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Julian Schnabel
Richard Olsen, ed.
Julian Schnabel & Richard Pandiscio, co-designers
New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 2003.
$75.00, 370 pages, ISBN O-8103-4633-5.

Eliane Elmaleh
Université du Maine

Julian Schnabel came to prominence in the 1980s as a leading figure in what came to be known as “neo-expressionism.” He has become most famous for painting on broken plates and crockery applied onto vast wooden armatures, which reinforced the belief that art could be lifted out of its supposed doldrums. Since then, his paintings, works on paper and sculptures have been the subject of major retrospectives in the US and abroad, and his art can be found in the collections of key museums all over the world. A contentious figure whose art no longer occupies center-stage, he is also known as the successful filmmaker who directed Basquiat and Before Night Falls (about gay Cuban writer Reynaldo Arenas) which brought him back into the spotlight. However, Julian Schnabel makes clear that the artist has been painting (and even sculpting) since the 1980s with unflagging energy. That may have been the reason why he co-designed this mammoth book of his art that dispenses with commentary except for his own introduction; even the titles of his works are relegated at the end to the illustrated index, which lists them but does not give any details about the media used.

The front cover shows one of his Big Girl Paintings (Large Girl with no Eye, 2001, 162x148 inches), a choice which is emblematic of what could be called a “Schnabel-scale.” This traditional painting of a blond girl in a blue dress bears a gag-like line across the eyes that demolishes the notion of a figurative painting. The absence of eyes, which have been painted over or never been painted at all, acts as a warning in the way the reader is to “see” the catalogue. The artist, from the very beginning, plays with the well-known opposition between appearance and reality, notions that he constructs and deconstructs by turns, as though he wanted to impose a double language. This is emphasized by the titles of his works that are, for many of them “Untitled,” but are paradoxically given sub-titles between brackets, such as Untitled (Indian), 2002 [p. 330] or Untitled (Girl with No Eyes), 2001 [p. 310], which label them even better than a traditional title.

More than 300 full-color reproductions trace part of Schnabel’s output, spanning a career of more than 30 years, from the broken-plate paintings of the 1980s that brought him fame, to the recent Big Girl series (2002-03, average size 198 x 96 inches). The works are interspersed with photographs of the artist, his family, off-camera moments of Before Night Falls and pages of his notebooks whose contents are as inconsistent as shopping lists. Schnabel’s favorite themes are: the persistent reference to Catholic ritual (Saint Sebastian, 1979 [p. 11], Saint Francis in Ecstasy, 1981 [p. 21]); the phallic imagery (Act of Faith,1981 [pp. 22-23], Milton, 1882 [pp. 32-33]); his wife, Olatz, and his family, who also occupy a major place in the works presented in the catalogue (Portrait of My Daughter, 1982 [p. 38], Portrait of Lola Schnabel, 1946, [p. 96]). The reader (perhaps “spectator” is the better word as there is so little to read) is also reminded of his frequent use of the plate surfaces for large-scale portraiture, mostly of his family, friends and personalities in the art world (William Gaddis, Elton John, Jane Birkin among others). So, this presentation is entirely devoted to Schnabel’s art per se, and the absence of text is emphasized by the limited space granted to the “Selected Exhibition History,” the “Selected Bibliography” and the “Artwork Index” at the end.

This book makes it evident that Schnabel has deliberately courted a “bad painting” style of bravura brushwork, garish colors, inept caricatures and non-hierarchical pastiches of other art styles. A reaction against fine arts and “good painting,” the works presented are emblematic of the trend he has tried to represent, because they can be but essentially conceptual in their iconoclastic intent. The references, often found in popular culture, with direct, non-intellectualized images, are sometimes translated into a figurative, even narrative, style. Influences are claimed and exhibited, as well as the various materials that are deliberately heterogeneous and unconventional. Clashing of colors, styles, features seem to be, at least as much as the broken plate paintings and the scale, a Schnabel signature and one understands why he has often been dismissed as the ultimate charlatan who spurred debates about “artistic quality” and appropriate standards of “merit.” As a matter of fact, along with the attention Schnabel garnered for his paintings came a controversial stardom as he was considered more as a phenomenon than as a painter. The hype surrounding him occluded the importance of the work. Schnabel seems to have wanted to reverse the phenomenon by eschewing any critical apparatus, as this is the only book about him that shows his work in depth. Julian Schnabel is, like everything Schnabel does, a statement, a lavish, big production, a mix of reference points, a grandiose effort to make people see the world though his eyes.

In the “Artworks Index,” serial paintings are scrupulously numbered but they are not presented in a chronological order, as though Schnabel, faithful to his practices, wanted to confirm that eclectic is the norm. The presentation of the works does not correspond to some itemized classification; chronological, size or genre classification, nothing shows except a logic specific to the artist:

when I am painting, I start off doing one thing and understand why I am doing it, but then something crosses my path and changes the direction of it and this continues and I end up doing something that I never expected to do. [p. 8]

Each title is accompanied with a reproduction 1/100 of its actual size and this presentation gives an overall view of the catalogue, all the more so as the reproductions are in direct proportion to one another; the reader can realize the huge scale of a great number of his paintings that can reach 264x264 inches. This original presentation that comprises 20 of the 370 pages of the book, makes up a sort of parallel catalogue, the only concession Schnabel has made to enable the readers to have a better understanding of his art.

Schnabel’s intense, large-scale works, speak for a renewed belief in the power and possibility of painting. They sometimes have a strength that recalls the confidence of Abstract Expressionism. Schnabel has created an art of excess and this is mirrored in this monumental catalogue. The quality of the reproductions, the unrestricted place they have been granted, the originality of the process, all combine to recommend Julian Schnabel for all Contemporary Art collections.



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