New Julian Schnabel Show: Portraits and Crockery

It is with decidedly mixed feelings that I return to the work of Julian Schnabel, whose so-called Plate Paintings are currently the subject of a mini-retrospective at the Pace Wildenstein gallery. In my experience, anyway, writing about Mr. Schnabel always brings some variety of opprobrium in its wake. When, nearly 20 years ago, I wrote in The New York Times that some of his pictures struck me as the visual equivalent of junk food, I was called–not for the first time, to be sure–a hopeless reactionary. And when, on another occasion, I praised one of Mr. Schnabel’s paintings–the plateless Death Takes a Holiday –I was denounced for selling out to the dealers. Thanks to some very clever marketing, Mr. Schnabel had emerged in the early 1980’s as an enfant terrible about whom there could be no neutral opinions.

It wasn’t news to me, of course, that in the highly volatile, big-stakes world of the contemporary art scene there is always a certain measure of paranoia and envy to be exploited for promotional purposes. Even so, opinions about Mr. Schnabel could be counted on to elicit stronger reactions than was commonly the case with the newly minted reputations of the early 80’s. People didn’t just disagree about Mr. Schnabel’s work. They were either enraged at the very mention of it or else they made extravagant claims for it. This created an atmosphere, to which I seem to have made my own modest contribution, in which every knock was a boost. As a result, Mr. Schnabel was an overnight “success.”

For latecomers to this art-world soap opera, the double exhibition that Pace Wildenstein has mounted at both its uptown and downtown galleries in Julian Schnabel: Plate Paintings 1978-1997 offers an opportunity to catch up on what some of the fuss was about, while for the rest of us it is an occasion for recollection and reassessment. There is a certain disjunction, however, to be observed between the uptown and downtown sections of this exhibition. The uptown section is entirely devoted to Mr. Schnabel’s portraits, which, despite their relief-like surfaces of broken plates, are his most conventional pictures. It is in the downtown section of the show that we are offered a mini-retrospective of the large-scale plate paintings, which remain the artist’s most ambitious work.

Looking at Mr. Schnabel’s portraits the other day, I was suddenly reminded of an artist–the Italian painter Giovanni Boldini (1842-1931)–who is nowadays pretty much forgotten but who in his own day was, like Mr. Schnabel himself, an immense success in the world of money and fashion. Boldini’s forte was a flashy vulgarity that lent an aura of specious glamour to everything he put his hand to. Were his work to be revived today, chances are it would once again be a smashing success. For he was not without talent. But it was a talent for the histrionic, for the kind of coup de théâtre that is so dazzling in its superficiality that it makes the real thing look for the moment sort of laborious and unnecessary.

Mr. Schnabel is not without talent as a portraitist, either. That he paints on surfaces covered with broken plates and other bits of smashed crockery is not, in my view, an endearing practice, but it doesn’t seem to inhibit the artist’s ability to capture a reasonable likeness, and the result is rather more interesting than the large-scale plate paintings. For pictures of this persuasion require a recognizable subject if they are not to be experienced as mere accretions of distressed physical objects, and Mr. Schnabel has always had trouble coming up with subjects that lend themselves to large-scale pictures.

In the downtown section of the show at Pace Wildenstein, the picture called The Sea (1981) almost succeeds in this regard, but the artist ruins it by attaching a large piece of charred driftwood to an already overloaded composition. The Sea is really an overscale conventional seascape to which an overabundance of smashed crockery has been added, and then the driftwood added to the crockery. Is some sort of allegory intended? I hope not, for that would make the picture even more conventional than it already is.

In the portraits, however, Mr. Schnabel not only knows what his subjects are, but takes a keen interest in them. This places a distinct limit on the liberties the artist allows himself in depicting his subjects. If the broken plates often come across as an unnecessary affectation–well, as an affectation it is no worse, really, than Boldini’s swashbuckling bravura brushwork. It is, in fact, a Neo-Expressionist version of academic bravura, which was Boldini’s specialty. I would be very surprised if the portrait commissions didn’t come rolling in now that the public has been given this new show. They are, you might say, a perfect correlative to the current economic boom.

So, for that matter, is Mr. Schnabel’s entire career, which, as a historical phenomenon, is far more interesting than any single work he has yet created. Since his first exhibition in 1976, he has had more than 100 solo shows, which must set some kind of record, even for a period in which so many reputations have been inflated. Yet he has still to prove whether as a painter–minus the crockery, that is–he has anything significant to offer us. We live in strange times.

Julian Schnabel: Plate Paintings 1978-1997 remains on view at Pace Wildenstein gallery uptown, 32 East 57th Street, and downtown, 142 Greene Street, through June 5.