“When I did the plate paintings, I wanted to break the surface of the painting”—Julian Schnabel
(J. Schnabel, quoted in Julian Schnabel: Versions of Chuck & Other Works, exh. cat., Schloss Derneburg, Derneburg, 2007, p. 195).
Executed in 1982, Portrait of M.T. is an example of Schnabel's celebrated plate paintings, a series from the artist’s career that shows him at his emotional and technical best. These works combine figurative elements and abstract forms of raw expression; they possess an enduring creative freedom and are bold and unruly—qualities that made Schnabel a star of the Neo Expressive painters. The paintings are not solely pictures. They also exist as sculptures that are visually reminiscent of archeological sites. The human figure, often portraits of friends and family members, acts as evidence of past activity, persevered amongst scattered fragments of ceramic shards that protrude from the surface of the painting. The thick paint strokes and layered grounds of broken plates are partly inspired by Jackson Pollock’s seminal drip paintings, yet are also interrupted by anarchic techniques seen in Robert Rauschenberg’s collage-like paintings.
Portrait of M.T. is marked with warm muted tones which are contrasted against heavy, forceful strokes which fuse Schnabel’s brutal expressivity and sensibility of the time. The austere gaze appearing from the elusive figure (fellow artist Michael Tracey), can be seen peering through the surface; the varying planes of color, material, and content giving this work a sophisticated yet dissonant quality. The Cubist-like fragmentations of the painting create an abstract quality; the artist accomplishes this effect through the delicate process of combining hundreds of various elements, creating a multitude of layers cemented into rhythmic and intense brushwork. The work exposes a compelling visual attitude, a portrait of a living person amidst roughly handled materials and recognizable objects from the everyday culture which essentially has no identity.
In the early 80’s Julian Schnabel, an artist not afraid to experiment, pursued a fascination using broken ceramic plates. The playful and highly unconventional material incorporated in the canvas dramatically challenged the depiction of the two-dimensional picture plane, significantly shaping the 1980’s art world. As Schnabel proceeded to ‘paint against the rules’ his distinctive innovations led him to abandon the traditional confinements of painting and this progressive artistic development restored the painting to its pre-abstraction status that had been declared obsolete. Schnabel’s, plate paintings mark an important period in his progressive artistic career.