Cultural Omnibus. American artist Julian Schnabel is eclectic and nerve-wracking. Find out why at the Pompidou Center.
Paris — `THERE is altogether too much mediating going on; too many words and ideas and theories come between the viewer and the object of contemplation'' wrote American artist Julian Schnabel in 1983. It is the cry of an artist awash in a sea of wordiness. Mr. Schnabel has achieved tremendous recognition early in his career; with this has come a heap of verbal attention ranging from heavy analysis to spluttering outrage to media hype to a superior kind of critical dismissiveness.
Not that this young artist (born 1951) has himself been silent about his work: His writings and answers to interviewers make a substantial contribution to the catalog for this show at the Pompidou Center. But his call of ``look at my work - don't just read about it,'' seems fair enough. This show provides a good chance to do so.
What is presented is a survey of his entire oeuvre - from 1975 to 1986. The exhibition started at London's Whitechapel Art Gallery last autumn and travels to D"usseldorf in April. But it is by no means the first opportunity in Europe to see Schnabel's work, though some of his critics seem to think it is. Out of 30 one-man shows he has had to date, 15 have been outside the United States, and his very first museum show was in Amsterdam in 1982. This exposure is symptomatic of more than mere success.
Schnabel has more than once voiced his dislike of ``American chauvinism'' and distaste for ``cultural distinctions.'' Many of the other modern artists he admires are European, in particular German aritist Joseph Beuys. This is in itself a significant departure from the American modernist tendency in the 1950s, '60s, and early '70s to think of American art as having freed itself from Europe's ancient cultural baggage - as being anti-European.
Schnabel's work is not anti-European. Or at least, in its quotations from earlier art and interest in the allusive and poetic, it is not opposed to the past, and the past is what European art represents. In this sense, his succession of striking images do not claim to be wholly independent or impossibly original.
His is a positive kind of eclecticism, and its straightforwardness is disarming. To art historians and critics who love to discover hidden references to other art in an artist's work, Schnabel's open images say ``What's the point?''
His pictures do contain meanings, no doubt, but they are puzzling ambiguities at odds with the largeness of thier statements. Such meanings result from ``the amalgamation of disparates'' and therefore attain an unusual potency that baffles conventional iconographic analysis. In one work, for instance, he brings together a figure taken from Caravaggio, another lifted from a naive children's book illustration, an ``ethnic head'' painted, perhaps, after a magazine picture and some real antlers that might have come from the wall of a Victorian mansion. Nothing particularly new here: The Surrealists of the 1930s made similar juxtapositions; in the '60s pop artists, and assemblage artists like Rauschenberg, pursued similar notions. But Schnabel, while presenting art as a confrontation of imagery borrowed from both art and life, gives it a freshness in the 1980s because he refuses to admit that such procedures have exhausted themselves.
Similarly, his approach to the act of painting shows a buoyant determination. His use of paint is remarkably free of the traps of ``style'' - and in this respect he is surely more American than European. For him, as for some earlier modern artists, the ugly and irrelevant question - ``Has he any talent? Can he paint?'' - rears its head once more. He has consciously - indeed blatantly - chosen difficult or intractable surfaces on which to paint: surfaces covered all over with broken crockery, the paint-resistant plushness of velvet, the creased and dirty surface of coarse, used tarpaulin. Such perverse grounds seem deliberately to induce difficulty - a certain desire for heroics, perhaps. Yet the results are peculiarly free of eccentricity. A giant painting in the ``Still Life'' tradition, called ``Some Peaches (Sebastian's Summer Poem)'' of 1984, done in oil and modeling paste on velvet, and has a quality of lush inevitability that is by no means unappealing. One almost thinks of Manet.
If some of the reactions against Schnabel's work have been wildly over the top, there is no doubt that something about his unpredictable approach to art can upset tender nerves. His ``Vita'' of 1983, for example - another broken crockery surface - takes a theme only too common in museums and gives it a twist that might be daring or offensive depending on your viewpoint. Instead of the man Jesus on the cross, it shows a woman. This is one occasion when the image is not presented with childlike plainness. Instead it emerges only after you have been looking at the broken rhythms of the plates for a moment. So the result is not crude shock so much as slow surprise. The figure itself is warmly lighted and painterly: an icon transformed, not lacking in primitive expressive force, and certainly worthy of the direct contemplation the artist wants.
It isn't easy, in the end, to grasp Schnabel's art qualitatively. It's still too near and too new. But this show makes it clear that he is not the shocker some indignant critics have imagined. It is the hollowness evident at the heart of his work - his figures sometimes have no more substance to them than an X-ray picture, his imagery is sometimes as disordered as mere flotsam - which is its enigma. Art, after all, can be a means of expressing or exposing the emptiness of what is indeed empty yet seems substantial. Is this the order of Schnabel's ambitious art? Or is his message that art itself is empty? The evidence in the main suggests that he enjoys the activity of making art too much for that to be his intent.
At the Pompidou Center through March 22; at the Stadtische Kunsthalle, D"usseldorf from April 29 to June 8.