Edited by Hans Werner Holzwarth and Louise Kugelberg
Cutting an ear off your own head and offering it up as a gift, an act of contrition made for hurting a friend, is demonstrated to be a quite reasonable gesture in Julian Schnabel’s movie about Vincent Van Gogh (At Eternity’s Gate, 2018). The new monograph, covering the past 50 years of Schnabel’s work, includes a flood of images from the 1970s up to the present, shepherded by six compact essays. It is a focused discourse on this gentler, nonjudgmental mode of thinking that is happy to reside beyond our human scope. The film about Van Gogh, like the book about Schnabel, proceeds lyrically and in a blur, told through the disjointed vision of the artist, though over a slow-burn process we realize that the painter is in fact a vessel of intense clarity. Vincent’s act relates to Schnabel’s practice in many ways—as when Schnabel says, quoted in the book, “I covered the surface [of the artwork] with modeling paste and cut a hole in it … I also felt the skin of the painting was like the skin of a human.” This statement is knowingly placed adjacent to the perforated St. Sebastian—Born in 1951 (1975–1971). This visceral approach to making comes through in the monograph, that Schnabel’s modus operandi is to absorb the endless phenomena of the world and translate it using almost any material, onto velvet, wood, sailcloth, or crockery, into a visual gesture of love, loss, anger, and contrition as well. The responses are as varied as the stimuli.
Laurie Anderson immediately sets a tone for the colossal monograph in her short poetic introductory essay, “I barely knew him and then or the migration of the Duck-Billed Platypus to Australia,” in which she narrates her contact with Schnabel during the pandemic and the societal chaos of the last four years. Regardless of when the paintings were actually painted, they are always concerned with the present for the artist. The book moves chronologically, decade by decade, further subdivided by media such as Tarp Paintings, Velvet Paintings, Wood Paintings, or by series, like “X-rays” (c. 2007–2011) or “Recognitions” (c. 1987). These sections are punctuated by essays by Éric de Chassey, Bonnie Clearwater, Max Hollein, and Donatien Grau, with Daniel Kehlmann discussing Schnabel’s movies, including At Eternity’s Gate (2018).
Primarily though, this is a biography of a painter. Its pages are devoted to reproducing Schnabel’s works, overwhelming objects that hang on a wall. But as a kind of damming mechanism against the sensory overload—inevitable psychic numbness that comes from staring at 500 images—the written narrative details Schnabel’s polemical stance. This particular artist has never merely presented work and stepped back, rather he declares what an artist does and is, and the book doesn’t shy away from addressing that vision. Éric De Chassey outlines this in his essay, “Freedom as Model: The Painting of Julian Schnabel,” an obsession with history, not present trends, and a willingness to question all the rules of medium, subject, craft: everything is up for grabs. This positions Schnabel outside of history—with his refusal to follow contemporary trends he allies himself with the historians, not the hipsters. With his rejection of the constrictions of material and method, he pushes away traditionalists. He is far from the only artist to do this, but that in a way is the point of the book and his career: Schnabel himself is making an argument for his kind of polyglot artist, and surrounds himself with others, living and dead, of like mind.
Bonnie Clearwater zeroes in on process and media, in the essay, “A tree trapped in the corner of a room: Julian Schnabel’s Sculptures,” shifting the focus momentarily away from wall-hung works to sculpture, expressing how for Schnabel the story of the subject of the sculpture becomes an intrinsic part of its making. Clearwater shares the stories of works such as Ahab (2001) and Balzac (1982). There is a luxurious fold-out of four images of the sculptures Gradiva (1986), The Only Nice Thing He Had Was His Linens (1989), Golem (1986), and Barbara Bush Skipping Down the Champs Élysées (1989), which enables the reader to view these works simultaneously, vaguely hinting at the experience of the installation of the entire series in an unused ice-skating rink at the Chantarella Hotel in St. Moritz in 1990.
Physically, the book is of menhir-like proportions, like a Gutenberg Bible or an enormous antiphonary. Schnabel is a part of a series of limited-edition monographs of the work of living artists such as Beatriz Milhazes, Christopher Wool, and Nobuyoshi Araki, among others. Because of the size and weight, it isn’t particularly moveable and instead demands care and attention and effort on the part of the reader. Most images in art books are referents: they don’t function on a level that allows the viewer to enjoy them in any way approaching the auratic pleasure that emanates from an actual object. Taschen seeks to remedy this by presenting the reproductions in a way that allows the viewer to become absorbed, and Schnabel’s oeuvre—which has always veered towards the grand—benefits well from this. Works that fill galleries such as Ornamental Despair (Painting for Ian Curtis) (1980), The Raft (1982), and Australia (1986) can be examined more closely. The act of hunching over a massive tome like a monk in The Name of the Rose, is an optimal position. The quality of reproduction allows us to experience the textures of the work. Donatien Grau writes, “We sense the patterns on which paint was applied, and that have become painting as well.” What Grau calls (positively, not pejoratively) “a contamination of the senses,” comes through as we gaze on shards of ceramics encrusted with wax and oil paint, the thick practical weft and weave of sail canvas, or the richness of velvet. All this serves to remind us of Schnabel’s interest in flesh, that he, like Vincent’s alarming but perhaps appropriate gift, is a medium as well.