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Robert Schwartz
Painted on a Leaf


This Thicket

Serenade (II)

In the New Year

A Narrow Way

The Long Complaint (Fishing)

Robert Schwartz in his studio
Photo by Richard Lorenz, 1986

Postmodern Narrative
by Donald Kuspit

"Dream Games: The Art of Robert Schwartz,"Sept. 4, 2004-Jan. 23, 2005, at the San Jose Museum of Art, 110 South Market Street, San Jose, Calif. 95113

Robert Schwartz (1947-2000) is an exquisite painter: his works have the quality of medieval miniatures. Most are, in fact, remarkably small. Painted on a Leaf (1999), for example, is 4¼ by 5 inches, and Indigestible Language/Aphasia (1990), is 7½ by 7½ inches. The next size up -- and about the largest size, at 11½ by 12½ inches -- is Would That I Didnt Know (1999). The smallest works are gouache on paper, and nobody working today comes close to Schwartz as a master of that medium. The larger works -- including Untitled (Storm) (n. d.), which, at 61½ by 69½ inches is a major exception to the rule of smallness -- are in oil (sometimes on canvas, usually on panel or paper).

They, too, show an exceptional sensitivity to the medium. Gouache is an opaque medium, oil a transparent medium, but Schwartzs gouaches have the atmospheric transparency of oil, with no loss of opacity, and his oils have the opaque colors of gouaches, with no loss of atmospheric nuance. Whatever the medium, Schwartzs colors hold light even as they emit it. Like gems, they glow intensely, with no loss of compactness. His works are remarkably self-contained and concentrated, however intricately faceted -- even manneristically bizarre -- their illusionistic space.

As their perfectionism suggests, they are meant for connoisseurs. Every detail is meticulously rendered. There is no evasion, no reckless spontaneity compensating for poor observation. Nothing is left to chance; nothing is incomplete. Everything exists in the full light of consciousness: there is no elision of the visible into pseudo-invisibility -- the improvised invisibility of so much abstract art, generating a sense of enigma where there is none. Everything is clearly pictured and has its distinctive identity. However everyday his world seems, it is far from banal: Schwartz is a magical realist, which in my definition is an artist able to render the uncanniness of objects (the more carefully observed and incisively rendered, the more inherently uncanny and magical they seem) with no sacrifice of intelligibility to the mystery or magic of their givenness. At the same time, Schwartz is an innovative formalist.

Unlike so many magical realists, for example, Balthus and Karl Hofer, Schwartz does not take form for granted, as his complex, often-labyrinthine space indicates. He has it under complete esthetic control, to the extent that it seems to exist independently of the scene it structures. Indeed, the human scene is a kind of superstructure that rests on the "deep structure" of Schwartzs visual language, hiding it but depending on it for credibility.

It is an Old Master strategy: the Old Masters hid the formal underpinnings of their art behind their representation of the world. The more hidden the formal structure, the more oddly "representative" and uncanny -- imaginative and magical, however rooted in observation -- their representations seemed. It was as though the invisible substructure altered the Old Masters consciousness of the visible, giving them a fresh sense of its esthetic complexity, and with that of its vitality. In a sense, the "gravity" of the formal structure made quotidian appearances seem more "grave," and more meaningful than they were in everyday, esthetically indifferent perception. At the same time, because it is hidden, because it is the esthetic secret of the picture, the formal construction becomes an emotional terra incognita: it stands to the visible world of the work the way the underworld of the unconscious stands to consciousness.

In a sense, Old Master magical realism inhabits the slippery space between the consciously observed and unconsciously experienced, integrating them to create a spell that alters consciousness. The picture becomes a double-edged enactment, as it were -- an enactment of exterior life and interior life, each twisted around, indeed, fine-tuned to and mirroring each other like the snakes of a caduceus. We find this same cunning magical realism in Schwartzs pictures, but with a modern twist: unconscious reality is explicit -- indeed, explosive -- in a way it rarely is in the Old Master magicians, who preferred consciously experienced reality, suggesting their fundamental sanity. Schwartz shows the unconscious taking over consciousness. This is why his images look insane -- they picture the insanity behind the facade of everyday life, an insanity that often breaks through it, as he shows, disrupting our sense of its reality. Thus, while Schwartz may be in esthetic control, he is not in emotional control. His formal consciousness can be understood as a defense against unconscious conflict, but the defense becomes the stage on which the conflict is presented.

