Picks and Pans Review: C.v.j. Nicknames of Maitre D's and Other Excerpts from Life

updated 01/11/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/11/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Julian Schnabel

Rembrandt, Rubens, Manet and Picasso never got around to writing their memoirs. They were too busy painting masterpieces. By dint of smashing plates and gluing them to canvas, Schnabel, 36, has become the modern art world's most hyped and controversial painter. But he hasn't let that stop him from producing this bit of egotism, in which he seems to be positioning himself for the next, more Olympian phase of his career—that of late 20th-century grand maître d'.

Schnabel's prose is muscular, energetic and awash in self-importance as he traces his meteoric rise through the ranks of struggling artists. Born in New York City, he moved as a teenager to Texas, where he fell into a bad-boy life. One season, he laments, it was very difficult to get any grass. Another time, after surfing with his buddies, he nearly drowned in the Gulf of Mexico. That harrowing experience, he says, has marked his work as much as "anything else I have seen or experienced in life, movies or art." By 1973 he was back in New York, though still trying to keep his head above water. Schnabel has always known how to draw attention to himself, however. He had gained admittance to the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program by mailing slides of his paintings between two pieces of bread as part of his application. "Dumb trick," he writes, "but I wanted to be sure they'd look at my slides." They did. Eventually there arrived the moment in 1978 when he decided to glue smashed plates to canvas (he had bought them whole at the Salvation Army): That night, he recalls, "Lying in the dark, I heard a little clink...I heard a big crash. I figured what was left on the painting when I woke up was what it would look like. I fell asleep to the rain of plates." Less ingratiating is the swipe Schnabel takes at the painter Eric Fischl—characterizing one of his paintings as "adolescent fantasies"—whom he doesn't have the courage to cite by name. And writing about Vermeer and Van Gogh in a murky passage on modernism, Schnabel ends up talking about himself as much as them. Throughout, the author's vanity seems less and less an artist's right and more and more a burden. As for the "C.V.J." in the title, it's an abbreviation for Schnabel's affectionate message, in French, to his wife: "Comme va, Jacqueline" or "How's it going, Jacqueline." The book's publication coincides with a Schnabel show at the Whitney Museum through Jan. 10, 1988. The exhibit travels later to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (Feb. 11-April 3, 1988) and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (May 27-Aug. 14, 1988). (Random House, $75)

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