Progression of Art
Portrait of Andy Warhol
With his eerie portrait of fellow artist Andy Warhol, executed on black velvet, Schnabel has united low culture, pop art, and the high-art tradition of portraiture. The painterly style and palette are reminiscent of works by El Greco and Francis Bacon. Warhol stands dramatically alone on the right side of the composition in a sea of black velvet. Telltale paint splatters and smears partially cover the middle and the right side of the image, adding balance and mysterious depth to the composition. Known for his controlled and almost emotionless portraits of celebrities and the otherwise infamous that emphasized the homogeneity of visual reproductions, Warhol is ironically depicted with tremendous expressive impact in this portrait by Schnabel.
Oil on velvet - Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C.
The Student of Prague
The Student of Prague is one of Schnabel's famous "plate paintings" in which he applied heavy layers of pigment over broken plates and horns that were glued to a wood panel. The work is exemplary Schnabel's oeuvre of the 1980s in its massive scale and almost baroque ornamentation. The broken plates are in part representative of the influence of the work of Gaudi, whose pottery-fragment mosaics were interesting to Schnabel. Moreover, Schnabel's use of broken crockery as a painting surface signaled an overtly defiant departure from the almost sacred "flat surface" rule of Minimalist painting. This fusion of the everyday and the grandiose were characteristic of the extreme emotionalism of Schnabel's narratives.
Structurally, the work resembles a triptych, a standard format for Christian painting of the Renaissance. It is divided into three distinct sections with the middle partition rising upward and outward above the others. Connected by the unifying surface texture, the work evokes the hinged panels of its medieval and Renaissance predecessors; rough crosses appear here and there, reinforcing the Christian symbolism. The lone, ghost-like figure in the center of the composition is both integrated with and singled out from the rocky landscape of the painting's imagined and material surfaces.
Oil, plates, horns and Bondo on wood - The Guggenheim Museum, New York
This work was inspired by Schnabel's visit to Spain in the late 1970s. Like The Student of Prague, it is also a "plate painting," but here his palette is rich and earthy, evoking the Spanish landscape. The chaotic, irregular surface created by the broken crockery lends Spain a sense of danger, and the disembodied head, a standard feature in many works by Schnabel, reinforces the sense of uneasiness. Spain might be said to evoke some of the more prominent influences for Schnabel: the floating head seems straight out of a tableau by Picasso; the assembled, broken crockery are perhaps direct referents to the mosaics of Gaudi; and the rough, exuberant brushwork evokes the colorful splatters and splashes of Pollock.
Oil, plates and Bondo on wood - Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain
Untitled (Lo Tango)
Schnabel's mature work is simpler, less heavily-loaded, materially if not content-wise. Indeed, this work, Untitled (Lo Tango), while still large (92" x 68") is virtually devoid of the grossly irregular surface, appearing as if everything has been compressed toward a greater simplicity. It is a picture within a picture, in a sense a diptych that evokes the triptychs of his earlier career. A small printed canvas is mounted on the larger surface, on which Schnabel loosely applied pigment with very little blending. The brushwork is expressive but also confined to large fields of limited color. It is as though Schnabel has censored himself, reigning in the chaos inspired by the profuse materiality of his plate paintings and instead favoring the clarity of the narrative. The split canvas indicates an underlying belief of Schnabel: that a painting can tell a story or be otherwise expressive in multiple ways—here very directly via the large, overtly phallic pink blobs and the printed reproduction—inscrutable as that story may be.
Oil, gesso and printed canvas on mounted canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York
Fakires is a testament to Schnabel's tendency to experiment with a variety of surfaces beyond traditional gesso-treated canvas. Here he utilizes a drop cloth, typically reserved for catching spills and other debris as the painter works. The cloth becomes critical to the painting, obscuring the canvas and suggesting that ultimate meaning is therefore at least partially inaccessible. The text scrawled across the surface of the cardboard, which Schnablel applied to the drop cloth, provides another layer of implication, another method by which the artist can inscribe content, however obscure, or insert a narrative into a work. The word "Fakires" ("fakir" is the singular) is an Arabic word that refers to a holy man or religious figure, especially one who performs a magical or miraculous feat, but also resonates with the slang term, "faker," or one who is dishonest in their actions. Sketchily painted across the surface of the image, the thinly defined letters are additional symbols that contribute to the overall mysterious connotation of the composition. Although the layering aspect of different materials along with paint is still important in his work, Schnabel has moved away from broken ceramics and instead deploys far more perishable cardboard.
Oil, resin and cardboard on cotton drop cloth - Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain
Untitled (Christ's Last Day) VI
A more recent work, Untitled (Christ's Last Day) VI, is an ink reproduction of an actual x-ray from the early-20th century. There is something exceedingly delicate about this piece, particularly in comparison to the heavily impastoed and ornamented paintings of Schnabel's earlier career. The title mentions Christianity, a frequent theme in Schnabel's work, and provokes allusions to suffering, martyrdom, and death. Christ, however, is only part of the story and, for that matter, it is surely his humanity that the artist exposes so intimately. The x-rays, found in Normandy, France when Schnabel was there shooting his film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, peer inside the body of an unknown person and provide a glimpse of human frailty.
Ink on polyester - Gagosian Gallery, New York