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Homo Painting 1981 is a very large oil painting on red velvet by the American painter and printmaker Julian Schnabel. Its composition is dominated by overlapping lines and forms, among which sit a collection of portraits. Two of the four portraits in the left half of the picture are well-realised, while a further two less distinct. The largest face has been highlighted with yellow tones and carries a pained expression as it looks on at two male figures shown in white outlines in the right half of the work. A whitish-grey face stares out at the viewer from a position to the left of the yellow head, below which is echoed two fainter portraits, one white and one yellow. The two male figures outlined on the right stand together casually, with one placing his arm around the other’s shoulder. Intersecting with these images is a web-like tangle of white lines that runs over the composition and is thickly concentrated on the left side. The palette is dominated by white, grey, black, yellow and blue tones, which stand out against the red velvet of the support. This is an arresting, vibrant work which, as its title suggests, references the theme of sexuality, in particular homosexuality.
Schnabel produced Homo Painting in 1981, most likely in his studio in New York City. However, the artist was also working in Amagansett, Long Island, in the summer of 1981, which offers another possible location for its creation. The work is composed of oil paint applied to unprimed, stretched, red velvet fabric that consists of several lengths of the material sewn together.
Homo Painting’s multi-layered composition depicts the two American artists Ross Bleckner (born 1949) and Izhar Patkin (born 1955) standing on the right in outline. Schnabel rented space from a building owned by Bleckner in Tribeca, New York City, and he appears in several other works by Schnabel, including Untitled (Ross Bleckner) 1985 (Paolo Curti / Annamaria Gambuzzi & Co., Milan). Schnabel had also previously worked with Patkin. As well as a depiction of his acquaintances, Homo Painting is in part a self-portrait: the grey head to the left has been identified as Schnabel. While Schnabel’s identity as a gay man is known, it is unclear whether the painting’s title is also comment on the sexuality of Bleckner and Patkin, but the closeness of their pose may suggest this.
In addition to the portraits contained in the work, the velvet support used for Homo Painting is arguably a subject in its own right. The museum director Max Hollein has explained that ‘a found painting surface, such as an old tarpaulin, a dark-coloured velvet, or a panel from a stage set, already has its own structure and history. Such surfaces are not neutral; they are not passive, but instead already have a voice of their own and the power to evoke mood’ (Hollein 2004, p.33). In the case of Homo Painting, the dark red velvet material has many connotations, ranging from the kitsch and the sexual to the religious and the theatrical. Added to this is the complexity of Schnabel’s composition, particularly with regard to line and colour. Hollein has noted of Schnabel’s work more broadly that ‘the linking of different strands and the juxtaposition of essentially incompatible elements at the levels of colour, materials and even content give each work a dissonant quality. Schnabel does not make things easy for the viewer – his often extremely fragmentary combinations exert a kind of psychological pressure’ (Hollein 2004, p.34). Furthermore, the art critic Thomas McEvilley noted in 1989 that layering was an important aspect of Schnabel’s work: ‘most commonly it is human images that are layered … iconographically suggesting the multiplicity of modes of selfhood and the evanescence of human existence’ (McEvilley in Barzel 1989, p.104).
Schnabel produced more than fifty paintings on velvet between 1980 and 1991, and several are similar in composition and colour scheme to Homo Painting, for example Portrait of Francesco Clemente 1981 and Hope 1982. Homo Painting was shown at the Tate Gallery, London, in its 1982 exhibition Julian Schnabel.
Amnon Barzel, Julian Schnabel, exhibition catalogue, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Luigi Pecci, Prato 1989.
Max Hollein (ed.), Julian Schnabel: Malerei / Paintings 1978–2003, exhibition catalogue, Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt 2004.
Supported by Christie’s.