Thursday, May 6, 2010

Critical Mass: Julian Schnabel

by Drew Martin
It is often hard for me to write about a current, big-name artist, such as Julian Schnabel, because my own life as an artist has been quite isolated from trends, raves and the who's who of the art world. At the same time I feel compelled to chime in when I am turned on to someone because I want to explain him or her first and foremost as an artist.

With all due respect to the old guard critics who have said some unkind and unfair things in the past about Schnabel, I think they take themselves a bit too seriously and, in doing so, betray the very nature of art and the free expression of artists. While their dialogue is often enlightening, their judgement, especially because of their influence, functions as a kind of censorship.

One of my favorite and just retaliations by an artist towards the narrow scope of the critic was during the 1989 filming of the Polish television show 100 Pytań Do...Krzysztofa Kieślowskiego
(100 Hundred Questions For...Krzysztof Kieślowski) seven years before his death in 1996. In it, the famous (and my favorite) filmmaker irritatingly tells off the small audience of Polish film critics and basically says that not one of them present are competent enough to mount an intelligent conversation about films, particularly his.

After listening to all the questions and comments from the audience leading up to this remark, you cannot help but to feel his frustration and take his side. During this critique of the critics, he pauses for a second, counts in his head and then concludes that possibly three people in all of Poland could comprehensively discuss film (I wonder if that included himself, fellow screenwriter/trial lawyer Krzysztof Piesiewicz and Andrzej Wajda...and maybe he would have said four if Roman Polanski had not emigrated). He states this after discussing, by contrast, that in France he once heard an hour-long, in-depth conversation on the radio between four "serious" people about his use of music in the film, Krótki Film O Zabijaniu (A Short Film About Killing, 1988). They discussed it from all angles and thoughtfully analyzed it, thinking of things that not even he was aware of.

I write all of this not in defense or promotion of Schnabel, but merely to point out that what is lost in the language of the art review, and even in a dialogue with an artist, is the language of painting, drawing, sculpture, etc...because words like these are simply words. I also want to question our own competency when it comes to understanding various media. This has less to do with intelligence and more to do with what we set ourselves up for and how we have been raised. Most reviews and discussions about the arts are about liking and disliking the subject at hand and explaining and justifying what is to be liked or disliked. Sometimes the review is simply a biographical sketch, which uses the works of an artist as milestones. At other times, the critique feels like an extension of a report card. A serious problem is that we are often grading artists on languages we may not fully understand ourselves.

For the past year, I have explained that I am interested in the scope of "arts and media" but this is not actually how I really see it. Simply put, the arts are part of my idea of media. A painting, for example, is a medium and has its own special language unique to itself.

My interest in Schnabel has gradually developed; initiated with bad press and rekindled with each film (Before Night Falls, Basquiat, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), which I liked but wasn't crazy about. I pass near Schnabel's Palazzo Chupi quite often and not too long ago we crossed paths as he was about to enter The Spotted Pig in the West Village. We exchanged glances and polite hellos and then proceeded on with our respective friends. He looked good natured and approachable. I wanted to know more about him so I went online and watched a few hours of interviews with him and various hosts. Then I went to The Strand and bought an old, overpriced-but-well-worth-it monograph: Julian Schnabel: Paintings 1975 - 1987. Surveying the pictures in the monograph, I was surprised by Schnabel's range and style. There is also quite a bit of insightful writing about him and by him.

(November 1981, Amsterdam)
"I saw a Van Gogh drawing of his girlfriend's mother in her backyard in Amsterdam. It was made in 1887. It has a grayish purple wash on it. There's a funny light in it. It made me feel like I was standing on Houston Street in late November, the temperature has just changed; I don't have a scarf; a friend has cancelled a dinner appointment with me. I had nowhere to go. I felt the air go through me. I had a sense of my own twilight. That drawing made me fell like I was dead already. That's what I call Modern."

While Schnabel's films are widely liked, his paintings have been scoffed at and his material success with them has only deepened the suspicion...and jealousy. Typically the secondary activity of a celebrity is diluted and unimpressive...i.e. Madonna as actress. The fact that respect for Schnabel surged after he directed each film is a pretty good indicator that maybe the furrow-browed critics misread him. He has certainly written about art more comprehensively than a lot of peope who make it their profession.

(continued from the Amsterdam writing)
"Something that's appropriate, that approximates the recognition of your consciousness. That's what it means to say 'that painting looks like it was painted yesterday.' Vermeer has that power of moderness. The ability to make the viewer disappear...It is like when you go to the movies and the lights go out and you become invisible before the film comes on. These paintings can make you recognize yourself observing observation. For a moment, you have an acute realization of your own transience, and your explicit perception of being."

In an August 9, 1996 interview with Charlie Rose (and David Bowie) following the release of Basquiat, Schnabel responds to Bowie's very cynical take on the commodity of art by discussing how people experience music and how painting should be experienced in the same, open way. I think people do not understand Schnabel's paintings because they simply do not understand painting as a medium. They do not know how to open up and experience it. America is a cinematic culture. Cinema is our mother tongue and we understand its multitude of dialects. The language of cinema also goes hand-in-hand with America's car culture: the windshield as a screen and the "ride" as compression/play of time and an out of body experience. It is not simply that film is a popular medium and we are a nation of popular arts. It is a bit more complicated. It is more like we are finely tuned into cinematic time sequence, visual movement and linear narrative.

This is actually quite a conceptual leap...that we can shelve a two-hour time slot in our minds for the course of a film: quite a feat of patience actually because it means we are willing to wait that long for issues introduced at the beginning of the film to be resolved by its end. With this standard we are less able with true literature (Marcel Proust or James Joyce) but are better readers of books that flow like a movie (Dan Brown). It is also by this standard that we are critical of television shows and shorter video clips as being too flighty. When it comes to painting, however, we are left a bit dumbfounded. The typical approach, even with the most abstract work, is to look for something familiar, allegorical or narrative. This works well for paintings set up for this, such as Leonardo da Vinci's (or even Salvador Dali's for that matter) Last Supper because this is not a painting about painting. Schnabel makes paintings about painting. Like him/them or not, he speaks the language.

In one of the interviews I watched online, Schnabel stands in front of one of his works (at least a story tall) and draws a comment from his surfing experiences, that he considers the canvas as a wave he is about to enter. Like any language, the symbols and function of all the components need to have such meaning.