NEW YORK and PARIS — Support for the arts is usually built on the assumption that art is good for you, and good for society.
This tends to translate to bankrolling art that is public-spirited, self-improving and uplifting. But at a certain point early in her career, Dana Schutz fell under the spell of an alternative idea: that art might be antisocial instead of social. That it might be in your face. Disgusting. Tasteless. And at the same time — in its execution and insight — utterly brilliant.
Schutz, 47, is one of the two or three most exciting figurative painters working in the United States today. She is our poet laureate of the anxiety dream. She paints people mid-sneeze, giving birth in public, shaving their pubic hair and giving TED Talks with their pants around their ankles. She puts her hands into the hot, squirming entrails of contemporary culture and figures out ways to paint what she perceives down there.
Among painters working at their peak, her only equals, that I can see, are Nicole Eisenman and Kerry James Marshall. Marshall broke through into public consciousness with “Mastry,” his 2017 retrospective at the Met Breuer. Eisenman is on a sort of permanent rolling boil.
But right now, Schutz is having her moment. New York’s art world, which denounced her in 2017 for a small, upsetting painting of Emmett Till in his casket (it had been selected for public display by the curators of the Whitney Biennial), is all of a sudden abuzz with enthusiasm for “Jupiter’s Lottery,” a show of Schutz’s recent work at David Zwirner (through Dec. 16). I saw “Jupiter’s Lottery” ahead of its public opening, then went to Paris to see “The Visible World,” a dazzling career survey at the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris (through Feb. 11).
Maybe I’m still thinking of entrails, but it’s hard not to think of Schutz as a kind of oracle or seer. Exhibit A would have to be “Fanatics,” a painting Schutz made in 2005. This was 16 years before the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol by fanatical Donald Trump supporters. One of those supporters famously wore a horned helmet. So does one of the figures in Schutz’s painting. Coincidence? Others on Jan. 6 broke down barricades. In Schutz’s painting, the temporary fence between us, the viewers, and the painting’s middle-aged marauders and nut jobs — one of whom has a belt of explosives strapped to his body and another of whom kneels to pray — is broken. It’s wide open. There’s no protection.
That, folks, is exactly where we are today. And Schutz saw it four years after 9/11. She wasn’t yet 40.
Of course, there’s more to Schutz than clairvoyance. She loves to paint fantastical scenes built upon hypothetical situations and physical impossibilities: What would it look like if someone had to actually eat their own words? What would it look like to assemble a human body, or an octopus, from dismembered parts, or to sculpt a new leg?
Schutz is constantly drawing on the styles, subject matter and themes of other artists. I think of her as a contemporary Hieronymus Bosch or Max Beckmann, with a strong dose of Philip Guston thrown in. A born storyteller, she allegorizes greed, dysfunction and dismay, as well as the very act of making art (which can involve all those things at once).
Many of her paintings are fired by the fear — and the comedy — of conflicting things occurring all at the same time. “Swimming, Smoking, Crying,” in the Paris survey, shows a woman swimming freestyle while smoking a cigarette and weeping. Not easy to do. Possible, however, to paint. Schutz gets it done.
“Shaving,” a hilarious riff on Gustave Courbet’s “The Origin of the World,” shows a woman pulling a razor through her luxuriant pubic hair. But it’s odd: The razor resembles a paintbrush, we are inexplicably outdoors, and we seem to be seeing the woman in a mirror propped against the back of a man in a wide-brimmed hat (I thought of Cezanne or Van Gogh). Shaving as plein-air painting? It’s a funny thought. But then, what is art if not an attempt to tidy up the real world’s teeming luxuriance?
Schutz is a dazzling painter. Her early work, which takes up half the Paris show, is crowded with incident but compositionally taut. In shallow, fractured spaces, Schutz creates volatile tableaux with strident, high-keyed colors and squiggly or staccato brushstrokes. Her early compositions were sliced up by acute angles and sweeping arcs (you felt each canvas could be rearranged into a tasty pizza).
