There is perhaps no presence in the convoluted landscape of contemporary painting that has been the subject of so much critical derision as Julian Schnabel. The artist was an easy target for influential New York intelligentsia who preferred the chilly skepticism of Postmodernism to the brash, romantic brio of Schnabel’s sensational pictures. With little regard for painting’s poetics and incensed by the market’s oblivious coronation of Neo-expressionism, a legion of art critics decried the compulsion to apply paint to canvas. A number of polemical screeds emerged, notably Douglas Crimp’s glaring essay, “The End of Painting,” 1981. In the midst of this extremist intellectual climate, Schnabel began making paintings that would fry his detractors’ frustrated aesthetic sensibilities. As far as that party was concerned, the plate paintings were an act of war. But to read them as such is to overlook their serious ambition and compelling visual attitude. Today, the plate paintings are considered Schnabel’s most meaningful contribution to the history of art in the bewildering twilight of the twentieth century.
Of course, the Postmodern persuasion was only one movement among many in a vibrant city where competing strands of art have always comingled and flourished. In the late ‘70s, the rigorous asceticism of Minimalist and Conceptual art was shoved aside at Holly Solomon Gallery, where vivacious, raw expression was encouraged and Gordon Matta-Clark exhibited chunks of buildings. The New Museum held its cult classic Bad Painting exhibition in 1978, bestowing the cheeky iconoclasts Neil Jenney and William Copley with institutional acclaim. Schnabel’s paintings show an affinity for these departures from austerity, but retain a genuine sense of mysticism, if not in their treatment, than in their subject matter. For example, Schnabel’s Accatone, 1978, depicts a cracked sculpture of a man’s torso—headless, limbless and crudely rendered—on a pedestal before a fiery red field. While the image itself is objectively clumsy, the message is philosophically intriguing: collapsed with its biceps mid-flex, the sculpture’s show of strength is undermined by an apparent inability to withstand the sheer weight of time. This interpretation is especially satisfying when considering the challenging burden of history and self, and the way in which it relates not only to the artist’s practice, but also to the problems facing art at the onset of the ‘80s.
Schnabel’s plate paintings revisit the mysteries of the past while confronting those of the present. For instance, the arrangement of the broken vessels is visually reminiscent of archaeological sites, where shards of ancient pottery are carefully removed, salvaged from the wastes of time. Additionally, the all-over composition of the plate fragments creates a rhythmic web, recalling Pollock’s seminal drip paintings, which are themselves explorations of the infinite. Finally, the plate paintings are often portraits of living people, suggesting with an air of both melancholy and bravery the finite nature of human life. In all of these instances, brokenness facilitates a unified meaning, elegantly achieving the artist’s predetermined goal: “I wanted to make something that was exploding as much as I wanted to make something that was cohesive” (J. Schnabel, “Writings, July 11, 1986,” Julian Schnabel: Paintings, 1975-1986, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1986, p. 96).
What Once Denoted Chaos is Now a Matter of Record is a quintessential example of the artist’s pioneering process. In addition to the broken plates, the artist attaches wall sconces to the over-saturated surface, recalling the anarchic combines of Robert Rauschenberg. The head of a turbaned man, evoking the mysticism of the Far East, dominates the right side of the picture plane; a harp and a floating head, possibly a self-portrait, occupy the left. Invocations of musicality and harmony conflict with the uneven, fragmented surface while the confused scale and coral hues conjure a whirling, ecstatic vision. The painting is at once serene and riotous. For this poetic balance alone, even his begrudging detractors must at last acknowledge the impact of Schnabel’s extreme approach to painting. As a certain critic remarked at the time, “They were vulgar in the extreme—melodramatic, derivative, rhetorical, kitschy—some of the most important aspects of contemporary culture” (M. Stevens, “Bull in the China Shop,” Newsweek, 11 May 1981, p. 79).