On ViewVito Schnabel Gallery
Predominately Natural Forms, Mexico, 2022
September 10–October 22, 2022
Four big paintings, four big aces: a winning hand. Julian Schnabel’s inventive exuberance shows no signs of flagging. Whether harvesting the awnings from the stands of fruit vendors in Troncones, Mexico, where these paintings were made, and transforming the irregular shapes into spectacularly asymmetrical shaped canvases, or, as here, using velvet as his surface, he finds ways to impose his abstract will on whatever medium he chooses. Of course, using velvet, which he’s done on several occasions, is an ironic take on traditional canvas. We automatically think of the garish, grotesque tigers or impossibly buxom nudes usually found at street fairs. Schnabel uses the blurry, matte plane of velvet to emulate an earthy crust. That is, he makes us aware of the surface as an integral part of the picture and not simply as the medium he covers with paint: this is planet Schnabel.
Natural Forms on the Other Side of the Sierra Madres (2022), about 113 by 93 inches (as are all four works) reconfigures or parodies our notion of the sublime, Romantic landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich. The “other side” of the Sierra Madres, presumably where the illusory “treasure of the Sierra Madre” lies hidden, is what he invents, not as a landscape derived from nature or from a nature transmuted into art but as an expression of his imagination. True, we have a sketched-in mountain range on a faded pink surface, but those peaks merely serve as a signpost pointing beyond nature. Floating on that background are Schnabel’s “natural forms,” which we may understand as non-geometric forms, geometry being the ultimate artificiality. The mountains become a matrix where Schnabel’s interventions—one of his signature streaks and two vaguely tadpole- or spermatozoa-shaped masses—hover or swim. The entire tradition of the Picturesque, of nature carefully framed to become art, evaporates. Nature is nothing more than a point of departure on top of which he inscribes another nature, his nature.
Natural Forms Dancing at the Beach (2022) is another parody, this time of the kind of seascapes Eugène Boudin painted. The work, like the other three, is made up of two wide lengths of velvet, but Schnabel, as usual, opts for the unexpected. Where we might suppose that the place where the two horizontal swathes of cloth meet at the center of the painting would be his horizon line, the juncture of the two is simply an arbitrary line. Schnabel instead deploys a broken yellow line to create his own horizon line. Again, floating over that surface are “natural shapes.” Two might be trees blowing, therefore “dancing” in the breeze. The other, a vaguely groundhog-like mass, is pinned in place by another dark, long-tailed tadpole. All movement is suspended, all thought about nature, time, and mutability stops. This beach is Schnabel territory.
The last two paintings, Natural Forms Before the Sun Comes up in Samba’s Boat (2022) and Natural Forms Near the Fountain of Youth (2022) make use of blackness. If the sun in the first has yet to rise, we are in darkness, but Schnabel’s night is more metaphysical than temporal. So, we have on the right a vision of place again dotted with palm trees in a bright place somewhere in the artist’s mind’s eye. Something like a memory or intuition. Then on upper left, more sketchy mountains. In the foreground, what looks like a huge fish soars up in pinks and blues. This is not reality, not even Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, but imagination—memory and experience powered by artistic insight. Schnabel paints—makes visible—what cannot be seen.
The “fountain of youth” painting is our deepest plunge into Schnabel’s artistic psyche. No mountains, no palm trees, just a vaguely burnt sienna surface on which he fixes a whirling but sketchy vortex. Imposed on that background, three shapes, one like a laboratory flask, the other two echoes of the shapes in the three other paintings—swathes and possibly biomorphic gestalts. This is the artist’s fountain of youth: Schnabel finds it every time he takes his place before the void of the empty painting surface. Not an abyss like the blank page for so many nineteenth-century poets but an opportunity to renew himself and us by setting free his unquenchable virtuosity.