‘I was trying to tear the mosaic out of its own body to make a bridge to something just outside of my own body. All of this was happening before I even started to paint the painting. It was that radical moment an artist waits for. I wanted to make something that was exploding as much as I wanted to make something that was cohesive’
Marc-François Auboire (1988) is a striking large-scale painting by Julian Schnabel, painted on his radical signature support of broken plates glued to a heavy wooden panel. Up close, the fractured crockery presents a cracked scape of vivid colour. Bold, seemingly abstract strokes of red, green, black, purple, ochre and brown play over a jagged sculptural surface. Step back, and this monumental composition – almost two metres in height – resolves into a poised, surprisingly delicate portrait. Marc-François Auboire, an artist and friend of Schnabel’s then-partner Anh Duong, emerges as a dark-haired man in a lilac jacket against a patterned red background. With his plate paintings, Schnabel tore apart the clean, taut surfaces of Minimalism to open new ground for painting in the 1980s. The shattered platters were an apt embodiment of the postmodern ‘brokenness’ of painting, and of history itself: these works evoke archaeological sites, the rise and fall of cultures, wholeness fragmented into ruin. Yet Schnabel painted with a grandeur and sincerity that had not been seen since the era of Abstract Expressionism, dragging painting reborn from its own wreckage and revelling in the scale and heroism of his vision. Marc-François Auboire demonstrates the awesome power of this new idiom, which defined the thrilling, Wagnerian art world of 1980s New York and remains vastly influential to this day.
Like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns before them, in 1978 Schnabel and his friend Ross Bleckner set out as young artists on a tour of Europe. It was in Barcelona that summer that Schnabel had his breakthrough. He saw the work of Antoni Gaudí, who employed broken crockery in his mosaics: this medium, Schnabel realised, ‘had a certain kind of reflective quality and density of colour and light that I felt hadn’t really been used in painting, that was sort of off the ground and had a ... pictorial possibility, besides the psychological one’ (J. Schnabel, quoted in C. Ratcliff, ‘Julian Schnabel: New Again’, Interview Magazine, January 2016). Schnabel made his first plate painting as soon as he returned to New York. In fracturing these objects, with their familiar associations of domesticity and comfort, he unlocked a visceral and dramatic response, near-primal in its intensity. ‘The plates seemed to have a sound,’ he recalled, ‘the sound of every violent human tragedy, an anthropomorphic sense of things being smeared and thrown. I was trying to tear the mosaic out of its own body to make a bridge to something just outside of my own body. All of this was happening before I even started to paint the painting. It was that radical moment an artist waits for. I wanted to make something that was exploding as much as I wanted to make something that was cohesive’ (J. Schnabel, 11 July 1986, quoted in Julian Schnabel, exh. cat. Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Luigi Pecci, Prato 1989, p. 31).
This central idea of something at once ‘exploding’ and ‘cohesive’ finds spectacular expression in Marc-François Auboire, which offers profoundly different experiences to the viewer depending on their vantage point. The portrait either splinters to abstraction and disorder, or resolves into a compound figurative whole. In the latter view, it is as if Schnabel has built something new from a fallen civilisation, incorporating disparate cultural memories and past techniques into a multifaceted conglomerate image. The destroyed vessels become artefacts, containers of history, united in a chorus of disintegration. ‘This specifically Modern vision’, Amnon Barzel asserts, ‘was born in the divided brushstrokes of the Expressionists; it cuts across 20th century Modernism through the high points of Cubism, the use of collages and Rauschenberg’s “combines” and finally expresses itself in Schnabel’s broken plates’ (A. Barzel, ‘With Schnabel, About Schnabel’, in Julian Schnabel, exh. cat. Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Luigi Pecci, Prato 1989, p. 18). Marc-François Auboire stares forth knowingly from his ground of shards and relics, an artist composed of paint and plates, fragmented yet held together. Ultimately, in this visually arresting hinterland between coherence and chaos, Schnabel found a new way of looking at the world.