Interview by Spencer Bailey | Portrait by Grant Cornett | Artwork courtesy Julian Schnabel
Nearly everything about the artist Julian Schnabel comes across as king size: his life-style, his Manhattan palazzo, his filmmaking prowess, his paintings. A more apt word may be “bold.” A risk-taker whose ambition knows no bounds, Schnabel has made a living using paint—or whatever medium he touches—in unexpected, often enlightening ways. The polymath cannot be pinned down.
Though Schnabel, 62, is now widely known for directing the films Before Night Falls (2000) and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), he initially gained attention as a painter. In 1976, he had his first show at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston. Three years later, two solo exhibitions at New York’s Mary Boone Gallery—the debuts of his wax and plate paintings—followed. Throughout the ’80s, his work wasn’t just the talk of the town; alongside Jean-Michel Basquiat, another Boone prodigy, he practically became the nexus of the New York art world. By 1987, when the Whitney Museum hosted the retrospective “Julian Schnabel: Paintings 1975–1986,” he was, in many circles, a household name.
In the decades since, Schnabel has expanded his artistic practice, flourishing as a filmmaker, a furniture designer, and an architect (who designed his own 50,000-square-foot home in New York’s West Village). He even made a foray into music and released a rock album with Island Records in 1995. All the while, he has remained a prolific painter, with works exhibited around the world: France, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Germany, Canada, Denmark. Major U.S. galleries like Pace and Gagosian have shown his paintings, too,and eight of his works were displayed in the lobby of the MetLife Building in 2006. Even so, Schnabel hasn’t had a comprehensive museum show in the U.S. since the Whitney retrospective. The industrialist Peter Brant—whose collection of contemporary art is among the most notable in America—plans to remedy that this November when the museum of the Brant Foundation in Greenwich, Connecticut, presents roughly 50 of Schnabel’s works (through March 2014).
Earlier this fall, Surface caught up with Schnabel in an unkempt garden behind the Paris home of his friend, the fashion designer Azzedine Alaïa. Read a condensed version of the interview here.
How do you think Peter [Brant] has gone about selecting your work for his collection and the show?
My paintings aren’t like film or something that’s so electric-friendly and convertible. They’re something you have to go see, install, and make a pilgrimage to. At the show, there will be the opportunity to see some big, abstract plate paintings that nobody’s prob- ably seen in New York for quite some time.
It’ll also focus on works on paper, drawings, and objects I’ve made for years that might be lesser known but were always a thread in my work. There will be some paintings that were painted on different materials, like an Egyptian felucca sail I painted on in the winter of ’89. There will be some “Big Girl” paintings from the early 2000s and some other pictures from the late ’80s or ’90s. There will be some of the “Recognition” paintings that were painted on army tarps that were shown in the Cuartel de Carmen in Seville [in 1988]. And there will be some plate portraits—I think he wants to show my work as a portrait artist. He wanted to bring it up to date, with work from the late ’70s to the present.
The show will also feature some furniture pieces. You’re not really known as a furniture designer.
Right. I’ve never really mass-produced those things. I’ve made beds, tables, chairs for myself or for my friends. I made a building [Palazzo Chupi in Manhattan]. I guess the building was like a sculpture. I built swim- ming pools—I guess they’re like sculptures. And balustrades, welded things like that, casts. I’m always experimenting with materials, and traveling around has a lot to do with that. Just look at what’s in front of us. [Schnabel points to an old roof arch.]
There were some great decisions made with these curves, no? But somehow this piece of tape that is wrapped around some sharp-angled iron is as beautiful as the calculated, measured, hot-rolled steel that has made this arch from a roof. This could be a very nice garden someday. Maybe I’ll make it a garden.
Do you see yourself as a designer or architect?
No. But I guess I’m the architect of my life. I’m responsible for the place that I live in, and I like it a certain way. Sound is very important to me—the place that I live can’t be too noisy. And I like it if the ceilings are tall.
