Julian Schnabel’s exuberant style on display at Glass House


Julian Schnabel’s exhibition in residence this summer at the Glass House in New Canaan is most astonishing as a study of contrasts, sparkling friction of aesthetics.

Schnabel went on to become a big celebrity and, to make up for the contempt, as the bad-boy superstar of the 1980s New York art scene. His paintings were huge, almost the size of a wall, and seemingly reckless. Some of the first ones were encrusted with broken plates. His entry in Art Story, an online guide to modern art, cites “his near-mania for excess” and his rejection of “minimalist asceticism.”

By these standards, Schnabel should not have approached the Glass House. The 49-acre property is named after what is arguably Connecticut’s most significant piece of architecture. This is the very modern transparent house built in 1949 by architect Philip Johnson. The only interior wall is a cylinder hiding the bathroom. The only painting is a 17th-century landscape depicting the funeral of an Athenian general believed to reflect Johnson’s love for space order. Indeed, the whole property is a weathered landscape.

Yet the Glass House is not an experience. Johnson and David Whitney, his partner in life and in the art collection, lived there until their deaths a few months apart in 2005. The bulk of their collection of more than 2,000 pieces went to the Museum of Modern Art, where Johnson founded the Department of Architecture. But they left a small permanent collection at the Glass House, now a National Trust Historic Site. The most represented artist is Frank Stella, best known for his colorful geometric abstractions. There are also eight Schnabels, and six of them are on display in the final phase of the rotating exhibition which ends on August 14.

Curator Irene Shum says Johnson and Whitney bought their first Schnabel quite late, in 1990, but then “fervently” pursued it. Why they did so is a question left open in the exhibition’s caption: “Paintings I Hope Philip and David Would Like.” “


Hope implies that they might not be satisfied with works from the first two phases of the exhibition – wax paintings from the 1970s and paintings made since 2000 – which come from other collections. Shum says Schnabel expressed his uncertainty as to what drew Johnson and Whitney to him.

“Looks like it’s obscuring, but it’s not,” Shum said. “He knew he was recovered, but he didn’t know what turned them on. It’s like becoming friends with someone, at what point do you realize that you are friends? There was a moment when they suddenly grabbed it, and Julian didn’t know what it was.

The largest painting, if painting is the right word, now on display is “Love: Carmen Iris Rivera”, measuring almost 12 feet by 12 feet. It depicts a surreal scene with a floating noose and a falling iris and is performed against a Kabuki theater backdrop.

Shum says Schnabel liked to paint on found materials. The first painting acquired by Johnson and Whitney, “Untitled (Bingo)”, was done in oil on a green tarp. While on tour, Shum paid particular attention to work done on a 10ft by 8ft drop cloth, “Untitled (Los Besos de tu Amor.)”

Although it contains few recognizable images, its 1992 origin tells a six-degree-apart story about Schnabel, his second career as a director, and the 1980s art scene. Part of the painting, Shum says, was worked by actor Gary Oldman, at the end of his marriage to actress Uma Thurman, and which would later appear in Schnabel’s bio-photo of his neo-expressionist contemporary, Jean-Michel Basquiat.

In the film, Oldman plays Albert Melo, a character believed to be a barely disguised Schnabel. In an extended scene, shot in Schnabel’s New York studio, Melo / Schnabel appears wearing Schnabel’s favorite bathrobe and pajamas. In the film, Melo tells Basquiat: “Your audience is not even born yet.”

In life, Basquiat rose to fame before he died at the age of 27 from a heroin overdose, but his audience, as measured by market value, grew larger and larger. In May, shortly after the opening of the Schnabel exhibition at the Glass House, a Japanese collector purchased a Basquiat for $ 110,500,000, a record price for an American painting.

Glass House’s permanent collection does not include a Basquiat, but does contain works by Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and David Salle, who had a common history with Schnabel. Both presented their first exhibitions at the future famous Mary Boone gallery. Yet Johnson and Whitney first bought Salle, another neo-expressionist, and that’s one reason, Shum says, that Schnabel felt “he was waiting for them to figure it out.”

Visitors to the Glass House will see the paintings in the same setting as Johnson and Whitney, in a gallery built into an earth berm. Resembling a bunker, its doors are said to recall the ancient Greek temple of Atreus. The interior space is circular with hinged walls.

In a 1991 video, Johnson says he doesn’t know of any gallery in the world with movable walls, “like a postcard holder,” that can be rotated to reveal different paintings. He also explains why he designed the gallery to show only six paintings at a time.

“That’s all you can perceive in a glance, at first glance is all you can register,” Johnson says. He also wanted to avoid what he called “museum fatigue,” the despair that comes from looking into a long gallery and thinking, “Oh my God, I must see 62 more paintings. In our gallery you have nothing to see, just the six you are up against.

For now, those six are Schnabels. Glass House tours that include the exhibit allow limited time in the gallery, but there’s a lot more to look out for on the property. On the walkway leading from the Glass House to the gallery, it’s easy to mistake a 1971 minimalist sculpture by Donald Judd for an unfinished building foundation. Further on is a 30-foot-long horizontal sculpture suggesting a fallen totem pole. In fact, this is another Schnabel, titled “Ozymandias”, based on Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem about the fallen monument of a proud pharaoh.

A video made in conjunction with the exhibition opens with Schnabel walking alongside without comment. Most of his remarks take place inside the Glass House and Gallery, where he is shown moving the walls hung with his own paintings. He says the gallery shows Johnson believed art, like poetry and music, should be kept close at hand.

“He got it all,” says Schnabel. “What human beings might need to live. I guess that’s what this whole place is about.

Joel Lang is an award-winning Connecticut journalist and frequent contributor to Sunday Arts & Style.


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