I made it through Grand Central Station from the south side, but got jammed up trying to get into the MetLife building. Just as the security guard waved me to stop I noticed -- with an overwhelming jolt -- two huge paintings by Julian Schnabel in the stone-faced interior lobby. What? Art? Here, in the heart of this imposing citadel? In perfect contrast to their polished, corporate setting – they were oversized, nearly falling apart, on dirty, wrinkled-looking canvas. The ham-handed strokes and forms looked to be painted by a giant who almost didn't care. The artist who, “cultivates provocation and paradox,” loves to define himself as a “cave painter,” according to a press release issued about the paintings when they were shown in Italy in 2006.
Immanuel Kant contrasts the beautiful with the sublime in his “Critique of Judgment.” A judgment of beauty involves a perception of harmony and purpose with respect to something we can grasp all at once. Judging the sublime adds size and scale to the equation – it addresses things that are bigger than us and even beyond our ability to imagine. “The feeling of the sublime is …produced by the feeling of a momentary inhibition of the vital forces followed immediately by an outpouring of them that is all the stronger…The liking for the sublime contains not so much a positive pleasure as rather admiration and respect, and so should be called a negative pleasure.” Schnabel’s oversized paintings functioned as a single sublime thread hanging from a tailored suit of stone. If tugged, the thread could unravel the entire building.
The guard let me see a third Schnabel on the floor closed to the public and explained that there were two more even bigger — measuring probably twenty feet square -- on the lower level. From there I could get back to Park Avenue and fulfill my mission. Ogling the larger Schnabels and making only one wrong turn inside the Helmsley building, I found my way uptown on the other side.
Julian Schnabel says about his work, “I use any tool I can to realize the physical embodiment of my impulse.” There is a connection between the artist’s impulse and their materials that is replicated in the audience’s experience of the work. The British photographer Tactita Dean believes “art works best when it responds to the autobiography of the viewer.” The connection may not be so much the gratification of a desire, or fulfillment of a fantasy, but a sublime “negative pleasure” such as recognizing our fears. Stumbling upon the paintings unexpectedly, my surprise drove the connection deeper. As I faced down my concern about getting lost in the labyrinth of stone and steel over Park Avenue, I found the treasure: Schnabel’s cave paintings.
Post Script: Takako Azami
On a different day I set out on a "safer" straight line to see a short list of shows In Chelsea. The walk was just a typical stroll from point A to point B, and, unlike my trek up Park Avenue, I fully expected to see some art. In thinking about Schabel’s translation of impulse to artwork, the clearest connection I saw was in Takako Azami’s ink paintings on stretched hemp paper at M.Y. Art Prospects. “Pine Trees”, in particular, felt musical with its rich array of tones and intervals. The artist has trained in the traditional style of Japanese ink painting, but has adapted and transformed the technique over the last 10 years. Visible on the surface of the stretched paper is the “back” of the artist’s dabs and blots of black and grey ink and white chalk pigments. The simple directness and intelligence of the work was right on the surface.
Above image: by Takako Azami, "Pine Trees," 2008, Ink, pigment on hemp paper, 4' x 6', courtesy of M.Y. Art Prospects Gallery