The 1960s and 1970s witnessed what has been termed the "dematerialization" of the art object, as the prevailing movements of that period favored works created with an economy of means, often focusing on an idea or concept rather than the object itself. By contrast, the early 1980s were characterized by a return to the traditions of painting and sculpture. It was during this period, after two decades dominated by the aesthetics of Minimal and Conceptual art, that Julian Schnabel played a critical role in the emergence of Neo-Expressionist painting in the United States, the gestural brushstrokes and figurative subject matter of his paintings representing a radical shift in art making.
Schnabel first came to prominence in 1979, when he began exhibiting his signature plate paintings, featuring shards of broken crockery embedded in Bondo (a putty-like polyester resin) and loosely overpainted with crude images in oil paint. Notable for their heroic scale, distorted subjects, and flamboyant textures, the plate paintings were inspired by a 1978 visit to Barcelona, where Schnabel encountered mosaics by the Catalan architect Antonio Gaudí. In works such as the monumental Spain, he transferred the mosaic surface to painting, transforming both in the process: the broken plates and cups project out from the surface like jagged, sculptural brushstrokes, disrupting the picture plane. The swirling colors of the plate paintings often depict legendary figures; some recall the work of Pablo Picasso, but Schnabel has drawn from a variety of sources, including El Greco and cultural artifacts from Mexico. The disembodied head in the center of Spain is a recurrent image in the artist's work. Here it appears to be situated in a bullfighting ring beside a burladero, the barrier behind which the bullfighter protects himself from the bull. With its snoutlike form, this head is equally suggestive of both bull and bullfighter. Schnabel has had a longstanding fascination with Spain and Spanish culture. A further reference to the country is suggested here by the palette, with its yellows and reds corresponding to the colors of the Spanish national flag.