November 28, 2011

An unseen painting of the future

I’ve written 14 entries on paintings for Taschen’s new modern art primer. If you know me from this here blog, you might hardly recognize me, since they are proper introductions that go by all the rules and suffer from a lack of space, but I’m reasonably proud of them and I’ve tried to give every single one an original morsel of research or at least an unusual glance on things. Of course I can’t very well reprint anything here, but I’m listing the works in the comments, and if anybody for some strange reason should be interested in my take on one of those, drop me a line. Anyway, as a big hello to any reader arriving at this blog after checking out who wrote what in the book, here’s an extra for you, a piece of research that got lost when Julian Schnabel paintings were switched during the writing.

I was happy to get a chance to explore Schnabel more deeply, first because it finally made me go and rent The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, which of course is a marvelous movie against the overwhelming odds of both premise and style—just how crappy this should have been becomes clear in that screamingly bad 15 minutes from where that dreadful U2 song kicks in and turns a flashback into a corny commercial against narrative, fate, love or generally emotion . . . where was I? The second reason I wanted to work on Schnabel was because it allowed me to spend most of my fee on that marvelous sort-of-autobiography of his, CVJ: Nicknames Of Maitre Ds And Other Excerpts From Life, which I’d seen before and had wanted to own and read. And indeed it is now in my top three of books by artists, along with Christopher Wool’s Cats In Bag Bags In River and any novel by FĂ©lix Valloton. The book is great for the way Schnabel uses images of his work as sort of a counterpoint to the text, telling their own story, setting their own punchlines, teasing the author’s thoughts on art with their own part-irrelevance, used freely in complete disregard to dimensional proportions or other stuff you would usually not go against in an art book. Maybe more surprising is how good the writing actually is. Here’s an artist unashamedly full of himself, but humble before the art, his own and that of others, always wondering what it is that makes a painting great, that small detail that maybe doesn’t even work which makes the whole come alive. Yes, it’s all so full of life, with maybe the most vivid marginal artistic observations outside of George Moore.

I had a plate painting to discuss, a portrait of Ross Bleckner from 1985. Here’s how Schnabel describes how he hit on the plate paintings (right beside the image of a plate painting of Jesus on the cross): “I had had a funny idea that I could make a painting the size of the closet in my hotel room in Barcelona and that I could cover it with broken plates. A rendering of the shadows of the plates on the closet seemed futile. I couldn’t draw it so I thought it would be a good painting. Maybe the image of an unknown painting freed me to make a mosaic. My interest, unlike Gaudi’s, was not in the patterning or the design of the glazed tiles, it was in the reflective property of white plates to disturb the picture plane. The disparity between the reflectiveness of the plates and the paint were in disagreement with each other and the concept of mosaic, because they fractured its homogeneity. To be honest, I didn’t know what I was interested in,” but he continues to fabricate the beginnings of academic interpretations of this yet unrealized way of working.

Finally in the studio: “I laid one armature on the floor and started placing plates around. I started breaking them with a hammer. The absurdity of this act spurred me on. I didn’t know what kind of glue to use; I used tile grout, tile adhesive, I mixed joint compound with Rhoplex to make my own binding glue. I went to a dental-supply house and bought dental plaster for the surface, thinking it would be durable. The plaster came in beigish-pink and Naples yellow. Both colors looked like rotten gums . . . Before going to bed, at five in the morning, I stood the painting up. I knew it was too soon but I did it anyway. I was beat. I had glue on my hands and was too tired to wash it off. Lying in the dark I heard a little clink. You know when you’re driving your car and you hear a ping and you hope it’s nothing serious and then your engine falls out? I heard a big crash. I figured what was left on the painting when I woke up was what it would look like. I fell asleep to the rain of plates.” Of course one can feel he’s putting on a yarn, but it fits the paintings very well—and he rightly concludes this passage: “I had something in my studio, I thought it was alive.”

There is also a beautifully appreciative passage on the art of Ross Bleckner, the subject of my painting, in the book. And in it there is one detail that struck me, a sort of coincidence that somehow does leave a nagging feeling of not being quite coincidental, at least not if you’re fresh from watching The Diving Bell And The Butterfly. The middle paragraph goes like this: “Ross’s interest is in the unfolding on the inside, from one painting to the next. The real battle isn’t trying to make a finished product, whose product is only its own objectness or an attempt to please the art audience; the battle is to use a painting to locate some unseen painting in the future.”

Now the background of Schnabel’s portrait quotes paintings Bleckner was making at the time, in the mid-1980s, lights hovering in front of a dark ground. The broken plates, though, not only age the face of the artist somewhat prematurely, but also seem to presage certain more circular, cell-like forms in Bleckner’s work. Now look at this here photo of the man and especially his art in his Sagaponack studio, which he moved into in the early 1990s. In retrospect, he’s making true the words his friend had published in 1987, who, as we can see, herewith provably at least once has literally won that which he has called the real battle: the battle of using a painting to locate some unseen painting in the future.