Julian Schnabel is an artist committed to forging his own path in contemporary art history, first as a painter, then as filmmaker, and always as a champion for individualized creativity. His tireless sense of painterly urgency is instantly apparent in Ethnic Type #14 (1984), part of his critically acclaimed Velvet Paintings series. Combining expressionistic, fantastical, and mysterious elements, it is quintessential Schnabel in its vision, scale, and originality. Upon a lush dark velvet surface, we see a portrait of a man with a headdress, possibly on a sailboat, accompanied by a second, more abstract figure. The luxurious nature of the support, which has an iconography of its own like the commercially reproduced velvet paintings of the period, is adorned with a combination of thick, gestural swipes of paint and thinner strokes in the background that look almost spray-painted as they sink into the fabric. This painterly surface is accentuated with strips of cowhide, lending an air of readymade texture and organic composition to the work. Postmodern sensibilities of cultural and ethnic norms allow Ethnic Type #14 to exist on a singular plane: at once kitschy and classical.
Approaching carnivalesque in its demeanor, Ethnic Type #14 presents an unidentified story that speaks to different concepts of ethnic traditions or mythologies. This is accentuated by the use of numbering, implying a taxonomic archeological approach. Withholding specifics as to its subject or context, the painting suggests a history that seems familiar, but with an ambiguity and mystery that verge on universality. Like a semiotic exploration of varying iconographies, Ethnic Type #14 is a puzzle to be decoded. The main subject’s face is painted in expressive detail, his features and headdress accentuated in shades of blue while the other painted elements are much more abstracted.
By 1984, Schnabel was an established presence on the New York art scene. Any debate over the importance of his work was settled with a retrospective of the artist’s work at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1987, where his stylistic diversity cemented his status as a major artist. Like the Plate Paintings in their material inventiveness, the Velvet Paintings, and Ethnic Type #14 among them, succeed at taking viewers beyond conventions of flat painting. According to the catalogue to a 2004 retrospective of his work, “Schnabel’s paintings are objects that have sculptural presence, by virtue of their size, their frame, their weight, their three dimensionality, or the different materials used in composing them. Like a piece of furniture, the painting’s proportions are directly related to their surroundings” (M. Hollein, “The Works and Their Viewers”, M. Hollein et al., Julian Schnabel: Pinturas/ Paintings, Madrid, 2004, p. 37).
Despite his famously diverse career, Schnabel maintains his identity as a painter first and foremost, stating, “painting is the only thing that really works for me. It’s gotten me into a lot of trouble and when I have a problem I paint my way out of it. The more I think about my early experiences that led me to become an artist, the more I think it all has to do with freedom, really. The freedom of not being held back. The freedom of being able to jump into the void and not get hurt. The freedom of being able to enter a place that didn’t exist until you stood in front of it” (J. Schnabel, Julian Schnabel, New York, 2003, p. 8). This sense of freedom and desire to explore the limits of painting functioned as an instinctive need but also a consistent challenge. To harness the freedom and ability in his own hands, Schnabel also carries with him the burden to use that freedom creatively; to build universes and visual modes that challenge his way of viewing the painted surface.
A lifelong admirer of Picasso, Schnabel attempt to channel the master by challenging notions of the neatly defined career-arc. “I am not trying to make a painting to go with the last one I made. I’m trying to make a painting I have never seen before” (J. Schnabel, quoted in D. Moos, Julian Schnabel: Art and Film, Toronto, 2010, p. 131). Over a career that began as an enfant terrible of the lively New York painting scene in the 1980s, Schnabel’s oeuvre has evolved into a groundbreaking force in visual expression. Paintings like Ethnic Type #14 confirm not only a visionary committed to art history, but also one writing its future.