Big & brash, Schnabel at UMMA

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

Artist Julian Schnabel only works in big.

His canvases, like the man’s personality, are huge, and the uproar they caused when he first hit the New York art scene in the late 1970s was equally immense — running both negative and positive.

Walk through “Julian Schnabel” at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, a show of rarely-seen canvases up through Sept. 27, and you get some idea why.

Schnabel, 63, seems to want to entertain, disorient and overwhelm all at the same time. His work, which started as a splashy rebellion against 1970s minimalism, is a rollicking rollercoaster.

For a while in the 1980s, Schnabel was one of the biggest names in New York. But not everyone was a fan.

Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes, for example, famously wrote that “Schnabel’s work is to painting what Sylvester Stallone’s is to acting — a lurching display of oily pectorals — except that Schnabel makes bigger public claims for himself.”

Case in point? “I’m the closest thing to Picasso that you’ll see in this (expletive deleted) life!”

Despite Schnabel’s healthy ego, it’s hard to look at examples from his Plate Series, like “Portrait of Chris Brant,” without being impressed. In these highly textured works, Schnabel has fixed hundreds of broken pieces of crockery on a canvas, and painted across the jagged surface.

The result is a little like rough mosaic, but the implied violence in smashing the fragments gives these works, especially the portraits, a dark undercurrent.

Equally dazzling and unsettling are the paired portraits in the show’s last gallery, “Large Girl with No Eyes.” The identical blondes in question rise up a full 13 feet above the viewer, their mild expressions at odds with rough horizontal lines that in each case blot out their eyes.

And while he’s mostly a painter, he ranges well beyond the fence. A prime example in this show is “Untitled (Two Cushions)” — two, well, sofa cushions the artist painted and hung on the wall.

In other cases, Schnabel surprisingly spins off into misty surrealism, notably with “The Sky of Illimitableness.” In this New Age-y work, a mountain goat wearing a fur crown resembling a dead bunny rabbit stands on a precipice, staring out into the swirling void.

But if Schnabel is anything, he’s a classic artistic polymath. Indeed, he’s probably best known these days for his film work, including the 1996 “Basquiat” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” which won the Best Director prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.



Through Sept. 27

University of Michigan Museum of Art,

525 S. State, Ann Arbor


11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday

(734) 764-0395