Newspaper as collectible: Julian Schnabel explores the possibilities

Finally, the pages of this newspaper, designed by Julian Schnabel, are laid out before us. The artist examines them one last time, “Poor readers,” he says, and shakes his head, “they must be thinking that a madman took over their newspaper. The images are so different. And yet all of them are mine.” In fact, in his world, Julian Schnabel creates encounters of Old Master portraits with abstract paintings, the roses he saw on Van Gogh’s grave with pin-up beauties. He paints on broken pottery, tarpaulins, rugs, and large photographs using house paint and spray paint as he does classic oil paint. While leafing through this newspaper, we can see Schnabel’s distinctive paintings: the white swaths and colorful lines seem to dance across the pages and the various paintings unite in a single dance. We are proud to have continued the tradition of artist-designed newspapers, after George Baselitz, Ellsworth Kelly, Gerhard Richter, Neo Rauch, and Cindy Sherman, with this new issue of “Die Welt” produced with Julian Schnabel, one of today’s most important contemporary artists. Schnabel is a man who is not content to operate within a single medium. After his huge success within the art market of the 1980s he has reinvented himself as a filmmaker and received a director’s prize in Cannes, built palaces, and furnished hotels, and yet, above all, refers to himself as an artist. An artist who, for more than 40 years, has expanded the canon of painting like no one else, and as this newspaper proves, he continues to do so now.


Making Plots on Julian Schnabel
by Rudi Fuchs

You enter into the romance of Julian Schabel’s paintings and start looking to figure out how they are made - but first you are overwhelmed by their vast size that truly is spectactular. Then, when your eyes get used to that size, you see how it is in the space of a painting [bild] where the actual painting [malen] gets going. That is always the case: in every painting the first brushstroke is made on a blank surface of certain dimensions. Then the painter, considering what his hand has made, (looking intensily, taking his time) to reflect on the shape and the colour of that brushmark. It can be short and decisive, for instance, or drawn-out and curving, hard or soft. The stroke is horizontal or vertical or may go diagonal over the surface - how these movements go (with what speed and vigour) is certainly dictated by its dimensions and formal outline.  That Julian Schnabel has always chosen large and wide surfaces to start painting shows us what kind of painter he is. He is a pictorial adventurer. We can see  variety of that adventure in the pages of this newspaper. 

I explain: for most painters the shape of the painting (say a modest rectangle) functions as an outline containing pictorial space within itself. Exactly in that kind of space we see for instance Piet Mondrian deftly and patiently setting up his gentle compositions - the outline of the painting acting as the refined framework within which they are held together. Schnabel the adventurer, however, is clearly a very different artist. The size of his paintings is often vast but more so are the wide. Painting on them he sees these large surfaces as limitless. When I imagine him painting and swaying large brushes with juicy colour (often outside in the open air) I see him looking at the canvas in front of him as the restless mariner, with trepidation, looks at the sea. The canvas is wide and open - with that boundless space in mind he gets going where the adventure of his turbulent brush will encounter no restraint. Restraints are not allowed, that is way Schnabel’s art is outrageous and, as the sea, relentless. Let us not forget, the sea is the last untamed  wilderness on earth - with conditions of unbounded liberties and imagination great art also aspires too. Of course the paintings of Julian Schnabel, in their wildly idiosyncratic ways, are looking for the unimaginable - things never seen before, at least.

About these extraordinary paintings I have, in terms of general observation, nothing  more to offer. It is best to look in concreto, and as I remember them, to some of Julian’s paintings and see what they show us. An exhibition I saw years ago in the Schirn in Frankfurt opened, in the large downstairs entrance hall, with a vast painting called Untitled (Treatise on Melancholia). The location was commanding and so was the painting: almost 5 meters high and 6 meters across, dark and forbidding. It was made (in 1989) of large rectangular pieces of heavy tarpaulin stitched together in such a way that suggests the space of a theatre. So in the construction of the canvas he gave the image a theatrical architecture. The entire lower horizontal stretch of tarpaulin (roughly one-fifth of the picture’s height) was painted tarry black suggesting the platform of a stage. On either side of this base vertical side wings are located. Along then the upper edge of the painting these wings are connected with another horizontal band of tarpaulin. This set-up leaves in the centre of the image a large rectangle of space, like a backdrop: again horizontal stretches tarpaulin. The architectural articulation of the space is subtly enhanced by the differentiation in the olive-grey dye of the cloth. The whole image seems filled with luminous and diffuse twilight. Then, in this wide and delicate interior, a performance of painting begins to happen. What comes to mind, in the dark light of the picture, is what I once read about a performance of The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross  by Haydn - on Good Friday, in the Cathedral in Cadiz. Shortly before Noon, it was reported, the altars and the statues of the Saints were covered with black veils. At noon the doors of the church were closed - then the music began .... Imagine, airy and mournful, the sound of the music hanging in that silence. And imagine the moments of silence before the music begins. Thus, in the silence of darkness, we see appearing, in the centre of the melancholic painting, an horizontally elongated and strange white shape. Slow as a procession it floats there like a ghost. Below it smaller black shapes, very fuzzy, have silently arrived. To the right other black shapes, small smudges of paint, are drifting upward. Above all that another another band of white is hanging, also horizontally but more slender and lighter. Its edges are defined by torn edges of pieces of tarpaulin that were fixed there adjusting some larger shape of white already in place there. The white shape in the middle floats freely like a cloud while the other, narrower one appears almost stealthily.

