Julian Schnabel, "Plate Paintings: 1978-1997," Apr. 22-June 18, at Pace Wildenstein Gallery, 32 East 57th St., New York, N.Y. 10022 and 142 Greene Street, New York, N.Y. 10012.
Brash and tender at once, Julian Schnabel's plate paintings show him at his emotional best. And technical best -- his use of broken plates, of all types and sizes, as the ground for his painterly figures, is a major innovation as well as a physical tour de force. Simon Rodia used broken crockery in his Watts Towers, but the use of ceramic fragments in painting is unique.
Indeed, in Schnabel's plate paintings the ceramic fragments are the primary medium; the paint is secondary. For the fragments do not simply add a collage nuance to an already painted image, but rather the image is painted on the fragments, confirming that they are the dynamic fundament of the work. The broken plates, then, are Schnabel's "signature material," and his plate paintings are his signature paintings, that is, the paintings in which he most reveals himself.
In Bill Gaddis (1987), Schnabel uses small, chaotically scattered fragments. In Iman (1997), he uses whole circular plates, cracked into large fragments and arranged more or less systematically in what can be conceived as a skewed grid. Sometimes the fragments are tightly packed, as in Olatz (1993), giving the figure a bizarre density. Sometimes the pieces are loosely scattered, with a good deal of open space between them, as though showing the emotional void the figures inhabit, confirming their alienation, as in The Patients and the Doctors (1978). The ceramic fragments are a wonderful way of suggesting that the figures are of mortal clay, for ceramic is fired clay.
Even more, the shattered plates suggest that the figures have been destroyed by death. Ironically, the all too tangible fragments -- they bristle with physicality -- form peculiarly intangible figures, by reason of the restless, seemingly random placement of the fragments -- the surface as a whole restlessly rises and falls in a random way -- and above all by the sense that the figure, like Humpty Dumpty, has suffered a bad fall and broken to pieces. Despite all the efforts to put the pieces back together and restore the figure to life, the result is not quite successful. This is not only because some of the pieces can never be found -- they have crumbled to dust -- but because the best that can be achieved is a picture puzzle. The seamless whole that once existed is lost forever.
Thus the air of peculiar insubstantiality and "numinousness" of Schnabel's figures, as well as the picture as a whole, however substantial and "phenomenal" the fragments. The unity of the figures and the picture remains precarious, no doubt making both all the more uncanny. The figures are like ghosts that have not been laid to rest, but restlessly wander in the purgatorial space of the picture -- a space which has something both of hell and heaven, that is, the entropic realm of total irreversible destruction and the manic, elated realm of restoration, recreation and resurrection. In other words, it is a space that embodies despair, vulnerability and narcissistic injury as well as hope, reparative healing and the illusory invulnerability of immortality -- which makes them all the more haunting, enigmatic and paradoxical.
Simply put, each painting is a cemetery of plates in which the memorial image of the figure marks a grave, as in ancient cemeteries. Indeed, Schnabel's portraits have the same look of petrified spirituality as those of Fayum and Etruscan tomb sculpture. It is the same paradoxical look of life-in-death and death-in-life -- and, more subtly, timeliness-in-timelessness and timelessness-in-timeliness -- that one finds in the best tomb portraits, from whatever civilization.
In The Sea (1981), the figure is a free-standing piece of burnt driftwood, thrown up on the shore of the gallery floor. In Bones and Trumpets Rubbing against Each Other Towards Infinity (1981), the figure is a kind of tree of life, its branches spreading to the far corners of the picture. In The Raft (1982) -- a magnificent reprise of Gericault's Raft of the Medusa, a seminal Romantic work -- the doomed figure is marked by the tombstone of a dead lone pine, growing from a corner of the earth-brown raft, and like a prow rising above the eerie wilderness of the silver sea of plates (some whole, some shattered).
In The Mud in Mudanza (1982), a reprise of the crucifixion, the cross, encumbered by horns and chain, serves as the emblematic figure. In each case, whether using an allegorical image or a likeness, the figure is central and forceful, its high impact intensified by the brutally physical plates. Broken on impact, they create a giddy relief effect, even as they form a kind of dead weight, at times seeming to crush or compact the pictorial space. The effect is at once epic and lyric: burdened by the broken plates, the picture seems to collapse in on itself, even as the image seems to float on them, even levitate above them, trying to hold its own in the choppy sea of death they form. Or are the ceramic fragments the straws the proverbial drowning person futilely grasps?
Schnabel's plate paintings are rich with art historical meaning, making them all the more consummate -- conceptually as well as physically consummate. Indeed, they encapsulate and synthesize virtually all of modernist art history. Apparently over and done with, it seems fresh with unexpected life in the plate paintings, indicating that they are much more sophisticated and complex than the gauche postmodernist reprises they have been dismissively understood to be.
They can be read as Cubist fragmentations of space, Surrealist manifestations of unconscious fantasy and ironical Dadaist happenings all at once. Most of all, they seem to bring Abstract Expressionist painting to an inventive climax, all the more so because they fuse it with figurative expressionism. The ceramic fragments can be read as abstract gestures, at once ingeniously spontaneous, accidental, and stylized. The plate paintings are allover, in the basic sense of the term. Each fragment-gesture is expressively equivalent to the other.
At the same time, they form an expressionistic staging area that helps launch the subjects emotionally. The figures impose some sense of organic order on the pyrotechnical chaos of the ceramic fragments, ambiguously inorganic and organic. They are also emotional rockets, propelled not only by the fuel of their vigorous paint and extravagant color, but by the exciting "kick" of the broken plates, which seems to reveal their underlying emotional chaos -- the agitation belying their apparent composure.
The result is a kind of baroque theater, in which all the artistic stops are pulled for psychodramatic effect. Schnabel's plate paintings are the grand expressionistic conclusion of what began with van Gogh: the ambition to make a painting that had a profound emotional effect -- that instantly evoked the most primitive feelings, in all their tragic intensity -- by way of gestural immediacy and rhapsodic color. Physical process becomes emblematic of emotional process: physically saturated, we become emotionally overwhelmed -- regress to a morbidly ecstatic state of undifferentiated feeling, which in fact the field of ceramic fragments symbolizes.
The plate paintings are even more expressively extreme than those of van Gogh, for they not only epitomize the ideal of making a painting that is a "sum of destructions," as Picasso said, but reconstruct painting by bringing back into it all that the purists purged from it: not only sculpture, but the all too human "literature" of life, always fraught with an unconscious attitude toward it.
Thus Schnabel restores aura to painting -- each circular plate is a kind of halo, which however fragmented makes whatever figure it informs seem sacred -- indicating that it is not only far from dead, but continues to be the visual art with the most imaginative potential. Clearly Schnabel has made an original use of the modern tradition -- even such traditional devices as the triptych -- showing that it can be used to gain new imaginative insights into the emotional truth about life, achieving a new sense of inwardness and depth through the artistic process of doing so.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.