julian schnabel

Interview with Julian Schnabel

It is somewhat ironic that Julian Schnabels current exhibition, “Julian Schnabel: Art and Film”, at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Torontos version of New York Citys MoMA, is following in the footsteps of the museums King Tut exhibition, as both men are known for doing things in a very big way – King Tut with his tomb, and Schnabel, highly in evidence here, with his titanic canvases that all but dwarf the common man.

Introduction to the Interview

Portait of Julian Schnabel. Photo: Edward Rubin taken at time of interview Aug, 26, 2010

Portait of Julian Schnabel Photo: Edward Rubin taken at time of interview Aug, 26, 2010

At age 27, Brooklyn-born artist and filmmaker, Julian Schnabel, the soon to be 60-year-old, turned the art world on its head with his smashed plate paintings. The year was 1979. The New York stock market was booming and everything was about more money, more status, more everything. It was the beginning of the so-called Decade of Greed. Discovered by gallery owner Mary Boone while cooking in a small restaurant in Soho, by his second exhibition Schnabels paintings were already commanding five and six figures. Tired of the art worlds minimalist mindset, dealers had begun looking for the next best thing””a Pollock for the 80s. Arrogant, brash, ambitious, and ready to be canonized, Schnabel caught the eye of Leo Castelli, Charles Saatchi, and Bruno Bischofberger. With some 100 solo shows, a 1980 Venice Biennale appearance, and a Whitney Retrospective in 1987, posted to his reputation, Schnabel was all the rage – a force of  nature; with his wife, a fashion icon of the city; (and he outlived Basquiat and Warhol and became best friends with Lou Reed). With such a concentrated build-up, inevitably critics began the attack. One critic compared his paintings to Sylvester Stallones style of acting “…a lurching display of oily pectorals.” Another chimed in; Schnabels work is “the visual equivalency of junk food.”

Julian Schnabel with Freida Pinto on the set of Miral. Courtesy of the artist. © 2010 Julian Schnabel.

Julian Schnabel with Freida Pinto on the set of Miral. Courtesy of the artist. © 2010 Julian Schnabel.

By the end of the 80s, certainly in the United States ““ in Europe he was still making inroads ““ the Klieg-light glow that was once Schnabel was beginning to dim. But like Picasso, every artists giant to topple, Schnabel, continued to do what he loves best; paint, surf, renovate and furnish houses, woo, and sometimes marry beautiful woman, father children, and most surprisingly, to Schnabel watchers, as well as to the artist himself, direct movies. To date, he has accumulated two ex-wives, 5 children, two houses, and has directed 5 movies, Basquiat (1996), Before Night Falls (2000), Lou Reeds Berlin (2008), and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), the latter garnering him a Golden Globe and Cannes Film Festival awards, as well as an Oscar nomination, for Best Director. Miral, Schnabels newest film, based on a book by journalist Rula Jabreal ““ another beautiful woman and his current live-in love – tells the story of the Israel Palestine conflict from the perspective of four Palestinian women. Recently premiering at the Venice and the Toronto Film Festivals, it is due to have its world premiere in early December.

The following interview, edited down for space consideration, took place in a small room at Art Gallery of Ontario, Torontos version of New Yorks Museum of Modern Art, on August 26, a few days before the opening of Julian Schnabel: Art and Film, his largest exhibition since 1987. Unlike the Schnabel that the press likes to rag on, the bearded artist, looking fit as a fiddle and a lot thinner than usual, was not wearing pajamas. He was wearing his installation outfit, plaid shorts, a long sleeved plaid shirt buttoned to the top ““ which masked his usual manly display of chest hair ““ and a pair of well-weathered black Vans. A natural born story teller at heart, this day, Schnabel was warm, generous, and disarmingly sincere. If not for the time we would still be talking.

The Interview:

What Goes Around Comes Around
Julian Schnabel at the Art Gallery of Ontario

Julian Schnabels current exhibition, “Julian Schnabel: Art and Film”, at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Torontos MoMA, is following in the footsteps of the museums King Tut exhibition, as both men are known for doing things in a very big way – King Tut with his tomb, and Schnabel, as highly evidenced here, with his titanic canvases. For the fifty-nine-year-old Schnabel, who was the bomb with his smashed plate paintings during the late 70s and early 80s, before he eventually fell off the pedestal, this exhibition ““ the largest since his 1987 Whitney Museum Retrospective ““ is tantamount to a Second Coming. The “ball has come back into his court” as he gratefully acknowledged during his press preview. Not that he wasnt still playing ball when he turned to film directing, a move which further eclipsed his reputation as a painter, but has as an independent metier for the visual artist generated deserved critical approbation, as this show attests. I interviewed Schnabel in Toronto before it opened.

Julian Schnabel, Untitled (Self-Portrait), 2005

Art and Film, deftly curated by David Moos, is an ingenious way of refurbishing Schnabels art world reputation while reintroducing him to the general public more familiar with his films than his art. The exhibition, using some sixty of Schnabels works, dating from his 1975 Painting Norma (Pool Painting for Norma Desmond), a tribute to the film Sunset Boulevard, to the present, traces the artists interest in cinema through his paintings, sculptures, and photographs, many of which refer directly to specific actors, filmmakers and their films, such as Pasolinis Accattone and Vittorio de Sicas Shoeshine. It is an interest, which according to Schnabel, goes back to his growing up in Brooklyn during the 50s. “Just like painting, going to the movies was an escape for me from the ordinariness of everyday life at home,” Schnabel told me. “Movies were more real to me than my life at home. As a child I found The Ten Commandments, when Moses parted the Red Sea, totally awesome, and Moby Dick, when you get to see the great white whales eye its terrifying. When I first saw Repulsion I realized a movie can really get inside of you. It could haunt you, and you could identify with it.”

