A Traveller
”Julian Schnabel: Symbols of Actual Life“ at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco

“Symbols of Actual Life,” Julian Schnabel’s large exhibition supported by Deutsche Bank, opened in April at the Legion of Honor of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. It is Schnabel’s first solo show on the West Coast for more than twenty years. The art star of the 1980s leaves no doubt that despite his career as a filmmaker he has painted the entire time. Sarah Cascone spoke with Schnabel about his latest project.
When somebody says ‘are you still painting?’ obviously they don’t know what I’m doing,” Julian Schnabel tells ArtMag during a visit to the Palazzo Chupi, the pink Italianate mansion he designed and built in New York’s West Village. He has garnered considerable attention for his films, such as Basquiat (1996) and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), but has tirelessly continued painting for some 40 years, deftly blurring the boundaries between abstraction and figuration. “I like to make art,” Schnabel explains, “that’s how I mediate the world.”

The artist’s home is full of his artworks, a not-insubstantial number of which have never been shown publicly—namely, some of the seemingly countless unseen paintings Schnabel has made over the decades. Holding back so much of his output understandably adds to misconceptions about the recent state of his painting practice.“ I never thought about my work as a career,” says Schnabel, who claims he is uninterested in entertaining what kind of narrative a film about his life might take, but is nevertheless certain of his legacy: “A generation of artists were inspired by what I did.” Some critics agree. Schnabel’s “influence is widely visible but rarely cited,” wrote Roberta Smith in the New York Times in 2014, noting that it can be seen in the work of “all sorts of painters who emphasize chance or accident and like to work big, using unconventional materials.” That description is spot on when it comes to his upcoming exhibition, which includes a number of monumental works on found materials. On a trip to the Mexican jungle, Schnabel stumbled across a fruit market and was captivated by the sheets of fabric hanging over the stalls, bleached by the sun and studded with imperfections where the vendors had set down rocks to keep the cloth from blowing away. “I didn’t paint these colors, I selected them,” says Schnabel, who adds marks of his own to the fabric, which has been stretched out into irregular shapes over time–hanging between palm trees and now hung on custom-built stretchers. “A painting brings a time and place with it … all of these little nuances come with the history of the object.”

Schnabel then writes the next chapter of that history, working on his paintings outside at his Montauk studio, where they can remain exposed to the elements for months at a time. “I like to work on dirty things,” he says. At the Legion of Honor, a group of the works will be displayed outside, in the museum’s open-air courtyard. Modeled after the original Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris, it is the perfect environment for these twenty-four by twenty-four foot paintings. “Julian likes the changing effect, the interpretation that architecture can give to a painting and vice versa, the marriage between the painting and the location,” writes Max Hollein, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, who was recently appointed director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. “Placed around the Neoclassical-style colonnade, they are paintings as well as architectural objects. They will transform the space that surrounds them and create an emotionally charged and poetic environment for viewers.” Inside, another series, titled The Sky of Illimitableness, is based on antique French Dufour wallpaper that Schnabel has digitally altered. The artist has replaced an army of soldiers in the original landscape scene with a photograph of a stuffed goat sculpture he purchased at the old Billy’s Antiques tent on Houston Street. He then painted on top of that image with large, colorful slashes. The paintings will be shown alongside sculptures by Auguste Rodin.

Since taking up his role in June 2016, Hollein has prioritized building up the institution’s contemporary art program. He has launched a series of exhibitions juxtaposing historic works with those of contemporary artists—a single gallery, spanning the centuries. Schnabel and Hollein have known each other for some 25 years. They also worked closely on a 2004 exhibition at the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, so the artist was a natural choice for the series. Schnabel doesn’t necessarily see himself as having been directly inspired by Rodin in any way, but has included a 1982 sculpture of his own in the show titled Balzac, the same as one of the French artist’s most famous works. “I think artists always speak to each other beyond the grave,” Schnabel says. He has also noticed similarities between some shapes that recur in his work and some of Rodin’s smaller works, sculptures detailing feet and other parts of the body that appear more abstract. “I didn’t do that intentionally. It’s sort of osmosis or something,” Schnabel adds.

“Julian uses all sorts of different influences, motives, and elements for his paintings. They can be informed by using age-old techniques, such as painting with wax, have references to Old Masters, or incorporate historical elements,” says Hollein. “It has been extremely interesting to follow his work over a long period of time. Julian has, from the beginning of his career, also been a traveler, an extremely alert and curious artist. He has gone to other significant places to find inspiration and authenticity, whether through an encounter with a Renaissance master in Italy, a trip to India, Mexico, or a visit to the restaurant next door.” In recent years, Schnabel has enjoyed renewed attention, stemming perhaps from art critic Raphael Rubinstein’s 2011 Art in America article, The Big Picture: Reconsidering Julian Schnabel, which decried the fact that “for more than twenty years his paintings have been passed over in silence by most critics and largely ignored by curators.” The films, perhaps, had eclipsed the paintings.

Indeed, US museums did not mount a single exhibition of Schnabel’s work between the mid 90’s and 2013—when the Brant Foundation, a private institution in Greenwich, Connecticut, dedicated its spring show to the artist. The Dallas Contemporary, the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale, the Aspen Art Museum, and now the Legion of Honor, are among the other US institutions that have since followed suit. In May 2016, Schnabel closed a major chapter in his career, with a New York exhibition of new works from the well-known plate painting series that launched his career back in 1979. In addition to his once-again busy US exhibition schedule, Schnabel is also making his first film since 2010, a movie about Vincent van Gogh, starring Willem Dafoe. But that too involves his work on canvas. Who better than Schnabel himself, who has painted in many different styles throughout his career, is to create a series of faux Van Goghs-self portraits where the face has been slightly tweaked to more closely resemble the movie’s lead actor? Schnabel admits that his film career may have caused some backlash against his art. “When I first started making movies, people didn’t want to like them,” he says. “They don’t want people to be good at more than one thing.”

Recently, much of the critical writing about the artist has embraced the idea that he is back en vogue. “The Great Julian Schnabel Reboot Continues,” proclaimed Andrew Goldstein in an Artnet News headline in October 2017, citing the booth of Los Angeles’s Blum & Poe gallery at Frieze Masters in London as the latest sign of “the Julian Schnabel comeback machine.” “It’s funny when they say you’re having a renaissance,” says Schnabel. “It’s better than saying you’re forgotten!” “Maybe the reason there’s a supposed renaissance,” he adds, “is that this stuff never really went away.”

Sarah Cascone is an associate editor at artnet News and the co-founder of Young Women in the Arts.

Julian Schnabel: Symbols of Actual Life
April 21 – August 5, 2018
Legion of Honor, San Francisco