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julian schnabel, the bouguereau of the 21st century

Post #210 • February 10, 2004, 6:09 AM • 5 Comments

Yesterday, ArtsJournal linked to a Financial Times article about a Julian Schnabel career review in Germany. (AJ aptly put the story in its People section, rather than Visual Arts.) Jackie Wullschlager writes, apparently without irony:

As I leave Frankfurt's banking quarter and step into the Schirn Kunsthalle's vast white rooms layered with densely coloured, bitingly textured surfaces - antlers and broken plates seem to leap off walls - Schnabel stands before a white canvas scrawled in red with the word "Olatz", and declaims to a rapt television crew.

Leap off walls is exactly what some of those plates were doing not long after they were grouted to what may be the most bombastic paintings of the 20th Century. She can't possibly have said that by accident. Could she? She quotes Robert Hughes describing the cascading crockery. Ah, look! My copy of Nothing if not Critical is at hand. Quoth the master, writing in 1987:

The unexamined life, said Socrates, is not worth living. The memoirs of Julian Schnabel, such as they are, remind one that the converse is also true. The unlived life is not worth examining.


His aesthetic responses are remarkably meager. Most of the time, art is a pretext for striking attitudes. Looking at a Vermeer "is like when you go to the movies and the lights go out and you become invisible before the film goes on. ... This affords you the luxury of dying with a grin on your face."

What do you mean, you? Seventeen years later, here's Schnabel frothing away at Wullschlager about his paintings:

There's a lot of joy in the work, in the sense that when you go surfing, the idea of taking off on a wave and jumping out of it, you start to turn into it and the wave flows out over you. You forget everything about anything except being in the present moment. I'm 52 now, I'm sitting in the water looking out at the beach - and it's the same view as 25 years ago. You feel the same way, maybe not as resilient or agile, but you're breathing the salt air and everything is the same. It's why you stay young. I guess I remained relatively infantile in a sense. Take out 'in a sense' - yeah, infantile, like a baby. The idea that you can do what you'd like to do - there's a lot of freedom in that.

Hm? Oh, I must have dozed off there for a moment. At any rate, I read somewhere that Tom Wolfe once proclaimed that Picasso was going to be the Bouguereau of the 21st Century, but later suspected that the powers that be in the art world were going to prevent that from happening. If Picasso's out, I nominate Schnabel to take his place. Bouguereaus and Schnabels both operate out of a stale mythology. In the latter's case, it is a mythology about his own greatness.

Hughes opened that 1987 piece with a story about how he extracted himself from an early draft of Schnabel's memoirs; he appeared there in the form of one Robbie Huge, a fat writer for Space magazine (that's Space - not Time, Space) who propositions him with a request to tie him up. Hughes proceeded to clobber his writing and his art. Sean O'Hagan, interviewing Schnabel for the Guardian late last year, asked him about it. Have bygones become bygones? Alas, the bigger the ego, the bigger the bruise:

'It was a joke,' says Schnabel now of the passage that so enraged Hughes [although to me, Hughes merely seemed puzzled - F.], 'and it just shows what a fascistic pig he was to take on somebody's work just because he had a friend at Random House. For a writer to do that to somebody else's writing, I'd say he crossed a few boundaries there. And then to use it and turn it into something for himself. I'd say he doesn't have too many scruples. I've seen him around and he looks miserable,' he shrugs, 'but I got to say, The Fatal Shore is a good book, and he's a good writer. Let's all be judged by our works, and that's fine with me.'

Fine by me, too. Every Schnabel canvas I've seen is a seven-foot-plus affair with a square foot of inspiration in it. Powerful mechanisms hold him in the art world pantheon for the time being. But I expect to see the day when his reputation tumbles once and for all, as if it had come unglued from the surface to which it was adhered.




February 10, 2004, 7:03 PM

Schnabel is a like a bad joke told by a drunk who won't shut up. I saw a couple of his grotesquely overblown monstrosities at recent art fairs, and they had "white elephant" written all over them. The dealers should have been embarrassed, but I guess they were just trying to unload the stuff on some clueless dupe with deep pockets.

There's also the fat new Schnabel book, which just goes to show that just about anybody can get an art book published (including Beatle Paul McCartney, not to mention Diane Keaton's book on clown paintings). The Schnabel tome is painful to flip through; it's like being hit by gusts of hot, fetid air.

Then there's Schnabel himself, who should really legally change his name to Hubris. It is far too generous to compare him to Bougereau, a virtuoso of technique whose brushes Schnabel would be unfit to rinse. However cloying and artificial Bougereau's work may be, he had immense skill and a certain sentimental charm; all Schnabel can offer is bloated, obnoxious, empty posturing.



February 11, 2004, 7:17 AM

The comments on this site have been a little screwy lately. To wit:

1. The host server has been slow for the last couple of days. But please, just click the Post button once. Otherwise duplicate posts go up, and nobody wants that.

2. Permissions got messed up on the Julian Schnabel post - this one - and you may have been prevented from posting comments here for a couple of hours. If you don't know what permissions are, just stick a fork in your head and imagine an equivalent in the realm of computer programming. This problem has been fixed, although not prettily, nor with any great understanding on my part.

Sorry for the inconvenience.



February 12, 2004, 3:27 PM

you can certainly hold the guy's hubris against him, but i don't believe you can hold it against his work - surely some of the artists you would consider great were guilty of it. also, i believe a square foot's worth of inspiration (properly deployed) can be enough to energize a huge canvas.

i have to confess that my exposure to schnabel's work is limited to one piece in the MOCAnomi permanent collection and the mini-documentary on the before night falls dvd, but i find his work to be lovely AND consistently inventive. i think history will forgive his hubris.


Troy Swain

February 13, 2004, 7:10 AM

A story about Schnabel:

An old professor of mine met him when he was in school. My professor said that he was the most driven young man he had ever met. He said that he was told that Schnabel would check out multiple slides from the slide library and then project two at a time on top of each other. He would do this for hours.

My professor said he could never stand his work, but he said he went to a small gallery retrospective relatively recently and realized that he's a really good colorist. The work may be dumb but the colors were nice.

Personally, I don't think his name will be as well remembered as Bouguereau's. I don't mind his paintings but they're pretty slight.

Btw, Tom Wolfe is a blowhard. All of his proclamations about art are wrong.



February 13, 2004, 9:36 PM

I don't reject Schnabel's work because he comes across like a jerk; I reject it because I think it's bad work. It's quite possible to be a lousy human being and still have great talent, just as being a wonderful person is no guarantee against inferior work.

I certainly find Schnabel's incredible ego offensive (not least because there's so little real basis for it), but the main problem is that the work strikes me as bombastic, pretentious, shallow, crude and desperately eager to impress despite severely limited means--basically, I don't respect it.

Generally speaking, my response to those with serious ego pathology (including people with greater talent than Schnabel, like Frank Lloyd Wright) goes something like this: Perfect, are you? Very well, then; I shall accept nothing but perfection from you.



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