Art: Expressionist Bric-a-Brac

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In a teetering market, Julian Schnabel is hyped

If one were to take a straw poll on th best-known young American artist the winner would certainly be Julian Schnabel, 30. The 1981-82 art season drenched him in publicity: not accidentally, since his main patron is Charle Saatchi, the English advertising man who also takes care of the public image of Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party. The art world was diligently sown with rumors that his paintings were selling for $30,000, $50,000 or $75,000, though no one was on record as actually paying such sums for the work of the new stupor mundi, and the press showed its usual gullibility about the steep differences between publicity price, asking price and real discounted price. This classic hype was carried out, against the backdrop of a teetering art market, on a scale not seen since the promotion of Bernard Buffet in Paris at about the time Schnabel was born.

Schnabel's work is tailor-made to look

important. It is all about capital letters

Life, Death, the Zeitgeist, and above all the tragic though profitable condition of being a Great Artist. It is big, and stuffed with clunky references to other Great Art, from Caravaggio to Joseph Beuys. Its imagery is callow and solemn, a Macy's parade of expressionist bric-a-brac: skulls, bullfights, crucifixes, severed heads. It includes portraits of the likes of Baudelaire, Artaud, Burroughs and other connoisseurs of crisis. It serves up, by implication, the image of Schnabel himself as a young Prince of Aquitaine, albeit a Texan one, sleepless with memory and disillusion, contemplating the wrenched spare parts of history: "These fragments I have shored against my ruins." In short, it is pretentious in a blustering all-American way, and through its angst one catches the glint of a beady little eye. But at least Schnabel does not lack industry: his current exhibition at the Mary Boone Gallery in New York is his eighth gallery show in six years.

There are two kinds of painting in it: straight and plate. The straight paintings—pigment on canvas—are the weaker and look like nth-generation abstract expressionism, which, in fact, they are. Their grid and curlicues come out of Matisse via Richard Diebenkorn, suffering indignities in translation: the drawing is sloppy, the color mud. There are also some steals from Robert Motherwell, in the form of maps of Europe with overpainting. Such work is homage rendered as cliché; but then Schnabel's reputation rests more on his plate paintings, layer on layer of broken crockery combined with things like antlers and twigs and slathered in paint.

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