Strangely, the exhibition, despite the immense size of some of the canvases, and the fact that the artists work takes up the entire 5th floor of the museum ““ in large part due to the intensely personal and arcane nature of many of the works ““ is an intimate experience. Crowds aside, the viewer is continually reminded, by the size, power, and experimental brashness of the artists executions, that there are only three people here to take into consideration””you, the looming art works themselves, and the branded hand of Schnabel, whose resonance signature announces itself at every turn. The first painting that meets you head on as you walk into the exhibition is the Last Dairy Entry (for Roman Polanski) 2010. Though I do not presume to know what it is about, nor what it represents, the lush and crazily colored figure in the painting, a mix between a tampered down Frances Bacon, an Alice in Wonderland character, and some dizzy dame, is highly exciting and very much alive. It is one of the few works in the exhibition that jumps out at you. It actively grabs your attention, rather than engulfing or attempting to overwhelm you, as many of his larger works do.

Though a couple of Schnabels historical smashed plate paintings are on view, most prominently his groundbreaking 1978 Patients and the Doctors, having settled back into the dust bin of history, they bear none the initial excitement that they engendered when they first turned the art world on its head. At least for now, until they are gathered en masse for maximum effect”“ and hopefully this will be soon ““ they remain an anachronistic oddity. Equally unengaging, though it does shed light on the artists respect for Brando who he considers “the greatest actor that weve seen” ““ is the Brando Room, where six large, relatively mundane poster-like photographs, which Schnabel bought from the actors estate sale, depict Brando in a long-haired wig, kidding around during the filming of the 1968 comedy Candy. By adding spray paint, resin, and ink onto the surface of these photographs, Schnabel, making this work his own, transformed the photographs into paintings. These same photographs first appeared during a fantasy scene in Schnabels 2007 film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

2010 Julian Schnabel, Painting for Malik Joyeux and Bernardo Bertolucci (V), 2006

2010 Julian Schnabel, Painting for Malik Joyeux and Bernardo Bertolucci (V), 2006, Gesso and ink on polyester, 20' x 15'. Courtesy of the artist © 2006 Julian Schnabel

Another small gallery is filled with portraits that Schnabel has painted, including one of himself that reads “from the collection of Johnny Depp.” Even with their tacky framing, which reads young and very early 80s, the slickly painted, slightly garish portraits, compelling in a nervous sort of way, are not half bad. Gary Oldman, who as Albert Milo played Schnabel in the film Basquiat is presented wearing a traje de luces (suit of lights) that belongs to Curro Romero the famous Spanish bullfighter.

Rula Jabreal, Schnabels current love interest, and the author of the book on which Schnabels soon to be released movie Miral is based ““ it opens worldwide this December ““ is seen wearing the same dress that actress Emma de Caunes wore in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly during one of Jean-Dominique Baubys reveries. The most compelling portrait on view is the 1982 The Portrait of Andy Warhol painted on black velvet, in two sittings and 5 hours. Here, a shirtless ghostly Warhol, looking more vulnerable than usual, more an apparition than a live human being, appears to be dematerializing before our very eyes.

In the three largest paintings ““ each one 22 feet by 22 feet, one inch short of the gallerys 23 foot ceilings ““ though you would not know it unless you read the label or wore a head-set ““ Schnabel returns to the theme of bullfighting. Painted in 1990, specifically made to be exhibited in the city of Nîmes at the Maison Carée, an ancient Roman temple, here, the 3 canvases, removed from their original site, like epics movies that ends up on a small television screen, their sense of wonder has been severely muted. All we are left with are three very big, mildly interesting abstract paintings that mean a lot more to the artist than the viewing public. What is interesting about these works is the unique and totally unexpected way ““ a well known signature of the artist ““ that these paintings materialized. “I took a table cloth and dipped it in oil paint that had a lot of turpentine in it and I threw the table cloth at the paintings so all of this drawing that looks like printing, that looks like gravure, is made by taking a big linen sheet and dipping it in the paint and then throwing it in the canvas. Sometimes I even took the sheet and rolling it up used it like a bat.”

One near-mesmerizing, disarmingly simple painting that still sticks in my mind ““ one of fourteen that Schnabels painted for his “Big Girl Paintingsseries in 2001 ““ is Large Girl With No Eyes. Going large again ““ roughly 14 by 12 feet ““ we see a young blonde girl, from the shoulders up, wearing a blue dress. She is looking, that is, if she was allowed to see, straight out at us. However, the artist, stripping her of sight, bars us from entering into the picture by painting a long black bar that masks her eyes. Schnabels stated intent, for this painting as well as the entire exhibition ““ here perfectly, if not hypnotically achieved ““”is to force the viewer to look at the painting and not the eyes.” The most cinematically stunning works on view is Painting for Malik Joyeux and Bernardo Bertolucci V and VI, two enormous black and white photographs, from Schnabels 2006 “Surfing” series. Again, by adding gesso and ink to the polyester canvas, the artist turns a simple photograph of a surfer negotiating a giant rolling wave ““ somewhat akin to turning a script into a movie ““ into breathtakingly dizzying ride, which all but magically pulls us into a canvas that is more alive than dead. Not a bad ending for a Schnabel comeback.

(top photo: Julian Schnabel, Ragazzo Padre, 1988, oil and gesso on tarpaulin, 16 x 16; Large Girl with No Eyes, 2001, oil and wax on canvas, 136″ x 124″; Jane Birkin #2, 1990, oil and gesso on sailcloth, 16 x 26″˜. Installation view, Art Gallery of Ontario. Photo by Ian Lefevbre.© 2010 Art Gallery of Ontario.)

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  1. Eve says:

    NSU3Mm Good point. I hadn’t tohguht about it quite that way. :)