Many people seem to focus on the large size of your art.
I don’t know that that’s all they talk about. But we could have sat inside, or we could have sat out here. The ceilings are a lot taller out here [Schnabel points to the sky], and there’s a lot of other stuff going on, too. I find that I like talking in this atmosphere. I don’t know why.
There probably has not been another interview given in this spot. I don’t know if that’s important or not. But it does feel good to have some dirt to put this stick into. [Schnabel pokes the end of a stick into the ground, flicking it in the dirt.]
I think that as I get older, I notice things. Things stop. Time stops. You just notice things and wonder what they mean. I like it when there’s not too much static.
I think it’s nice when art can actually live by its own nature. That’s hard, because it costs money to put on a show. There’s always the art market that people talk about, but really, that’s not what art has anything to do with.
Artists make art so that they can see it—so that they can find order for themselves, compare it to things that they thought informed what they did or that they were curious about. They’re responding to what other people did, and they’re responding to themselves. And then, they’re looking at it and thinking, Is it a lie? Is it worth it? I wouldn’t want to just be somebody who made things so that other people wanted them, and then got money for them—and then that was it and I made some more things.
Tarkovsky once said that art is a representation of life. So it’s different from life, which includes death. Art, because it’s a representation, doesn’t include death. It’s a denial of death. Art is always optimistic, even if the characters are tragic. You could never have pessimistic art—you could have mediocre art or great art.
It’s about the eternal present. Painting, making objects, making things that live—this brings you into the eternal present of those things. If you saw Bicycle Thieves by Vittorio De Sica, it’d be the first time you saw it. It doesn’t matter that it was made after World War II. Or if you see a Caravaggio painting, it’s the first time you see it. And if it’s the second time you see it, it’s still the first time you see it.
What goes through your mind when you’re starting a painting?
I see things around. I leave things out. Certain things happen to them. I imagine them at a certain scale. It can be as ridiculous as a piece of veneer on a couch that’s been left outside in the rain. That little piece of veneer that’s separated, I’m looking at it, and it looks like a painting to me, even though it’s just a discarded piece of veneer. I had it photographed, blew it up to, I don’t know, 8 by 13 feet. I made the shape of it into something that looks almost like a headboard or ironing board, curved the edges, and printed it onto polyester. You look at it and you think you’re looking at wood, but you’re not. You’re looking at something that was nothing—and that’s something. And I put on some white. You decide if you want to paint on it with gesso or whether you want to paint on it with oil paint, because the oil paint will sit differently on the material. You use all your experiences on practice. They call it a practice, because you’re practicing. You practice, and then you get to a point and go, “Okay.” You take everything you know and you get to that place where you do something you don’t know anything about. That confusion, the not knowing, is the nature of it. If you know what you’re going to do and you’re just illustrating, then it’s pretty boring.
Do you come to a painting and figure it out as you go along or do you come to a painting with a big idea?
I have some things that start off looking pretty good before I touch them, but then I usually destroy or go against that.
“Destroy” is an interesting way of putting it. Do you feel like you’re destroying something when you make a painting?
Sometimes something is pretty much perfect, but you can’t be terrified to touch it. I think the word “authenticity” comes into play. Somebody else might not understand it, might not understand what you see, but that’s not your problem. You don’t adjust it to make it easier for them to see, unless the person who says it to you really knows better than you do and you just realize they’re right. In general, I wouldn’t listen to them, because then people get what they want rather than what you want.
[Schnabel points at a stack of wood piled in a corner of the garden.] I like the way these pieces of wood fit in that corner and go past that horizontal line. You know Blinky Palermo’s work? He was a good friend of mine. There’s a picture of him standing in a backyard with garbage, and I’m just saying, that little object there could be a painting. I think a lot of today’s young artists have come across things and started to notice they’re seeing art everywhere. Art is everywhere, and it also isn’t.