Indeed, Schwartz gives us a kind of little theater: his scenes are stage sets on which his figures act out their insanity (not to say absurdity). The more mannered and manneristic the stage set, the more insane and absurd the people seem, that is, the more apparent their inner conflicts, which seem unmanageable. In other words, the more virulent, unresolvable and real the conflict, the more formally resolved, precisely executed and abstract Schwartzs pictures become. The more deeply disturbed his people, the more weirdly beautiful his pictures.

It is as though their formal integration, in which every detail is fine-tuned to the other to form a hermetic whole, suggesting esthetic transcendence of the all too human scene, compensates for the emotional disaster pictured. But the eccentric harmony of the whole also suggests emotional catastrophe, the way the trace of strangeness in the proportions of self-conscious beauty suggests the unsettling presence of the unconscious. In other words, there is as much emotional realism in Schwartzs disturbed space as in his disturbed figures: the manneristic space is the mirror distillation of their emotional problems.

Schwartzs space, whether landscape or urban, seems infinitely extensive, but his figures act out their problems in a small corner of it -- for example, the circular boat that goes around in circles in Disinheritance (1999) or the small room in the big house in Recidivism (1990) --suggesting their claustrophobic entrapment in themselves. It is this perverse dialectic -- the tension between elegantly "off" space, suggesting the higher esthetic order of being embedded in the lower order of life (an esthetic reality that looks strange and "mannered" from the perspective of life, even as life looks strange and ill-formed from an esthetic perspective), and the disorderly emotions of disintegrating human beings -- that gives Schwartzs pictures their maddening magic. Magical realism, at its best, is psychological realism, and Schwartz is a great psychological realist. It is the emotional magic of his work that engages us, reinforced by its esthetic power.

Schwartz pictures people losing self-control, in violent conflict, or in dangerous, often life-threatening situations, or else in situations in which they dont seem to belong however much they are an integral part of them -- situations in which they are clearly "different" and vulnerable outsiders, and as such necessary to its "insiderness." (The interplay of inside and outside is a constant of Schwartzs imagery.) Is this because he was gay? The ironical Charging into Night (1998) suggests his ambivalence about being gay. The male figures head is covered and his scrawny buttocks are exposed, as though waiting for anal penetration. But however abject and undignified -- and indifferent? -- his ostrich-putting-his-head-in-a-hole position (he kneels on a carpet ornamented with roses and a regal canopy hangs over the bed, suggesting the majesty of the act) some figure -- presumably the person suggested by the chair -- will mount the other, like a king on a throne. The bed is covered with pink sheets and a red blanket, suggesting pleasure and passion, although the rooster -- a fighting cock? -- that is part of the lamp on the table next to the bed suggests aggression. It is the same aggression signaled by the title: the figure on the bed may a willing victim of the charge into his darkness, but he is also a victim, suffering pain as much as having pleasure. Schwartz is an open-eyed realist, knowing the outcome of the battle before it happens.

