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Published April 27, 2020
Neo-Expressionist Statements and What-Not
a diskurso.com belated review of Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait on the occasion of the film's release on Netflix Philippines and Australia last 1 April
After its release on 28 April 2017 at the Tribeca Film Festival, Pappi Corsicato's documentary film Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait, a personal glimpse into the private life of the 1980s giant of painting Julian Schnabel and into the artist's consequent foray into filmmaking, would move on into a 5 May 2017 USA arthouse release, a 13 October 2017 appearance at the Warsaw Film Festival, a 12 December 2017 Italy release, a 7 January 2018 Netflix Canada launch, an 11 January 2018 release in Germany, and consequent releases on 6 February 2018 in Navarre and Biscay, Spain, and on 12 April 2018 in Barcelona.
Suddenly, this year, we got the surprise of our lives with the April 1 launch of the documentary on Netflix Philippines and Australia and probably a few other Netflix regions. This gave us the opportunity to say what we've always wanted to say about the undervalued docu by Corsicato (Libera, Black Holes, The Vesuvians, Chimera, The Seed of Discord, Armando Testa - Povero ma moderno, and Another Woman's Face). Or rather, it gives us the opportunity to state the film's high value for the field of critical theory, regardless of Corsicato's intent. So, here goes.
Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait, 2017 official US trailer. [Uploaded by Cohen Media Group]
NOT to take away the merits of having a biographical documentary on and for subject Julian Schnabel, or on any other art historical star from whatever period and country that has yet to be made, but the significance of this outing on neo-expressionist Schnabel―zeitgeist-wise from 2017 and on to this year via Netflix―might appear at first to be low. But, as we said, that's how it may appear at first.
For one, we already live in a moment where so much painting can be said to have been born (or re-born) from out of the neo-expressionist mold, without having to look neo-expressionist or old expressionist. By this we mean that a lot of works out there (especially in our parts) purport to be products of the primal or of the urbanized emotion, even those skillfully produced by realist hands with a leaning towards ethnic or nationalist sympathies or otherwise working-class angsts. Many painters today would be happy to talk about the emotional or personal allusions in a piece of theirs, while many deep others would tell you the traditional "what you see and think it is is what it should be." Even more interesting is the fact that there are those who tout the primacy of the emotionality of their works while lambasting those others who do their own (primal) expressions via the gestural non-figurative route, calling these latter hacks.
Then, we also inhabit an age where so much conceptualism and minimalism have come back alive and kicking. These were the movements or image-making predispositions that neo-expressionism supposedly reacted against for being solicitous about either an audience's cerebral efforts and pretentiousness or otherwise about constrictions upon sensibility and acts of visual poetry. It seems conceptualism and minimalism both survived the '80s onslaught and have come back to be part of the ongoing competition for art collectors' embrace at the finish line. The return of this emphasis on the idea is understandable, considering that there is a contemporary abundance of astounding skill tragically wasted on the poorest of ideas or concepts or statements for either storytelling or allegorizings. Surrealism is also being used as a copout, unmindful of the fact that even the surrealist option is an idea that needs to be updated. Anyway, in short it's now truly a postmodern world we live in, as a whole, with no single movement able to claim being the ruling party.
But that's not to say that there aren't the usual reactions to either the past or the present. Allow us to give you these safe examples closest to our home. Our publisher, painter Marcel Antonio, has through all these decades been opening his narrative and quasi-narrative art to buyers' and marketers' silence (a silence regarding the personal or communal significance to them of their respective Antonio purchases or displays); Antonio does this by simply allowing himself to in turn take the rock star's silent or vague stance in relation to his compositions' own seeming allusions. Meanwhile, our editor-in-chief's return to painting last year took an opposite direction, displaying the allegorical or parodying bent for his late-blooming debut show, as if to pick up the conceptualist's favor for the primacy of allusionistic ideas (although many conceptual artists are themselves uninterested with intent) over the mere production of what to the market may be visceral objects or interesting new images on rectangular or square planes. Obviously, both those examples of artistic attitudes speak of reactions towards the consumption or production of art in a contemporary moment, reactions undoubtedly present in every painter working today (a reaction being not necessarily always against something).
And so now we come to the discussion of how significant the Schnabel position might be to this time or period as well as to this locus that we inhabit, and to the discussion of how significant the abovementioned film is to the present. Is the Corsicato film here to reiterate Schnabel's already gigantic presence in recent art history, in order perhaps to side with a side? Or is it here to merely be nostalgic? What sort of reactions might it instigate now?
