Review of Julian Schnabel at The Brant Foundation Art Study Center, Greenwich, Connecticut

Julian Schnabel’s confessed fear of death and suggestion that reality and truth may reside in things could account for the gigantic size and weight of the objects in The Brant Foundation Art Study Center exhibition Julian Schnabel. If the body of the art object is less susceptible to decay than our bodies are (as Schnabel has mused), then the scale of Schanbel’s works might be interpreted as his attempt at immortality and insistence on occupying a future.

The Brant Foundation Art Study Center exhibition building is itself an artwork, filled with light and sheathed in wood and stone. Surrounded by manicured lawns, the site is both an object of contemplation and an aid in that effort. Covering 40 years of the artists’ career, Julian Schnabel holds approximately 50 works. Wax paintings, plate paintings, works on paper, sculpture and works on novel materials like Kabuki screens are held together through conversation the pieces have with each other, rather than through a linearly progressive motif. The Patients and the Doctors, Schanbel’s first plate painting, holds a prominent and centring position at the start of the show operating as a portal into the Centre’s voluminous interior spaces.

Before this are works of myriad type, including a piece of aqua coloured foam masquerading as a rock with a fuchsia feather duster at its top. This piece was made in 2013 and is one of the less interesting components of the show. But across from it is the evocative Accattone from 1978, Schnabel’s ode to Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini who made a film in 1961 of the same name. Accattone evokes the heroism and tragedy of the film with a proud but armless and legless masculine figure on a pedestal, detailed above a blood red wax background. The canvas includes a hole, which was the artist’s attempt to create the illusion of the canvas as wall. At the time he was experimenting with the metaphors of architecture as he “built” his own pictorial language.

Four massive plate “landscapes” occupy the room directly behind The Patients and the Doctors. They operate like a 3D movie, where one’s presence before them in person is like the glasses one uses to see such a film. Without the viewer’s presence, description of the pieces (by word or photo) is incoherent or reductive. What can be said is that as Cubism is a mediation on physical reality from all sides, so too are these paintings. And as Cubism is philosophically related to simultaneity, challenging distinctions of specificity in space and time, through their vernacular and highly structured surfaces the plate works also evoke a sense of the universe and the universal. Following the plate landscapes two ethereal paintings, Resurrection: Albert Finney Meets Malcolm Lowry and Untitled (Chinese Painting), guide the viewer downstairs.

On the lower level, four rooms and a hallway complete the exhibition, including a film room showing Anh Duong’s The Paintings at El Carmen. (There is one sculpture outside.) Remarkable pieces include a tile table with unusual metal legs and a Degas-esque painting entitled Portrait of Lily Brant. The portrait has a remarkably reflective surface built up with oil, resin and enamel. Literary, landmark and film references are infused throughout the show. The titles also often bear no literal relationship to the works themselves. If not sharing the same lexicon as the artist, and if unaware of his haphazard naming practice, this could force a contemplation of the objects without context. Ironically, this is one of the aims of modern and contemporary art, to denude us of histories and locate us in the present as fact.

“Must we learn again the simple, forthright experience of actually seeing a painting?” William Gaddis asks in a 1998 short essay entitled For Julian Schnabel, included as wall text in the exhibition. The variety of objects at the Foundation and the very pleasant lack of interpretative wall text, encourage the visually curious to explore a set of the work of a living artist and to develop the experience of seeing independently.

Odette Gregory

Julian Schnabel, November until March, The Brant Foundation Art Study Center, 941 North Street, Greenwich, CT 06831.

Image: The Sea, 1981. Courtesy The Brant Foundation Art Study Center.