Perhaps his pictures are morbidly realistic because he felt generally estranged and isolated, like The Wandering Jew and The Aesthete, both 1998 -- both implicitly self-portraits -- and the figures in Untitled (Big Woods) (2000), and Untitled (Mountain) (n. d.). In all four works, as well as in Charging into Night, the figure is a social outcast, his identity defined by his inferior social position -- he is in effect crucified in The Aesthete -- which also strips him of his individuality. All five figures are profoundly alone, like the naked couple in Traveling Alone (Readers) (1991) and the naked male figure in The Clatter of Daylight (1992), also with a book for a companion. In fact, the naked, reading and writing figures that appear in such works as Indigestible Language/Aphasia, Perspective at the Foot of the Tower (1992), No No (1996), The Fever and the Fret (1997), and Centuries of Childhood, The Quickest Way, and A Grown Man: Who Can Describe What Happened to Him Then?, all 1993, are anomalies in their environment. (Presumably it happened to him in his childhood, as the motherly figures, separated by a wall from him, suggest.) The naked man in Untitled (Man on Green) (2000) may be a handsome new Adam waiting for the touch of a Michelangelesque God, but no caring God is present, confirming his isolation -- a splendid isolation, but isolation nonetheless. All of Schwartzs many isolated figures seem to prefer to be alone, suggesting that they find it difficult -- even impossible -- to sustain a relationship. All these figures, emotionally as well as physically exposed, bring to mind Kirchners The Couple before the People (1924), naked lovers mocked and ostracized by the masses -- by a society incapable of openly expressed love, by people terrified of their own bodies, and of each other. There is no safe place in Schwartzs world: safety is a utopian dream, as Safekeeping (1991) -- a city surrounded by high mountains, with a harbor open to the world (a fantasy of hilly San Francisco, a Shangri-la for gays?) -- suggests.

Schwartz deals with relationships that dont work -- relationships in which people sometimes fight to the death, as the two men do in Its Nothing, Theyll Be on Their Feet in Seconds (1995). Again and again we see people in violent conflict: Barking, Coughing (1995), The Hairs on the Neck, At a Little Distance from What Is Right, and This Thicket, all 1999, suggest dominance/submission struggles. Other pictures show people emotionally at odds, sometimes so much so that they exist in different spaces, signaling their emotional incompatibility and irreconcilability:

Self-Portrait as Harlequin (or The Picturesque Experience) (1986), Native Gift, Study and Culture (1992), Who Put These Ideas in Your Heads? (1995), A Disgusting Man, A Shiver, Alternately Sharp and Dull, all 1998, and More Lost? (1999), are studies in absolute human alienation. Even the male lovers in The Worm Who Knows Himself are separated by narcissism. Human destructiveness -- self-destructiveness? -- is apparent in The Nervous System (Smoke Screen), The Key as Big as the Door, Serenade, all 1993, and The Shapeless Street (1997). When people form a constructive harmony, as in The Tight Fit (Exchange) (1993), The Bursting Tomb (1995), In The New Year (1996), and Who "Works" Anymore? (1997), it is always in the context of death, destruction, or decay. (Serenade is a wonderfully mocking tribute to Smithsons Spiral Jetty, suggesting that it has been domesticated -- the spiral is dug in a park -- and thus pass. Assimilating it into a representation, Schwartz suggests that abstraction -- not to say Minimalism and earth art and with them avant-garde art -- has become decadent and obsolete.)

Why do I call Schwartzs pictures postmodern narratives? They have been celebrated for their poetry, but they are in fact allegorical scenes in a personal narrative, a narrative in which Schwartz is searching for self-understanding. The path leads backward in time -- many of the works involve a sequence of time frames (another medieval feature) -- as Instead of Going Forward, Going Back (Tollhouse) (1994), The Path from Memory (1998), and Proof Brushes Past (1999) suggest. It leads to mother figures, as How My Aunt Appears (1999) and family memories, as A Small War (1999) suggest. They are full of shadows, implying that they are melancholy screen memories, but the emotional conflict is clearly pictured. Schwartz is struggling with his history and identity, searching for meaning in what seem like random acts of emotional and physical violence. They clearly had a traumatic effect on him. Perhaps the trauma had something to do with the origin of his gayness, as the redundant mother figures suggest. But there is something humorous in Schwartzs representation of trauma: he was able to defend himself against it by laughing it. Schwartz doesnt use art as an anesthetic to mute the pain of life, but rather as a seismograph, registering it with witty eccentricity, ironical jumpiness. Schwartz needs the sting of trauma to spur him on -- it is his true muse -- but he needs humor to make sense of its pain.