YOU see, art patronage and art curations (and consequent art history writing) have always been conceptual, have always been on the lookout for that new idea about an idea or that new "cool" idea for making art or a composite image on a plane. The Mary Boones and Annina Noseis and Leo Castellis of the world who facilitated the Schnabels and Basquiats and Clementes of their respective eras have all talked about entries that would seem to have come up with "a new language or lexicon" that would be giving new strength to the idea of, say, painting. At the same time, those who would tout the primacy of these ideas over, say, skill, would, like Conceptual Art with the capital C and the capital A, often want to disobey the rigors of allegory-writing that completes the allegory's being so, perhaps for the sake of mystery. Unless you're a Mary Kelley who might want to liberate your conceptualism from simple cuteness. (Simple cuteness would go thus: "Here's a new idea." "What is that idea's idea?" "It's a new idea; it creates something new and exciting, so be happy! Otherwise you can wait for a reviewer to explain it all to you.") In short, art history operates almost always like fashion, rarely like the substantive rebellion of, say, Baroque art or social realism.
This documentary by Corsicato on Schnabel presents, inadvertently or by implication, that familiar avantgardist view that's been present in modernist and postmodernist culture, which had been implying that art history is a see-saw between two opposing sides, a see-saw that would witness "pretentious" conceptualists and minimalists rising today at the expense of expressionists, the expressionists rising tomorrow after the conceptualists/minimalists become tiresome, and then the conceptualists coming back into the limelight to wrest the throne anew, and so on and so forth. We know that that see-saw is already a myth now, in the same way that we know that prolific Schnabel's works are both expressionist and conceptual, figurative and abstract, finally simply poetry pieces that can't really be fixed to the wall of one facile category participating in the see-saw.
It's the same as when a movement like the Stuckists claim an authenticity and spirituality present in its art that's supposedly absent or lacking in that art it reacted against, that art being conceptualism-based (and so therefore unemotional?). This should backfire, given that every piece that the Stuckists have done would be measured in art-history writing tradition by the concept it has put forward, just like anything in the industry, as well as by the authenticity or spirituality present in it that may be no bigger than anything from recent art history that came before that time we got Stuck. The divide that an artistic or critical reaction repeatedly presents or offers is often a myth that only works for the momentary subversion of earlier appearances, or a certain favor, within the contest for public funding or publicly-funded opportunity (or privately-funded ones, for that matter).
IN Corsicato's "private" film on Schnabel, as the son of a wealthy American family who found a passion for artistic creativity while young, it may be true that the artist's growth sent him into a privileged life of exploration with paint and other materials on canvases and tarps and walls and then with scale, thence into a world of emotional depth and expression within a loving filial atmosphere ("not within the orthodoxies of the avant-garde," as writer-curator Alison M. Guingeras puts it, though it's still a background with its own rich stuff Schnabel found worthy of celebrating or crying about). But with that privileged material, the painter produced psychologically moving works that would later attract, nay touch, the Mary Boones of the world.
A contemporary of Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat, would rise from a different background but also come up with pieces that would be regarded as similarly belonging to this new emotionalism. We all know, of course, that while Basquiat's works' viscerality may have been culled from his economic and racial background and historical themes, as well as from an artistic courage, his neo-expressionism actually came forth from a conceptual approach, oh okay, from a position rich with allegorical intent. Was Schnabel's produce any different, despite the film's initial focus on his out-of-the-box fashion designer-like visual creativity deriving from an "out there" vision manufactured by a secret inner space within the artist's closed-eyes heart? We offer to our contemporary readers that they weren't.
This is a key question concerning the presence of themes and narrativity. After all, very soon Schnabel would turn to filmmaking where he would offer to direct a planned film on the now-deceased Basquiat, with the knowledge that with the material he can do a requiem instead of a mere chronology of events. He would also become friends with Héctor Babenco, a director of movies about social outcasts. It is from this turn that when Corsicato goes back to a discussion of Schnabel's paintings, we get it. We suddenly get that Schnabel's paintings are poems, too, that also happen to be stories! Call them what you want: neo-expressionist statements and what-not. In the end, they're stories, just like that painting of his with an abstract curving vertical white streak of paint that looks like a long-necked seagull or ostrich over a brown canvas curtain that he got from the window of the municipal hall of Bologna that had gotten horizontal streaks on it from its exposure to the sun. Stories. Just like those gigantic paintings of his that art patron Peter Brant understood to be either autobiographical or biographical depictions of small experiences. Stories. Just like that big piece of his that art historian John Richardson couldn't make heads or tails of until Schnabel told him the whole story around it, making Richardson acknowledge how marvelous a work it was.
