These works suggest that Mr. Schnabel's primary gift may be very different from what it has been generally thought to be.Schnabel made a ton of dough in the 80's during that Mary Boone era, the artist as rock star era, when Jean Michel Basquiat was in a Blondie video, when people wore Vivien Westwood and piled into bathroom stalls two and three at a time in places like Max's Kansas City and the Tunnel and Mr. Chow, to hoover cocaine and comment on each other's fabulousness.
At least, that's how I imagine the era from pictures and movies and books like "Bright Lights, Big City" by Jay McInerney. I wasn't there. In 1987, when Schnabel was already established enough to have a retrospective at the Whitney, I was nine. I was busy deflecting mockery for my backwards shorts (I always had trouble with shorts) and sneaking around the neighborhood with homemade maps pretending to be teen detective Encylclopedia Brown.
But back to Schnabel. The thing about Julian Schnabel is that his rise was the most meteoric, his paintings the most expensive. He didn't have the dignity that comes with early death (Basquiat, overdose, Keith Haring, AIDS), so there he was, rich as a sultan, as his famously broken crockery-enhanced paintings mocked from the walls of upper east side townhouses, huge and dark and, if I may be so bold, ugly. He compared himself to Picasso, he walked around in pajamas. Maybe it all came too easily for him, or maybe there was a kind of buyer's remorse. It's like digging up an old Cabbage Patch doll and thinking, "My mother waited in line, all that time, for this?" In any case, the critics turned against him. Schadenfreude ruled. People wanted to see this cocky artist, this rock star; they wanted to see him disappear.
And for awhile, he did. And then he started making movies.
Last night I saw The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a movie about a glamorous man at the height of his career, who suffers a massive stroke that leaves him unable move or communicate except through the movement of one working, blinking eye.
A movie about one blinking eye, and I was completely transfixed. The visual quality of the film, a kind of love poem to the power of imagination and memory, spoke to me and my own experience, despite its apparent departure from the experience of this poor blinking frenchman.
Glamour struck down, reborn as something more human, more sublime. There is an understanding that comes with failure.