All through the 70s painting had been struggling. However in the middle of the decade something began to happen. Younger artists had been making their way to New York – and they came with a different attitude toward imagery, Modernism and Art History. These artists had no intention of continuing the endgame of Modernism, and they felt that everything, absolutely everything, was up for grabs. No one wanted painting anyway, so why not paint anything in any way one wanted? There was absolutely nothing to lose, because absolutely no one thought painting could be any good.
“I went to the Venice Biennale of 1978. I wasn’t in it. I was a nobody just looking, just another tourist. There was a heavy cloud of enthusiasm and national pride hovering above the heads of the Italian artists. They were all wearing white linen suits with Campari stains. There was a sense of historical endowment around these participants. Being an unknown, I could see the double standard for known and unknown artists. There was a lot of posturing in the Piazza San Marco by curators, art dealers and small-time art politicos, culture lobbyists who were lobbying a partisan parochial doctrine that out of fear rejected any kind of work that didn’t look like, or fit into, the particular time capsule of the generations that was occupying its own glorious moment. Maybe I would have had a different attitude if they were patting me on the back. I don’t know.” [Julian Schnabel CVJ 2015 ed.]
After the reductionist 60s and endgame abstraction of the 70s – Julian Schnabel’s painting’s must have been a real shock for the New York art community at the end of the seventies. A young, brash artist who was interested in a kind of historicism and painting that was at odds with everything that everyone expected – unthinkable… All that refined geometric abstraction sitting politely on the walls – asking you, the viewer, to find the art history, connect the dots, maybe have a prescribed experience of this history and your esoteric understanding of that history. But suddenly, out of nowhere it seemed, there was a small gallery on West Broadway filled with giant, imagistic, Jolie Laide painting which was joyfully poking a hole in the ultra-refined abstraction of the time.
“Prejudice based on decades has created an unnatural distance between artists of different generations. The reasons are almost extraneous to the act itself. … The fear of being replaced is a product of believing in the art world. This belief destroys the natural dialogue between generations. It is healthier for the older artist to be curious even if it’s for the selfish reason of finding a young person to talk to. Good conversation is scarce and there are so few people who know how to make art. An older artist can nurture and make something bloom in a younger one. It’s more interesting than trying to erase everybody with a glint of talent, so that you imagine you have no competition, that way being a very lonely and miserly way of living in the world. If you are worried about losing your place to somebody who might be more talented than you are, they you have already lost it.” [Julian Schnabel CVJ 2015 ed.]
Julian is an artist whose personality is so large and confident that anything that he experiences in life becomes a subjective narrative force in the work (read a few of the titles for a bit of understanding – you won’t find “Number 245”, “#333” or “Untitled”.) In the seventies he wasn’t abstracting his existence into geometries, he was lionizing his experience in imagery. Everything he used was found, antiqued, handmade, wonderfully, willfully amateur and full of lived experience. When these paintings work, they’re marvelous. If not – then there’s a lot to criticize. But this is the curse of the home run hitter – either it’s out of the park or just out. There’s nothing cold or reserved about Julian’s work, and because of this heat, his paintings stood out. His work began to fill the art world with an uncomfortable and unfamiliar experience of painting, and this set off a vehement debate about its value and its place in the Modern canon. We’re still having that debate.