Tuesday, 9 October 2007



The paintings of Julian Schnabel continue to be well publicised, perhaps less in public galleries than some of his contemporaries. Schnabel will probably remain ‘the broken-plate guy’ in art history, forever associated with his beds of shattered plates; that marked his emergence in the late 70s. These are less in evidence in recent years but his work remains surprisingly consistent in emphasis on materials and techniques. Schnabel, along with David Salle is often regarded as an American exponent of Neo-Expressionism, yet their work remains at some distance from German or Italian versions (see also Posts 40 and 44). This difference is essential to an appreciation of Schnabel.

An early work such as Muchos gracias por las insiables (1975) shows how his work grew out of collage, already favoured broad painterly treatment. In particular the figures on the left are variously outlined and filled by painting, grant the prints a little of the role of templates that variously channel depiction. This aspect in fact is close to a wider trend, identified mostly with Richard Marshall’s New Image Painting exhibition in 1978. The model is really the early work of Jasper Johns, where the use of a design or template orders brushwork and colour, inflects the design through intermittent and approximate compliance. This ambivalence holds an enduring appeal for American artists (see also Posts 13 and 24). Where Warhol then imports standard graphics and silkscreen printing to this end, later artists sometimes look to forge new or less familiar icons within a similar format.

Amongst New Image artists like Neil Jenney and Susan Rothenberg, something akin to John’s short, broad brushwork persists, while the more subdued techniques of Nicholas Africano, Denise Green, Lois Lane and Robert Moscowitz still contrast facture with outline, often with a single or flat colour. Only David True and Joe Zucker extend drawing beyond icon and ground, only Jennifer Bartlett and Michael Hurson use a layout of multiple pictures. Notably, Zucker’s cartoon-like drawing is executed with an extreme facture, adopting cotton swabs and Rhomplex. This comes closest to Schnabel’s use of broken plates.

But Schnabel actually reverses the priority. Facture does not conform to drawing or outline, on the contrary, drawing contends with facture or surface, and drawing is neither especially familiar nor strict. This marks his big break. The work often has the feeling of an explosion or disintegration. In The Patients and Doctors (1978) and Divan (1979) facture is extended to a collage of shattered plates, in some ways reminiscent of the mosaics of Gaudi’s Casa Mila, although fragments are often placed in approximate order to their wholes, stressing derivation and disintegration. It is a determination to include material that literally outweighs drawing, resists depiction at all costs. In short, Schnabel exchanges ambivalence for extravagance. While the plates rarely serve as metaphor for the object depicted, they nevertheless express a fragility or destructiveness to materials, indeed a certain wanton abandon to opportunity or indulgence. It is a recipe that literally labours the picture across a surface. Then again, drawing is adjusted to rugged surface, radical pigment or application, vast scale, weathering or other distress, to duly draw the surface into the picture, if only reluctantly, or ‘badly’.

The key difference between a Schnabel and a Kiefer – between American and German Neo-Expressionism – lies in the relation between materials and picture (and largely explains preferences in subjects). For Kiefer materials demonstrate a revision of uses and a renewal of reference, for Schnabel materials demonstrate a continuation of painting, a persistence of reference. The first embraces the endlessly sayable and restatement, the second an assimilation of the ineffable or inchoate. Both arrive at Neo-Expressionism in drawing, less as a revival than to stress indifference to preceding print or template forms, to standard or literal meaning. Both use text in casual scripts, but for Schnabel their literary value is stretched against graphic relations to other marks and surface.

Schnabel’s expansion of painting is not confined to broken plates. Animal hides, velvet and antlers are recruited; various found surfaces including discarded theatrical backdrops, also serve. Painting takes on a superimposed, graffiti-like role, also suggested in the use of spray cans and scrawled inscriptions. ‘Site-specific’ amendments loom as an obvious progression by the 90s, although subsequently Schnabel devotes more of his career to film making. His painting then oscillates between more conventional – and frankly, disappointing – depiction and looser gestures, tied to text or collage. He maintains a commitment to novel materials and techniques, even as this dilation soon recommends installation (see also Post 3).

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