Aspen Art Museum hosts Julian Schnabel’s iconic ‘Plate Paintings’ |

Aspen Art Museum hosts Julian Schnabel’s iconic ‘Plate Paintings’

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Close up of "Spain," 1986, from Julian Schnabel’s “Plate Paintings” at the Aspen Art Museum.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times |

If You Go …

What: Julian Schnabel, “Plate Paintings 1978-86”

Where: Aspen Art Museum

When: Through Feb. 19, 2017

How much: Free

More info:


What: Movies at the Museum: ‘Basquiat’

Where: Aspen Art Museum

When: Friday, Nov. 18, 7 p.m.

How much: Free

More info:

Julian Schnabel’s “Plate Paintings” crashed onto the art scene of the early 1980s with all the heat and subtlety of a Molotov cocktail.

They made the brash Texas-bred, New York-based artist a star, an icon of the era. They gave him his Pink Palace in the West Village, then brought on an inevitable critical backlash against his popularity, and opened up doors for filmmaking and other creative adventures. Now, decades later, the plate paintings are getting their first museum show.

Schnabel’s “Plate Paintings 1978-86” opened this month at the Aspen Art Museum and runs through February. It fills two basement galleries with 13 of his massive, severe paintings on bulky canvases of shattered plates. The paintings in the show come to Aspen from an array of private collections and museums. One piece, “The Death of Fashion,” held by the Des Moines Art Center, has never been loaned out before. A self-portrait in the show comes from the local collection of Sandy and Paul Edgerley.

If they haven’t been collected together very often, it’s in part because Schnabel was eager to move on and do different things as an artist — not to be trapped by the success of the plate paintings. This summer he recalled bringing a gallerist to see another body of work he’d made in the mid-1980s where he used resin and paint on tarps, created outdoors on a tennis court.

“He said, ‘Don’t you have any plate paintings? I could sell some of those,’” Schnabel said in a July talk at the museum. “I said, ‘Yeah, well, anybody could. So, no. There’s no show.’”

He canceled that exhibition entirely.

Early on, Schnabel didn’t want the plate paintings to be seen as a series. When he showed them in his studio, he would cover up all but one of the paintings so that viewers could view and judge each on its own. He didn’t want them to be compared. Decades later, he’s softened that stance a bit and allowed the Aspen Art Museum to display them side by side, inviting comparison between these huge and complicated paintings.

Viewing them in person and all together is a bit disorienting. Up close, they’re abstract and sculptural. Take a few steps back and all that caked paint on plates may take shape into a portrait of a human, an animal, a bullring, a boat (or it might not). You also realize they’re not strictly plates — there are teacups, terra cotta vases, cisterns, clay sculptures and other busted materials. The whole china cabinet, it seems, has toppled out of Schnabel’s palette.

“There’s a battle between what’s pictorial and what’s object and that space in between,” he said this summer in a conversation with Aspen Art Museum director Heidi Zuckerman on the GrassRoots TV program “Art Matters.”

These constellations of broken kitchenware suggest the sounds of crashing and hint at domestic conflict — the smashed plate of a parental argument — or larger scale calamities that destroy things. Schnabel acknowledges “codes and keys get illuminated” in the detritus on the canvas, like whispers of Kristallnacht. Spending some time in front of Schnabel’s “The Mud in Mudanza” from 1982, with its plates sunk deep into a blood-red surface that Schnabel described as “bruised,” I couldn’t help but think of the ground in New Orleans in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina, after the floodwaters receded, when household items caked into mud in the streets.

“Mud in Mudanza” also makes use of more than plates and paint. Near its center, animal horns are mounted on a bronze crucifix and wrapped in chains. It has an overpowering aura of suffering and sacrifice — although, of course, what it’s about is up to the viewer. As Schabel put it this summer: “The painting is dead until somebody walks in front of it.”

Sometimes the plates appear to be breaking apart, sometimes congealing and other times they look like long-neglected artifacts in a post-apocalyptic ruin.

Over the decades, Schnabel has been elusive about his process creating the plate paintings, the inspiration for them and his intended meanings. He has often been quoted as saying, “Everything you need to know about my paintings is in my paintings.”

But the cagey painter did shed a bit of light on them this summer during his talk at the museum and in Zuckerman’s interview on “Art Matters” (it is something of a work of performance art in itself for Schnabel, the notorious art world superstar who Morley Safer on “60 Minutes” said possessed “an ego the size of Manhattan,” to kindly discuss his work on public-access television in Colorado).

The genesis of the plate paintings, he said, came during his time in Barcelona as a young man in the 1970s. Specifically, Antoni Gaudi’s meticulous mosaics in the Park Güell and a white mosaic in a “crappy restaurant” nearby sparked the idea of painting on broken plates.

Returning to New York, Schnabel went to a Salvation Army depot and collected all the plates he could find. As he recalled, a dwarf assisted him there and was carefully attempting to box up the ceramics when Schnabel stopped him.

“I said, ‘Just drop ‘em,’” he recalled. “‘I’m going to break them anyway.’ And he did.”

Schnabel didn’t want the breaks to look contrived. He wanted it to look like junk.

“I also didn’t want it to look like I had done it, that it was just like that,” he explained.

Schnabel was 26 when he made the first of the plate paintings, “The Patients and the Doctors,” from 1978, which is included in the Aspen show. In it, he painted crude lines of paint over the broken plates.

He refined that approach over his years working in the form, moving away from abstraction. In “Aborigine Painting,” from 1980, half of the canvas is broken plates receding into the background, while the other is simply a paint-on-canvas image of a bearded aboriginal man — he’s blue-faced, the rest of him red.

The figures and portraits took shape spontaneously.

“I never knew what it was going to be,” he said during his museum talk. “So I kept doing them because it was always a surprise.”

Though Schnabel’s name is synonymous with these plate paintings, he has gone to do much more, including other works on nontraditional surfaces and in film. This fall, the museum has been celebrating Schnabel’s career with a mini film festival showcasing his work as a movie director, such as “Before Night Falls,” which includes Javier Bardem’s breakout performance, and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” which won Schnabel the best director prize at Cannes. The series concludes tonight with a screening of Schnabel’s first feature, the 1996 biopic “Basquiat,” starring Jeffrey Wright as Jean-Michel Basquiat and David Bowie as Andy Warhol.

With the works on broken plates, the young Schnabel found a visual signature and became the kind of international sensation that most artist’s don’t dare dream of becoming. New York Times art critic Roberta Smith once called the plate paintings “the shot heard round the world” of the 1980s international art scene, “the signal that American art was joining the Neo-Expressionist free-for-all already in progress.”

But Schnabel needed to move on. He didn’t want to milk the broken-plate practice for his entire life and, he said this summer, didn’t want his works to be defined by a single gesture like Jackson Pollock’s drips.

“It could have been, ‘Oh, this is a guy who breaks plates,’” he said on “Art Matters.” “But that’s not a guy I wanted to be.”

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