The stories in Schnabel's paintings may be in their theme or behind the paintings themselves (say, in their materials), or both. That many of his pieces tackle water to become part of his symbology or bunch of metaphors stretch our case about these works' value beyond their simplification by art-historical critiques. Each a story? That, ladies and gentlemen, is what in the end all artworks become when we start to talk about them individually rather than as parts of a body. (It's those stories that diskurso art magazine prefers to talk about rather than the mother story about painters that films like Corsicato's seem to want you to talk about.)
WHEN you become a storyteller, of course you'd be passionate about your vocation, in the same way that gossips become passionate about theirs. Some storytellers are passionate about their activity only for themselves, to satisfy themselves with their selfward-telling or -retelling. But imagine if you have that passion (to tell your and others' stories to yourself and to others), and you realize you can get an audience, and then you do get it. Nay, an applause! You get an applause. It's only natural that your passion and prolificacy would multiply.
And if you found a passion or vocation in storytelling through painting, maybe it was because, from the beginning, you saw yourself as a humble witness to events big and small happening around you, events big and small happening to you and to others, and finally events big and small happening on the canvas, that needed to either be drawn or enhanced. Perhaps you became interested in all these kinds of stories, albeit especially those that would rupture or move your senses. Given all that, your paintings' storytelling would be storytelling that can easily transfer to another medium, say filmmaking, where your stories can be filmed or enhanced filmically. But there, in filmmaking, you may find yourself crying, the way perhaps you cried in your studio, and because you cannot be alone in filmmaking the film crew would see you.
Now, perhaps you were able to see a story in everything. If so, your stories won't always be a picaresque series of adventures. A story of yours could be about a camera as static as the eyes of Jean-Dominique Bauby, over which your background in static-painting narratives comes in handy. The square canvas, after all, is no different from a camera box.
You love stories, yours and others', and so you'd find it natural not to be such a big auteur on set and to be there as a sponge listening to others' takes on a story, taking all their suggestions in to become part of your film. All stories would become your past and present, just as your story would become others' past and present. And by this love you become Whitman, he who'd be a poet and a storyteller and a people-dude all at the same time within a moment.
Your love of others' stories would show in your filmmaking, perhaps because it's filmmaking tradition to tell other people's stories (you still would be, though, even as you tell your own). And people would see if your love of the story you're telling is fake or true. Especially if the choice of what story to tell was yours from the start, as what happened with Schnabel, who first came into the medium of film by insisting on doing the story on Basquiat, following it up with the decision to do a cinematic take on this guy Reinaldo Arenas' history, then becoming friends with Lou Reed because he was moved by the narrative behind Reed's Berlin album and was then asked by the rock star to do the set design for the album tour, with the painter ending up doing a film projection storytelling thing for the concert instead of a usual set, coming up with something like a live music video before it became so common. Schnabel used his daughter's filmmaking talent for that project, and the collaboration with Reed ended up producing a different kind of concert film (packaged as a DVD that came with the live album).
Then, as a painter, perhaps you'd become a star celebrated by authorities in the industry. Naturally, you'd also become a target of polemicists and then by the industry marketers who'd expect you to behave in the usual way. But the only path wherein you could survive all that is via your own belief in your stories, as if these are your only family, your only true friends. And who needs academics when you can be your stories' living catalogue text, eager to talk about every single one of your paintings' allusions and inspirations? And, sure, you'd agree, that paintings "are more hermetic; they don't need to be explained." That doesn't mean that you can't talk about them, which is different from explaining them. And isn't it that great paintings became great because we continued to talk about them, kept telling their stories or the stories about them?
LET'S go back to the gossips. Gossips aren't paid to be gossips, except those who are (as a bonus). It's the same thing with storytellers, to whom there's "no separation between life and art," as Lola Schnabel puts it, "it's all one thing."
Maybe all this storytelling energy comes from the fact that all stories, as we absorb them, usually end up as ours. And maybe that's where all empathy derives, from the hubris wherein everything becomes about you (without making them appear about you) after something lights a memory of something similar that happened to you in the past.
Maybe the storytelling energy comes from the fact that, as you might agree, it's an escape from reality. And we know what escaping means. It's actually getting out of the blindness of reality (as it unfolds all its stimuli) in order to enter a vision (of that same reality). If there is blindness in that vision, it is in your faith in its truthfulness. It's in its hoping for others' future cognizance of its familiarity.
The significance of this outing on Schnabel―zeitgeist-wise―appeared at first to be low. Then we got it. We got it, because these are times when you'd have rags like diskurso art magazine prefer to talk about individual pieces and their stories rather than the mother story about artists that films like Corsicato's seem, but only seem, to want you to talk about. [d]
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