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|Art Market Guide 2000
by Richard Polsky
|Julian Schnabel should focus on making films.
In the first two Art Market Guides, Julian Schnabel was listed as a "Buy." By the time the last guide appeared (1998), that "Buy" recommendation was downgraded to a cautious "Hold." At this point, Schnabel has deteriorated into a flat-out "Sell."
Ironically, the artist's international reputation continues to grow. Flush from a triumphant showing of his movie, Before Nightfall, at the Venice Film Festival last August, Schnabel has become a larger-than-life figure. Yet, the art market remains unimpressed.
The problem is that Schnabel has neglected his painting in order to devote more time to being a filmmaker and media personality. If you honestly believe that filmmaking is your calling, then so be it. But don't foist poorly crafted and conceptually bankrupt paintings on the public. Anyone who saw Schnabel's 1998 exhibition at PaceWildenstein was most likely appalled at the amateurish quality of the show.
After many years of creating abstract works highly influenced by Cy Twombly, Schnabel tackled the most difficult of all subject matter -- the figure. These large-scale (at least seven feet square) pictures were covered with one or more awkwardly rendered figures. Once Schnabel had painted a figure to his liking, he poured clear resin over the surface of each canvas, presumably hoping to add a gritty sense of reality to the work.
The artist then made matters worse by framing the pictures with massive ornate wooden frames that in many respects were more visually stimulating than the images they surrounded. When viewers comment more on the frame than the picture, you know you have a problem. Combined with their inflated $150,000 asking price, these works had to have been the most embarrassing of his career.
Given the secretive nature of PaceWildenstein, it's hard to say if any of the figurative works sold. Regardless, Schnabel paintings have not been selling at auction -- at least not for very much money. If you examine last year's auction records on the Artnet.com database, you'll notice that the going rate for a large Schnabel fell into the $50,000-$75,000 price range -- approximately half of what they would bring in the primary market. The bottom line is that if you're willing to be patient and buy at auction, you can now buy a Schnabel canvas for less money than virtually any of Cindy Sherman's editioned photographs.
Another telling statistic: In May 1992, during the middle of the last art market recession, Schnabel's Maria Callas No. 4 came up for sale at Sotheby's. This oil on red velvet work was considered by general consensus to be one of his finest paintings. When the gavel came down, it had sold for a record $319,000. In 1999, the same painting made a return trip to the auction block and sold for $321,000. If the owner was paying roughly ten percent interest for the use of the money during those eight years, he or she would have lost at least $255,200 on their Schnabel investment.
During the May 2000 auctions, not a single Schnabel appeared at the all-important evening sales -- which feature the most expensive and prestigious works. Perhaps, there was simply a lack of collectors willing to consign a major Schnabel. However, a more likely scenario was that the auction houses had decided that with the exception of the early "plate" paintings, Julian Schnabel had become a "day sale" artist.
If there's a silver lining to all of this, it's that Schnabel is still young enough to turn things around. He does have talent. Equally important, he is represented by a number of top international galleries, including Bruno Bischofberger in Zurich. He now needs to take a hard look at his paintings and find someone who he respects (no small task, given his reported ego) to edit works before they leave the studio. One thing's for sure, it won't be his New York dealer Arne Glimcher, who seems to enjoy basking in Schnabel's glow. Who can forget the opening night gala at PaceWildenstein's now defunct Beverly Hills Gallery, where Glimcher was seen proudly walking around hand in hand with his star artist?
Some collectors might argue that Schnabel's overconfident personality is part of what makes his art so successful. As Joe Namath once so convincingly demonstrated in the Super Bowl, it's fine to be cocky as long as you can back it up. But when Schnabel comes out in print and brags that he and Picasso are two of the last century's greatest artists -- he goes too far.
In Andy Warhol's Diaries, the Pop artist succinctly summed up Schnabel's bloated sense of himself when he described a conversation he overheard while visiting Schnabel's studio, "And the secretaries say things to him (Schnabel) like, 'You can either see your editor at Random House at 2:44 and get out by 3:32 or at 3:46 and get out by 4:34.' It was the most pretentious afternoon I've ever had."
Anyone interested in reading more stories similar to the one above should consult Schnabel's autobiography, CVJ. As Robert Hughes once wrote in a review of this book, "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."
Those serious about collecting art would do well to look at other artists. Since Schnabel seems indifferent to the art he releases, why should we as collectors and dealers feel any different?
RICHARD POLSKY is a private dealer specializing in post-1960s works of art. Questions or comments can be directed to him in San Francisco at Polskyart@aol.com.