Julian Schnabel’s Art on His Own Terms
By: Scott James
On a Friday in Costa Rica, the artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel was waiting for his surfboards. They were tied up in customs, but finally arrived that January morning.
“It makes a big difference when you’re surfing on your own board,” he said.
Mr. Schnabel, 66, is still catching waves and leading the rest of his life as he always has: on his own very particular terms, whether surfboards or art.
Noted initially for his broken plate paintings, he headlined the star-studded art scene of the 1980s, becoming a larger than life pajama-clad persona often associated with, and derided for, the excesses of that decade. He never stopped painting, and later added award-winning films to his repertoire.
Today he is in the midst of an American renaissance of sorts. His work was feted at shows in New York and Aspen last year, a new movie is expected later this year, and next month there will be an unusual exhibition of new paintings in San Francisco. The works are enormous and will be displayed outdoors for months, exposed to the city’s famously foggy climate.
The six abstract paintings, measuring 24 feet on each side, will surround the columned Court of Honor at the Legion of Honor Museum in the city’s Lands End area. The exhibition is expected to create a dramatic contrast to the museum’s Eurocentric collection and stately neo-Classical design (the building is a replica of the Musée National de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris).
The giant paintings will surround and dwarf a casting of Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker,” the popular permanent centerpiece of the courtyard. The scale of the exhibit is expected to envelop visitors, making them feel inside the art.
“You’re standing in this other world, a different relationship with the art,” said Max Hollein, the museum director who also curated the exhibit. “It’s a fairly physical experience to see these works,” he said.
At the behest of Mr. Hollein, who had worked with Mr. Schnabel before, the artist visited the courtyard last year.
“I looked at the columns and I said, yeah, I think I have to make something specific to this place,” Mr. Schnabel said in a telephone interview from Costa Rica.
As Mr. Schnabel often does, he used found materials for the canvas, this time repurposing lonas, a type of gabardine tarpaulin he discovered covering a traveling fruit market in the Lagunillas area of southern Mexico.
“The sun bleaches this material to an extraordinary color that you just can’t mix,” he said, adding that the vendors were, “I guess, amused by the fact that someone would be interested in something that to them is utilitarian and probably even discarded. To me the bleaching of the sun is the treasure of Sierra Madre.”
It also means the materials come with their own story before the artist adds his. And in the San Francisco exhibit, another chapter will be added as the work is exposed to the elements.
“I don’t think they’ll change that much out there,” Mr. Schnabel said.
Because of their size, the paintings were created outside at his indoor/outdoor studio at his home in Montauk, on Long Island, where he has long painted large-scale works. But these new paintings were so big they required additional riggings to reach their height, and were painted both horizontally and vertically.
“You can’t take it inside when it rains,” he said. Once dry, however, the gesso paint is durable.
Inside the museum will be additional works, including others on found materials, like the so-called Jane Birkin series painted on used felucca sails that Mr. Schnabel obtained in Egypt. Inscribed on them is the name of the actress and singer who has been a muse for musicians and the eponymous Hermès handbag.
The Legion of Honor exhibit is part of what promises to be a high-profile year for Mr. Schnabel.
A well-known workaholic, while in Costa Rica he was immersed in editing his next movie, “At Eternity’s Gate,” about Vincent van Gogh in Arles, France, starring Willem Dafoe with Oscar Isaac as Paul Gauguin. Mr. Schnabel was delighted that a portable Avid editing system allowed him to work on the film wherever he traveled.
“We’re so engaged in what we’re doing, we really don’t want to stop,” he said.
He felt that same thrill when creating the San Francisco paintings, and with those surfboards having just been delivered, he drew an analogy.
“It’s like paddling out in big surf. There’s a wall there, and you are a certain size and the sea is a certain size and these paintings are a certain size,” he said. “It happens so quickly you just want to relive that and be in that sensation again. Painting for me is like that. The joy of just doing it and being lost in the experience of that is compelling to me.”