“Men’s Retreat,” in the Paris survey, shows a group of men face-painting, playing bongo drums, giving one another naked piggyback rides and stumbling through a lush, translucent forest wearing blindfolds. It’s one of many Schutz paintings that show groups of people trying — and conspicuously failing — to achieve things together. In its bathos, it reminded me of Congress. But it’s actually inspired by Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “The Blind Leading the Blind,” and more specifically by Bohemian Grove, the men-only California club where business executives, bankers, politicians and other worthies get together to do whatever they do, God knows.
“Flasher” is a great example of Schutz’s interest in art’s antisocial DNA. It shows a figure pressed right up against the picture plane, abruptly opening the flaps of a coat. Instead of nakedness, however, what Schutz reveals is the coat’s inner lining. It’s a kind of pegboard lined with clamps, watches, scissors and spectacles, as well as abstract squiggles and brushstrokes. Schutz is using the flasher as an allegory for the painter’s process, which she imagines as a wildly inappropriate, scandalous act.
In retrospect, Schutz’s fascination with art’s antisocial aspects make the Emmett Till affair seem inevitable. You can paint art with an antisocial idea in mind, but, at a certain point, you will cross a line that people with certain social ideas won’t let you cross. Much of the public outrage was genuine, but it was also performative, disproportionate and self-sabotaging. Of course, painting, like apologizing, can also be all those things. Schutz, both before and after the crisis, which took years to die down, has made dozens of paintings that demonstrate her understanding of this.
Schutz’s recent works, filling several galleries at Zwirner and the second half of the Paris survey, register big changes. There is less emphasis on painting discrete narratives, more on building up autonomous tableaux from miscellaneous ingredients, many of them human pinwheels made up of monsters, masks, sheep, birds and bats, or compositions alluding to the Old Masters. Instead of cause and effect, we’re presented with calcified chaos — grotesque, apparently random coagulations resulting from ineluctable processes.
That feels just right for today. I could, for example, tell you that millions of school kids across America regularly have to endure stressful lockdown drills because a large number of their fellow students have been executed by crazed gunmen coming into classrooms and that this is because of a flawed mental health system, the increasingly perverse motivations of our attention economy and the easy availability of assault rifles, and that the cause of the latter is an extremist ideology of individual rights and a corrupt political system. I could go on like that, and some or all of it might be true. But whose heart is in finding explanations anymore? We only want it to stop, knowing that it won’t.
So yeah, Schutz’s recent paintings are gloomy. They grope toward things in the dark. If they were from a Shakespeare tragedy, they’d definitely be fifth act. In place of bright, acidic colors and translucent atmospheres, there’s lots of chiaroscuro. The colors are deep, rich and opaque, the skies thunderous, the shapes and paintwork wobbly and inchoate. Think Georges Rouault with dashes of last-gasp Picasso, Guston and James Ensor riffing on themes out of Caravaggio.
In spirit and form, the paintings match the sculptures Schutz has been making of late. Big, bold and playfully grotesque, these recall the deliquescent figure sculptures of Willem de Kooning, with a few more accessories tacked on (balls, birds, various tools). They are cast in bronze, but you can feel Schutz’s hands frantically pushing the clay around, accepting formlessness as an active, ongoing ingredient in the doomed struggle for form and sense.
I’m in awe of Schutz’s ambition and her willingness to change. I slightly prefer her earlier, tautly composed works. Nonetheless, I think these recent paintings and sculptures are extraordinary.
The only thing I don’t quite relate to is the enormous scale of so many of these works. Scale is rhetoric. You don’t always want to have to think of mansions, museums and corporate lobbies when trying to imagine the afterlife of paintings you’re seeing fresh from the studio. Gigantism does no favors to Schutz’s sensibility, which is at its best when offering human-scale responses to the vast, engulfing chaos she so brilliantly depicts.
Dana Schutz: Jupiter’s Lottery Through Dec. 16 at David Zwirner, 525 and 533 W. 19th St., New York. davidzwirner.com.
Dana Schutz: The Visible World Through Feb. 11 at the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris. mam.paris.fr.