That '80s Show
Considering what's now on display in "Swans and Portraits" -- an exhibition of screen prints and two large paintings by Julian Schnabel at AZ/NY Gallery in Scottsdale -- the New York artist better not be giving up his film directing day job anytime soon.
AZ/NY Gallery, new to the Scottsdale contemporary arts scene, opened its doors in October of last year in the retail complex adjacent to Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, kicking off its first season with a show for New York graffiti artist John "Crash" Matos. According to Allen Baron, who together with Martin Blinder co-owns AZ/NY Gallery, the gallery's primary objective is "to bring New York contemporary art by established artists to Scottsdale."
What Baron should have added is that the gallery is actually concentrating on selling warmed-over work by eclipsed New York art stars from the 1980s, a particularly egregious era of American artistic output that has worn about as well as Madonna's reputation for abstinence.
A goodly chunk of American art from the 1980s, particularly that of neo-expressionist painter Julian Schnabel, has inspired bilious spewing from the likes of Time and New Republic art critic Robert Hughes (who, interestingly enough, just spoke at SMoCA's opening of James Turrell's Infinite Light exhibition) and the Village Voice's Peter Schjeldahl. A decadent time birthed by Warholian Popism and nurtured by Reaganomics, the '80s was an era of crash-and-burn land deals, Rolex watches, Mercedes sedans, cocaine snowdrifts and art signed by instantly made names then purchased by the nouveau riche to match that custom-made Italian leather couch.
Artwise, it was an epoch of down-and-dirty commercialism, especially in downtown Manhattan, during which, as critic Hughes so graphically paints it, "the scale of cultural feeding became gross, and its ailment coarse; bulimia, the neurotic cycle of gorge and purge, the driven consumption and regurgitation of images and reputations, became our main cultural metaphor. Never had there been so many artists, so much art, so many collectors, so many inflated claims, so little sense of measure."
Anyone remotely in contact with the art world in the late '70s and early '80s will remember Schnabel as the poster boy for obnoxious bad-boy art celebrities. In 1979, at the age of 29, the then unknown painter sold out his first show at the new Mary Boone Gallery in SoHo even before the exhibition opened, becoming ever more insufferable the more famous he became. And he immediately became famous for large-scale, thickly impastoed oil paintings, often of well-known friends and art-world celebrities, done over a field of broken plates and pottery that, over the years, tend to fall off.
Schnabel's the very same character who in his unbridled, hubris-filled youth unabashedly compared himself to Pablo Picasso. Bucks-up parvenu art collectors, enthralled by the too cool cachet of the SoHo art scene, stood in line to commission work from Schnabel for hundreds of thousands of dollars; getting an interview with the artist (and living through it unscathed) was akin to scheduling a papal audience. Schnabel's pottery paintings, along with others mixing abstract, figurative, art historical and flea market elements, have turned out to be critics' favorite chew toys, museum conservators' nightmares and investors' dreams gone bust.
By 1990, the once jacked-up art market of the 1980s was pronounced dead, and so was Schnabel's illustrious painting career. Hughes gleefully reported that a 1988 broken plate piece "by the Meatball Hero of the epoch," bought in London for $225,000 in 1989, went unsold at a 1990 Sotheby's auction ("at which point," gloats Hughes, "a couple of ironists in the room had the indelicacy to clap"). Schnabel's fall from aesthetic grace deflected him into making movies -- Basquiat (1996) and, most recently, Before Night Falls, a critically acclaimed biopic about Reinaldo Arenas, a gay Cuban poet persecuted by an intolerant Castro government following the Cuban Revolution. He even cut a woeful album titled Every Silver Lining Has a Cloud, which prodded music critic Nicky Baxter, in an article pointedly titled "Shut Up and Paint," to proclaim Schnabel a disaster both as a singer and a songwriter, despite his high-profile hobnobbing with and support from NYC's rock and jazz hipoisie.
When asked whether AZ/NY Gallery actually represents the '80s' most disparaged art icon turned director, the dapper, middle-aged Baron admits that it does not. The Schnabel screen prints being shown by the Scottsdale gallery -- limited to editions of 90 per image -- were obtained from the print publisher of this particular series, according to Baron. However, two massive, untitled and undistinguished gestural paintings in overpowering faux antique-style frames (personally chosen by the artist, says Baron, and each bearing the hefty price tag of $95,000) do belong to the gallery.
From all appearances, a number of this show's figurative pieces seem to be resin-drenched screen print rehashes of a series of mixed-media portraits Schnabel showed in 1998 at PaceWildenstein and Sperone Westwater. Borrowing from 17th- and 18th-century Spanish portraiture imagery of clerical and courtly figures, each image is apparently dedicated to someone in the artist's life who has died. These, in turn, were seemingly spawned by a series of two dozen messily expressionistic paintings Schnabel produced between 1995 and 1996 in memory of an Italian artist, assistant and friend, Paolo Malfi, who was killed in a motorcycle accident. After seeing the originals, Peter Schjeldahl tartly noted that "Schnabel's thematic and poetic taste, the domain of what his art is supposed to be about, is aggressively awful: puerile, bombastic, maudlin, banal . . ." He concluded that "[t]he prospect of being thus narcissistically mooned over posthumously should lend death a new terror for anyone in the painter's circle."
God only knows what inspired the swan-themed prints thrown into the AZ/NY mix, which look more like stylized storks, or maybe pelicans, painted in matte white oil over brushy screen printed backgrounds with ambiguous objects or figures -- all again laced with a shiny resin spill and dedicated to various dead friends.
AZ/NY's choice of Schnabel's sallow work makes perfect sense when you find out that Blinder and Baron are former founders of Martin Lawrence Limited Editions, now defunct, and Martin Lawrence Galleries, a chain of upscale commercial art marts, most of which are still operating in California under new ownership. These are the guys who first brought limited-edition prints by Salvador Dali, Victor Vasarely, Joan Miró and Andy Warhol to the unwashed shopping mall masses.
"We were the very first gallery to be in a shopping mall," Baron proudly says, referring to the Martin Lawrence Galleries location next to a luggage store in the San Fernando Valley's Sherman Oaks Galleria (as in Moon Unit Zappa's "Valley Girl" hangout). "We published a series of Warhol 'Lipton Soup Box' prints," Baron recalls. "We had the French Onion, we had the Mushroom." Their new gallery, however, is geared at dealing in art Blinder and Baron love and collect personally.
There's something almost naive -- and, in a way, touchingly quaint -- in AZ/NY Gallery's questionable quest to bring what it must consider topnotch art here to the Western frontier. New York hasn't been the epicenter of the international art world for more than 20 years. The days of a hoppin', boppin' New York art scene peopled with larger-than-life characters like Andy Warhol, Jean Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring mingling with sullen actors, out-of-control rockers and flash-in-the-pan authors in smoky little downtown Manhattan clubs are long past. Art is no longer connected with any particular location in the universe. Los Angeles, London, Cologne, Seattle, Seoul, Chicago and a million other places -- including Phoenix, Arizona -- are now viable loci for creating serious and notable art.
Someone needs to break it gently to AZ/NY Gallery that the sun has set on the New York art empire and that the 1980s, thankfully, are over.
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