But the question is, why call Schwartzs autobiographical representations -- his paintings as a whole form a kind of Bildungsroman, and in fact can be read as pages in a diary kept in a private code postmodern?

The answer is because they are as emotionally unstable and unbalanced as avant-garde representations -- there is little or no stability and balance in Cubist, Expressionist, Futurist and Surrealist representations (indeed, instability and unbalance seem to have been fetishized) -- and as formally stable and balanced as Old Master representations. They subsume avant-garde iconoclasm and idiosyncrasy, expressive of dynamic subjectivity, in a traditional sense of order, signaling objectively shared -- even universal -- experience. The result is a kind of postmodern mannerist narrative, a narrative of trauma that reflects the trauma of the integration. As I have suggested, Schwartz "composes" the trauma in a mannerist way, thus expressing it while containing it. He esthetically masters it without denying its disturbing effect on him.

Mannerism is paradoxical, as Arnold Hauser argued in his book on it.

It reconciles opposites -- which makes it traditional -- even as it shows them in all their irreconcilability -- which makes it modern. For Hauser, mannerism is the true beginning of modern art, and the best modern art is mannerist, covertly or overtly. As Hauser wrote, "paradox in general implies a linking of irreconcilables, and discordia concors." This is essential in mannerism, but it is a mistake to regard "the conflicting elements that make up a mannerist work of art as mere play with form. The conflict expresses the conflict of life itself and the ambivalence of all human attitudes; in short, it expresses the dialectical principle that underlies the whole mannerist outlook. This is based, not merely on the conflicting nature of occasional experience, but on the permanent ambiguity of all things, great and small, and on the impossibility of attaining certainty about anything. All the products of the mind must therefore show that we live in a world of irreducible tensions and mutually exclusive yet inter-connected opposites."*

The world seems tenser than ever in modernity, all the more so because the opposites seem mutually exclusive and unconnected -- however subliminally connected they may be -- and thus more inherently traumatic than it once seemed to be, when the ultimate opposites of God and man could be reconciled through faith. (Thus saving man from himself and God from isolation.) If modern art, at its deepest level, registered the loss of faith in the possibility of reconciliation, and the resulting sense of the catastrophic groundlessness of life, then the task of postmodern art, at its deepest level -- the level at which Schwartz is working -- is to acknowledge that we are trapped in paradox. Schwartzs Untitled (Sisypheus) (2000) makes the point tellingly: working together, we are reconciled to each other, but our effort is in vain -- the path up the mountain is narrow and steep, and the barren mountain reaches to the empty sky -- suggesting the futility of our reconciliation. Making art is hard work, Schwartzs picture suggests, and the resulting art, however perfect, reflects the uncertainty inherent to the human condition. Thus Schwartz is unreconciled with himself. He is as conflicted about making art as he is about being gay. Yet he has faith enough in them -- they both make him feel special -- to attempt to reconcile them. He even suggests that they are not real opposites -- that they are meant for each other. But his gay art shows his self-doubt -- for the conflicts depicted, again and again, are inner conflicts (the moments of peace are few and far between, and never last) -- which suggests traumatic regression to uncertainty. But then Schwartz deftly represents his inner conflicts in all their unresolvability -- presents them so deftly that they look like harmony, however tentative and absurd the harmony. It is typically mannerist to show discord while suggesting that concord is out of reach yet latent in the manifest discord. A master at narrating paradox -- his formalistic brilliance seems to cut the Gordian knot of paradox while tightening it (his works are deceptively clear, as though to disclose the intrinsic connection of opposites by bringing their disconnection into sharp focus) -- Schwartz is one of the best postmodern realists of our traumatic times.

* Arnold Hauser, Mannerism: The Crisis of the Renaissance and the Origin of Modern Art (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965), vol. I, p. 13

DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.