Painting, I said, being performed as a spectacle in the theatre. Maybe I perceive Schnabel’s art of painting as quite boisterous and full of colorful turbulence. But now, recalling this ceremonious painting on Melancholia, I am more intrigued by the slowness of what is going on. First the pieces of tarpaulin literally set the stage. Then, like the music in the church, things are lingering - then the painting begins. Time is an essential aspect in the formulation of this image. One imagines Schnabel actually waiting for the white shapes to arrive and light up in the gloom. When they then arrive he paints them attentively. He looks at them as if they may pass by and do not stop at all. Yet everything in this painting is static and dormant. In his poem Hyperion John Keats saw old Saturn sitting in the shady sadness of a vale - lonely and in utter distress. To evoke the feeling of dejection the poet found this evocation of melancholy and gravitas. There Saturn sat: Forest on forest hung about his head / Like cloud on cloud. This image subtly equals the white shapes in the painting, cloud ob motionless cloud. While looking at paintings or reading poems,  garlands of unexpected thoughts and memories begin to intersect in the privacy of one’s head. That cannot be escaped. Similarly all the suggestions transmitted in the fine atmospheric interplay of black and white and grey in this grand painting are irresistable. They may well be vague. I have decided not to resist them any longer. They make everything so much richer. All good paintings are anyhow fairy-tales. 

[part 2 Making Plots]

The Melancholia painting is dark like a martyrdom. The mise-en-scène of its solemn space was conceived in the Grand Style of classical history painting. When I saw it first this momentous image brought to mind Caravaggio’s gloomy Beheading of Saint John the Baptist from 1608 - a haunting scene in grey light, silent as death, in the bleak courtyard of the prison where John is held down by the neck on the cold stone floor by the executioner reaching for his knife to finish the job and cut the saint’s throat as were he a hog to be slaughtered. The cruel painting, in the Cathedral in Malta, is wide as a filmscreen: just over 5 meters. The Melancholia is only slightly larger. This is what paintings do when you see them: they recall other paintings. With the Caravaggio in mind I now look again at the Melancholia (which is only slightly larger) and then see how that grand, ceremonial painting is an orchestration of various modes of blackness. That is its narrative. 

The free-floating and tumbling imagery characteristic in Julian Schnabel’s painting seems to grow out of an inventive agility of his hand and brush moving colours over a spacious surface. These movements (handwriting) produce a morphology of curling, twisting lines that in their fluency, fluttering like ribbons in the wind, seem to move incessantly. Occasionally their flow is interrupted. The painter at work keeps looking at  the fluency of these movements that then get entangled and become figures that get the imagination going. The variety of images in the newspaper today give some insight into that imaginative process of art-making at work. Imagery in paintings are formed when various strands and fragments of what goes in one’s mind and memory come together. They thicken like a good soup. That boiling imagination then finds a subject by somewhere, with luck, encountering it. So I imagine the painting Ozymandias came into being. It was given its plot and narrative by a famous poem with that title by the romantic poet Shelley: I met a trave!er “om an antique land / Who said: two vast and trunkless legs of stone / Stand in the desert...Near them, on the sand / Half sunk, a shattered visage lies...These broken pieces are what is left of the statue of King Ozymandias. But now: Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/ The lone and level sands stretch far away. 

The painting comes together, I saw, in two or three movements. It is a large wide stage. At first,  on the right one upward shape dominates the scene - a vigorous shape, in white paint and curved in outline, of a sturdy leg. Its foot is  a rough shape cut from a piece of canvas. It stands on the painting’s edge below as if that edge was the ground. Because we thus seem to look from a low view-point the scene looks more dramatic and monumental. The dominant colour of the picture space is the greyish yellow of sand. Obviously Julian liked the pictorial drama of it. Also he has the typical voracious and theatrical imagination and instinct  of the history painter. He sensed a grandiose, dramatic painting ready to be made.  In reading the lines he is actually able to envisage the different things and circumstances described as pieces of real pictorial form - and give the fragmentary shapes colour and energy. That is how in 1990 Ozymandias came together. On the desert sand we find a trunkless leg. Then, left in the picture, a narrow entered the scene from below, wedge-like, off-white - to be met halfway by a pointed, tougher in heavy brown coming from the left. In the centre then, between the brown shape and the standing leg, we see a turbulence of blunt, hectic brushwork: brown, yellow, white, blue mixed up. Above that other blurry smudges of paint are floating - disconnected patches of white and red and yellow, as if there had been an explosion and now the debris of shattered form was drifting down. It is a turbulent picture. We see also torn fragments of clothing, here and there, and crumpled into the white paint of the trunkless leg. Finally the turbulence is settling down. Across the width of the picture the name of Ozymandias is written. Towards the right the lettering becomes gradually smaller:  in the dusty dsesert wind the grand king is an echo now, fading away.

Wild and boundless  is the energy of imagination in Schnabel’s painting. Recently he constructed and painted some images featuring  a goat standing proudly in a romantic landscape with very soft, tonal light. Because of the size of the picture the goat looks as big as a bull. Normally in grand history painting we see soaring eagles there or roaring lions. This goat however was a stuffed, ornamental one with a rabbit on its head. Furthermore it is white and coiffured as a rococo poodle. The painting though, crazy as it is, is absolutely splendid - and as irreverent as art should be.