NEW YORK -- Artist Julian Schnabel -- the celebrated Wunderkind from Brooklyn and south Texas and Max's Kansas City -- paints his willful pictures like a child misbehaving. He smashes up the dinner plates, he obliterates decorum, he puts messes on the walls. The large gestures of his brush are unruly and impatient. His paintings preen and howl.
They're so big and so bombastic they make you want to duck. Reeling among them -- startled by their force, and their note of plaintive misery -- is like witnessing the tantrums of an aggressive, muscled brat. The howls go on and on.
At first the viewer's heart sinks. Schnabel, in his writings, speaks pointedly of suicide, mortality and loss. He says: "That drawing made me feel like I was already dead. That's what I call Modern." He brags: "I am making icons that present life in terms of our death." But spend a while with these objects and you soon begin to feel, beneath their bellicosity and dark preoccupations, a peculiar sort of bumptiousness, self-applauding, puppylike. Schnabel's pain is unconvincing. He is peeking through his fingers. He is thrashing for effect.
The best remark I heard at Schnabel's retrospective, now visiting Manhattan, was an artist's quiet observation. "His mother," she concluded, "must have loved him very much."
His alarming, much-promoted touring exhibition has already been displayed at the Whitechapel in London, the Kunsthalle in Du sseldorf and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. An edited version, offering the viewer some of his newest pictures, is now in New York at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Schnabel's rise was meteoric. He was only 27 and working as a cook when, in 1979, dealer Mary Boone arranged his first one-man New York show. What followed seemed the stuff of struggling artists' dreams. By 1983 Schnabel had had solo exhibitions at the Kunsthalle in Basel, at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, at MOCA in Los Angeles and in London at the Tate. The critics were divided, but the market was in ecstasies. The dean of New York dealers, the suave Leo Castelli (who had not accepted a new artist since the early 1960s), agreed to take him on. One of Schnabel's smashed-plate pictures, its Bondo barely dry, went for $93,500 at Sotheby's in 1983.
His most avid fans, and Schnabel, too, view him as a master. But put that thought to rest. For one thing, he can't draw.
Most major modern masters, from Degas to Matisse, from Picasso to de Kooning, though they often preferred not to, could draw to please the angels. But Schnabel's wrist is stiff, his depictions have no grace. Perhaps that wouldn't matter if, like Sol Le Witt or Stella, Schnabel worked with french curves, compasses or rulers. But, instead, he quotes Old Masters -- Caravaggio, El Greco, Goya, Pollaiuolo. He's too brash to be embarrassed. In certain New York pictures, Franz Kline's for example, mere energy suffices. But Schnabel essays portraits. "Tina in a Matador's Hat" (1987) is so coarse and ill-proportioned the viewer does not know whether to cry or laugh.
His champions, like so many doting parents, approve of him as he is.
"No one expected him," writes Thomas McEvilley in the exhibition catalogue. "No one knew they wanted him. Yet somehow the age demanded him, and he seems to be here to stay."
Schnabel bulled his way to fame. You have to give him that. The power of his work makes much new art look wimpish, and New York honors power. Since Action Painting's heyday, it's been yearning for an artist whose work could blast your hat off, and Schnabel, on arriving, seemed to fit the bill.
But fashion has a way of devouring its children. The market in Manhattan ignites its art stars quickly, but just as quickly turns. Consider, for example, young Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose innocent, sweet scrawlings once were all the rage in SoHo, but now are barely salable. Or ironic David Salle, whose thin appropriations and pornographic tracings look weaker every day. Schnabel, it is true, is bolder than poor Basquiat, and has more weaponry than Salle, but his once bright star is sputtering. He seems, at 36, an artist in deep trouble. You can sort of feel the trapdoor opening beneath him as you wander through his show.
His unexpected blending of energy, and will, and belligerent bravado -- once taken as heroic -- has begun to look like posturing. Most of his conventions have already taken on a pale, threadbare look. Perhaps it is no wonder that in his newest, wordy paintings -- they're the worst things in the show -- one catches, for the first time, the smell of real fear.
They are the first things one sees when the Whitney's blue-walled elevator opens its big doors. There are three of them on view, all dated 1987, all more than 10 feet tall. They're from a series he has titled (pace Barnett Newman) "The Stations of the Cross."
They're not exactly paintings, or, rather, they're not pictures. They are acts of sloganeering. Their only images are letters -- quickly done in thin white paint on green U.S. Army surplus tarpaulins. Two of them are cross-shaped. One reads: "Ritu Quadrupedis." The second bears the legend "Ignatius of Loyola." The third is nearly square. It says: "Pope Pius IX."
What, the viewer wonders, is that Jewish guy from Brooklyn trying to get across?
Is he declaring a conversion, or showing off his Latin? "Ritu Quadrupedis" means "in the manner of a quadruped." Okay, but what does that mean? That Schnabel is an animal? A soldier of the faith? Is he challenging the Catholics? Paying back his parents? The Whitney's Lisa Phillips, who calls these wordy works "awesome and overpowering," says their legends come from "The Recognitions," the William Gaddis novel whose chief topic, incidentally, is a discourse on the counterfeit. But that doesn't really help. The viewer who attempts to wrench some meaning from these objects gives their hasty scrawlings far more than they deserve.
