A painter friend pointed me in the direction of last night’s 60 Minutes profile on Julian Schnabel (described, by said friend, as a fifth-rate painter, a second-rate conceptual artist, and a first-rate film director, which I think is apt).
It’s an interesting overview of his career, which skyrocketed in the early 80s, and it culminates in a bit of spleen-venting over how badly Robert Hughes trashed him back in the day (now almost three decades ago).
When his third film, the exquisite The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, came out in 2007, the New York Review of Books ran what I thought was a terrific overview of his career by Sanford Schwartz. His first film, the biopic Basquiat, offers a shrewd glance backward the downtown painting scene in the 80s (and certainly is more watchable than the terrible, terrible 1980 Merchant Ivory film Jane Austen in Manhattan, whose only redeeming feature is that it captures the grit of a few street scenes and unfinished loft spaces that now are valued in the millions). Schnabel’s second film, Before Night Falls, also has New York content — though mostly at the end, when the Cuban exile novelist Reinaldo Arena, played by Javier Bardem, kills himself in the city in 1990. It’s the only one of Schnabel’s films I’ve only seen once, which means I probably need to give it another viewing.
If Schnabel’s films are virtually flawless, his painting might be described as merely interesting. But as the critic Sianne Ngai has argued, even conceptual art that is merely interesting is probably going to be more interesting than aesthetic judgments (like Hughes’s) that claim a sort of finality on the subject. “[A]esthetic judgments are not in
themselves interesting,” she concludes, though “their time-consuming and ongoing justifications are.” As my painter friend pointed out, Schnabel has clearly won the old Schnabel-Hughes feud of the 1980s. Probably because his work — and his ongoing ego-driven autobiography — turned out to be more interesting than anyone else’s claims to the contrary.