Making and marketing art superstars. Schnabel show raises new/old questions about the aims of art

New York has seldom seen as overblown and self-serving an exhibition as the 12-year Julian Schnabel retrospective at the Whitney Museum here. As a demonstration of unbridled ambition, rampant exhibitionism, and a trifling commitment to art, it tops any show in years. True enough, it contains a few interesting paintings, including three or four of the provocative pieces that led some critics between 1983 and '85 - including me - to feel more positive than we had before (or after) about his talents and aspirations. But taken altogether, especially in the light of Schnabel's international reputation and the fact that this is a major retrospective, it ends up being exactly the sort of thing that casts doubt on the integrity and seriousness of today's art world.

``Julian Schnabel'' was organized by the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, in conjunction with the Mus'ee National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, and was then revised for its American tour and installed at the Whitney by Lisa Phillips. Its 37 works survey Schnabel's career from 1975 to the present and include examples from most of his major periods. Almost everything on view is large, and some of the canvases, in fact, are room-size.

By now, everyone interested in art must have heard of Julian Schnabel, of his spectacular leap to fame and worldwide notoriety for his mammoth canvases to which he attached broken crockery, animal hides, deer antlers, and various other objects. And of his use of black velvet and full-size muslin landscape backdrops acquired from the Japanese Kabuki theater as painting surfaces.

Both his success and his work jolted the art world shortly after 1980 as nothing had since the early days of Andy Warhol, and the lessons to be learned from both were not lost on others hoping to succeed as dramatically. Glamour, big money, and instant superstardom, which had first entered the gallery world on Warhol's coattails two decades before but which had never totally caught on as legitimate or viable art-world goals, were suddenly perceived as every young artist's birthright - as long as he or she learned the rules and played the game.

The result, as it must now be obvious to everyone not overwhelmed by hype or double talk, has been the increasing glorification of ``promise'' over accomplishment, novelty and clever gamesmanship over substance, and the more or less official sanctioning, by one museum after another, of a level and type of art that is mildly interesting and provocative at best, and tawdry, trivial, or just plain silly at worst.

More specifically, it resulted in a veritable explosion of large-scale and well-publicized museum retrospectives of the sort currently honoring Schnabel. These were generally sponsored by major corporations, accompanied by catalogs in which the artists were lauded to the skies for their profound originality and creative courage, and shipped from one major art center to another to guarantee maximum market coverage.

In effect, this amounted to nothing less than instant art-world canonization of a few select individuals who may or may not have deserved it, but who, having once received it, were guaranteed fame and fortune for at least two or three decades to come.

No one has benefited more from this system than Schnabel, as this Whitney show proves. With a few notable exceptions, it consists of little more than a jumble of tentative and half-baked ideas and forms that were more or less casually tossed off. They impress primarily because of their sheer size (the largest is 16 by 28 feet) and awesome vacuity. We are, in fact, intimidated by them and assume that anything that big and empty and hanging in a major museum must be profoundly meaningful and culturally significant. If not, why are they there?

It's a good question, and one I kept asking myself every time I went back to see the show or reread the catalog essays. Compared with a genuinely major artist such as a Joseph Beuys, perhaps, or a James Turrell, or Anselm Kiefer, Schnabel comes across as uneven and generally skin-deep.

Perhaps because of that, his better pieces are all the more noteworthy. ``Part One'' (1980), ``The Mud in Mudanza'' (1982), and ``Muhammad Ali'' (1987) are actually quite powerful and effective. And ``Jack the Bellboy, `A Season in Hell''' (1975) and ``Hospital Patio - Baboon in Summer'' (1979) project a sensibility he would have done well not to have tossed overboard once he made it really big.

After closing here Jan. 10, this exhibition travels to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (Feb. 11-April 3) and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (May 27-Aug. 14).

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