Julian Schnabel’s plate paintings captured the ’80s Zeitgeist and then disappeared. Here’s why collectors are reconsidering them now


“It’s hard to conjure up the mixture of bounty, delay and relentless, thick self-glorification that Julian Schnabel and his Broken-Plate paintings brought to the art world of the 1980s,” wrote the critic Roberta Smith in a New York Times review of a 1999 exhibition revisiting the works that made the artist famous two decades later.

By this time, Schnabel’s plate paintings had come and gone, ushering in a supercharged 1980s New York art market only to crack when the market collapsed in the 1990s.

Fast forward to 2021, and the artist’s plate paintings—shards of broken crockery affixed to large canvases, ranging from boldly rendered allegorical and abstract works to portraits, are back. And this time around, they have some very prominent supporters arguing for their continued relevance (and market value).

As it turns out, Schnabel returned to plaque painting decades after his explosive beginnings and long after establishing himself as a filmmaker. These new works include the exhibition “Self-portraits of others”, presented at the Brant Foundation in the East Village until December 30. The 25 paintings feature famous artists – Frida Kahlo, Caravaggio, Vincent van Gogh – and actors and relatives (Willem Dafoe, Oscar Isaac, his son, Cy) dressed as these same artists.

Julien Schnabel, Number 2 The Two Fridas (2019). © Julian Schnabel. Image courtesy of the Pace Gallery.

“Since the late 1970s Julian’s plate paintings have been an integral part of his work and it was wonderful to see how this new group of portraits evolved and reflected Julian’s success as a filmmaker and painter”, collector Peter Brant, who created the Manhattan branch of his eponymous foundation inside a former Con Edison power station in 2019, told Artnet News.

The series originated from Schnabel’s 2018 film about Vincent Van Gogh, At the gates of eternity– a film which, in this case, was inspired by a previous series of plate paintings that Schnabel created in 2014 depicting roses he encountered in Arles near Van Gogh’s grave.

As props for the film, Schnabel painted Willem Dafoe as Van Gogh; he then decided to go further by adapting these works into a series of paintings on plates. “It’s something Julian does,” says Schnabel dealer Marc Glimcher, president of the Pace Gallery. “It takes an artist and brings the artist to life with the help of an actor or a painting.

Glimcher and Brant encountered these works last year on the former tennis court at Schnabel’s house in Montauk on Eastern Long Island. At the time, Schnabel was presenting another series, paintings on tarpaulin, lined up in Pace. But Brant was enamored enough to decide to show the works on the plaque in his own space.

Installation view of "Julian Schnabel: Self-portraits of others" at the Brant Foundation in New York.  Photo credit: Tom Powel Imaging.  Image courtesy of the Brant Foundation.

Installation view of “Julian Schnabel: Self Portraits of Others” at the Brant Foundation in New York. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging. Image courtesy of the Brant Foundation.

The pandemic significantly delayed the show and also scuttled plans for a presentation at another private art venue with deep pockets, the Hall Foundation in Derneburg, Germany. But it didn’t take long for word to spread about Schnabel’s latest effort.

Most of the work, priced at $ 650,000 each, were purchased prior to Brant’s presentation. The exhibition therefore consists mainly of loans from collectors such as Brant, Amalia Dayan and Adam Lindemann, the Hall Art Foundation and private collections in Toronto, Stockholm and Switzerland. Twelve works are listed courtesy of Pace (suggesting that they are, officially or unofficially, still for sale).

How it all began

Schnabel created his first plate painting in New York in 1978. They are made possible through the use of Bondo®, a material used for auto body repairs for dents in cars. The series debuted in 1979 at the Mary Boone Gallery, now closed; in the early 1980s, they were selling for between $ 25,000 and $ 60,000. In 1983, the auction record for a painting on plaque, our Lady (1979), was $ 93,500, a formidable sum at the time for a work so fresh out of the studio.

Critics were divided. The poet and writer René Ricard was won over by the series: “There is no brush or thick enough impasto to get it, so we needed plates…. It’s as if these shards are flying across the room and sticking to it with the force of the blow.

Smith, in this 1999 New York Times critic, was not so convinced: “M. Schnabel’s early plate paintings are often inconsistent and his development since then has not clarified their promise,” she wrote. “Their influence on the other arts has been diffuse, more emotional than stylistic. Most of them feel like relics rather than viable works of art. “

Julian Schnabel, What once denoted chaos is now archival matter (1981) Image courtesy of Christie's.

Julien Schnabel, What once denoted chaos is now a matter of record (nineteen eighty one). Image courtesy of Christie’s.

Schnabel stopped doing the plate paintings in 1988, with the exception of the occasional portrait of friends, according to his son, art dealer Vito Schnabel. By this time, he had created a total of around 50, a number that may seem small considering their importance in the artist’s mythology.

The paintings fell out of favor when the market collapsed in the early 1990s, and as the contemporary art market rebounded in the early 2000s, the average price for a work in the series hovered between 200 $ 000 and $ 350,000, according to the Artnet price database.

After more than two decades of inconsistent demand, interest resumed around 2013. In two successive years of May sales, the paintings on plates set new records for the artist. Schnabel’s dealer Pace Gallery began pushing for a return tour after returning to the gallery in 2016 (he had had a more informal relationship with Gagosian since 2002).

Today, Schnabel’s plate paintings are an example of a body of work that occupies a significant place in cultural consciousness and carries the support of enough influential and deep-pocketed collectors to ensure that it will not be left over. Eight of the artist’s top 10 auction prices are for paintings on plates, though only one was set last year.

Julian Schnabel and Vito Schnabel at the LongHouse Reserve Summer Benefit on July 20, 2019 in East Hampton, New York. (Photo by Sonia Moskowitz / Getty Images)

Schnabel’s auction record is not held by a plate painting, but by an oil and cowhide on velvet work, Ethnic type # 14 (1984), which sold for $ 1.4 million at Christie’s in 2017, doubling its high estimate of $ 700,000. The second highest auction price, a plaque painting from the later series ‘Van Gogh roses in Arles’, sold for $ 1.2 million at a Sotheby’s Day sale in 2018.

More recently, Taiwanese singer and taste maker Jay Chou included a pink plaque painting created just this year in a sale he hosted for Sotheby’s, suggesting the work may gain international appeal. Victory after S-chanf VI (2021) sold for $ 927,000 in Hong Kong in June, breaking its high estimate of $ 193,230.

Some of the relatively modest auction prices may also reflect the offer. Vito Schnabel estimates that around half of the original plate paintings from the 1970s and 1980s remain in the museums, institutions and foundations that originally acquired them. In the private market, he says, they were sold at prices well above those at auction, and ranging from $ 3 million to $ 6 million.

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