Schnabel has just published an illustrated memoir. It's called "C.V.J.: Nicknames of Maitre D's & Other Excerpts from Life." It costs $75. In it he recounts how he bested Clement Greenberg (Schnabel had a first-class ticket on an airplane, Clem was flying coach), got rich all of a sudden, and once one-upped Jasper Johns.
They met at a small dinner in 1981 at a town house in New York. Johns "was really impressed with himself," writes Schnabel. "So was I. All of my practice while sitting at Max's Kansas City arguing with Richard Serra came in handy. I said, in my most charming way, 'Don't you ever get tired of yourself when you look in the mirror?' 'Are you talking about yourself, or about me?' he answered ... That sort of chipped the ice. I told him that there was some work of mine in the house and asked him if he wanted to see it ... While patiently looking at 'The Pool Painting for Norma Desmond' he said, 'It's very beautiful, but what does it mean?' I thought to myself, I guess to you, not much.' "
His memoir's acronymic title, "C.V.J.," is another private Schnabel clue. Like the names he gives his paintings, it remains unexplained.
I kind of like his titles -- "Prehistory: Glory, Honor, Privilege, Poverty" or "The Tunnel (Death of an Ant Near a Powerplant in the Country)" or "Hospital Patio -- Baboon in Summer" -- but I do not understand them. One quickly painted picture here is called "Portrait of God."
To the viewer dumb enough to ask, "But what does it mean?," Schnabel always answers, "I guess to you, not much."
He tries to shame us with befuddlement, to make us feel like jerks. He ex-asperates intentionally. He has done so from the start.
The gratuitous conjunction of images that clash with names that aim to mystify is one of Schnabel's oldest tricks.
It is a tired trick by now. David Salle, among others, has ground it into blandness. When Salle layers images (words, crotch shots and cartoons), or when Schnabel puts a moose antler above a quote from Caravaggio, their motive is the same.
That sort of chic appropriation -- that referential shimmer, that sprinkling of hints -- gives their figurative pictures an illusion of profundity, and something of the blankness of wholly abstract art. Such wildly disjoined sights function as parentheses wrapped around the void. They seem to be designed to open up the mind.
But Schnabel, as he plays that trick, sneers at what he's done. When he condemns, in his memoir, a painting "designed to make you feel intelligent if you just stand in front of it. You get to fill its blank ambivalence with your own emptiness and self-doubt," he might well be describing the pictures in his show.
His second trick, his best one, is vastly more successful. Schnabel does not use clean, fresh purchased canvas. He paints on stuff he's found, on pony skin, for instance, or expanses of black velvet, stuffed chairs, wooden doors.
There is a painting here called "Eulalio Epiclantos After Seeing St. Jean Vianney on the Plains of the Cure d'Ars." (I did try to decipher its long, peculiar title: St. Jean Vianney (1786 -- 1859) was a pecunious French saint; he had trouble with his Latin; his title was the Cure' d'Ars. But Eulalio Epiclantos, so far, remains untraced.) The picture shows a severed head with breasts above its ears. It's been painted on a flat from the Kabuki theater of Japan.
Schnabel's imagery is often not much more than doodling, but the grounds on which he paints -- those cheap-yet-luscious velvets, those fields of smashed crockery, those stage sets from Japan -- give his art a kind of density. "Using already existing materials," writes Schnabel, I think rightly, "establishes a level of ethnographicness in the work; I mean it brings a real place and time into the esthetic."
That using of used things is nowhere more successful than in the painting he calls "War." Its sketched image isn't much, it shows a sort of death-dog, but its material is a treat. It has been painted on a beaten-up and aged tarpaulin long used to cover long-bed trucks in Mexico. Lord knows how many hours went into its patches (it has patches on its patches; there must be at least 200), and into its stains. In places it's been darned as carefully and sweetly as if it were the driver's only pair of socks.
Except it's bigger than a sock. Much bigger. "War" barely fits into the gallery. It's 17 feet high and 28 feet long. That willingness to go for it, to paint things really big, pictures that no house could hold, is another, frequently effective, Julian Schnabel trick. Timid he is not.
"Success," he writes, "is being able to sit down, buy two dozen oysters nestled on a bed of packed ice, and have a clean white tablecloth and a napkin, preferably crisply ironed, to wipe your mouth -- and be able to pay for it. That's all I wanted." He's got it.
I am not embittered by his oysters, his crisp white napkin, his success. Nor am I much offended by his unironic self-approval, or his champion's hype. There are far too many artists -- serious, gifted artists -- who never get what they deserve to begrudge the few that make it. What most bothers me about him is the archness of his art.
The scale of his work, the scale and the vigor, is its only generosity. So what if his paintings remain inaccessible, "inaccessible to everybody"? Schnabel does not mind. "I no longer expect people to understand me. I no longer expect my work to be understood as I understand it." If the emperor looks naked, that, he seems to say, is your fault, s not his.
He makes deeply selfish art.
His retrospective will travel to San Francisco and Houston after closing at the Whitney, 75th Street and Madison Avenue, on Jan. 10.