The Sea (1981), The Mud in Mudanza (1982), The Raft (1962) and a number of more recent “plate portraits,” including a 1994 mixed-media work of Olatz and Cy, his wife and son, and 1997’s Portrait of Iman .
According to the artist, he and Arne Glimcher, the chairman of Pace Wildenstein, decided they wanted to show the plate paintings to the many young people who have never seen them except in reproductions. Is it also another case of the creeping nostalgia for the 1980’s that has suddenly made Deborah Harry a renascent pop sensation?
“I don’t feel any nostalgia for the 1980’s,” said Mr. Schnabel. “I don’t think the pictures are nostalgia. I think paintings are in the present whenever you see them. We are the ones who are changing constantly. Sometimes we see something; sometimes we are not ready to see it. There must be movies that you have seen at one time and didn’t get it and when you saw it later you thought, oh, I didn’t see that before.”
Mr. Schnabel was living in lower Manhattan and working as a chef at One University Place, a trendy boîte , when he took that trip to Barcelona in 1978 that led to the first plate paintings. Barcelona, with its many Antonio Gaudí monuments to broken tilework, could lead an artist to think about broken tilework. What differentiates Mr. Schnabel’s artwork from others similarly inspired is the sheer force of execution. At a time when the United States was coming out of the collective malaise of the late 1970’s, with double-digit inflation and lines at the gas station, Mr. Schnabel had produced paintings that were new, big, violent and messy.
“There was some need, some desperation that forced me to make those pictures,” Mr. Schnabel explained. “I think there was some kind of satisfaction I found in making them because of the dissonant quality that they had. I was always interested in the difference between pictoriality and objectness. I think these pictures have this extraordinary physical reality that make them objects and at the same time there is something pictorial about them.
“The paintings were also about distance. When you get up close to them they look like a big mess, which I like. And you see whatever–the physical parts of the picture. When you get back, they become pictures of something. The most old-fashioned kind of paintings have something to do with distance, a place where you are standing and the picture turns into something that’s a physical accumulation of a bunch of marks or another moment where you see the depth of field, a picture of something. I think that conflict–between pictoriality and objectness–is something that is very clear in those paintings.”
Their arrival at the Mary Boone Gallery and Leo Castelli Gallery in exhibitions in the early 1980’s kicked off the art boom of the 1980’s. The first ones were sold for $3,500. In a couple of years, they were selling for more than $100,000. In 1984, Mr. Schnabel left Mary Boone and joined the Pace Gallery stable of artists. Although he has never produced anything comparable to the early plate paintings, he has produced a body of consistently evolving art, and is generally regarded as the most successful artist of his generation. He is also a Hollywood player who has directed and produced Basquiat , a movie about the 1980’s art boom that successfully exploited the same brutish sentimentality that informs his paintings.
“I view making movies as crop rotation. It helps to keep the soil fresh to plant different things in it,” said Mr. Schnabel.
Friends of Henry Geldzahler
On April 11, friends of the late Henry Geldzahler gathered in Ashton Hawkins’ airy Central Park West apartment to talk about their friend. It’s been four years since the irrepressible art curator died of liver cancer at the age of 59. Earlier this year, the Estate Project for Artists With AIDS published “The Geldzahler Portfolio,” a series of 10 prints by leading artists which have been sold to raise money to help artists with AIDS organize their estates. For the most part, the artists were people Geldzahler helped nurture as a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Commissioner of Arts for the City of New York. Now, the prints–by Frank Stella, James Rosenquist, Louise Bourgeois, David Salle, David Hockney, Ellsworth Kelly, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Dennis Hopper and Francesco Clemente–are on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until Oct. 17.
“There was Stella and Rosenquist and Kelly standing in my front hall talking about Henry,” said Mr. Hawkins, the Met’s executive vice president and counsel to the trustees, after the party.
Recalled Mr. Rosenquist: “Henry’s position at the Metropolitan was really on a plateau because he wasn’t near or involved in any kind of commercialism, so he could be involved in happenings and move around with ease because no one expected anything of him financially or anything at all.
“He was sitting on cloud nine.”