Article

Julian Schnabel

IN DEFENCE OF THE BIG GUY

“There’s a great line in ‘The Godfather’,” Julian Schnabel grins as we wander round his enormous apartment in New York’s West Village. “Said by Sollozzo. ‘Five shots ! And still alive’ !”

Admirers and adversaries of Julian Schnabel alike will not be surprised to find him illustrating the level of antagonism he has received with an analogy from the greatest, most epic, film of his lifetime.

He emphasises the point by mentioning that even the greatest boxer of our time used to get criticised.
Marlon Brando-Mohammed Ali-Julian Schnabel: you get the general idea.

For critics or supporters, this is typical Schnabel – evidence of both the rampant egotist suffering from delusions of grandeur and the heroically resilient artist who has endured in the face of extraordinarily malicious media vilification, and whose naivety shows, is his own worst enemy.

In any case, ever since he burst on to the international art scene in the late 1970s at the tender age of 28, Julian Schnabel has taken alot more than five shots. My, how people hate him. Let me count the ways.

Besides charges of egotism and vanity, he has been portrayed as over-opinionated, indulgent and obnoxious; a brash American brat who has made far too much money and is an incorrigible self-publicist. His art have been derided as pretentious, meaningless and as far as his famous ‘plate’ paintings are concerned, dismissed as “crockery art”. It is over-hyped, over-priced and over-sized (“too big” surely being one of the more ridiculous criteria for art criticism).

Other (cheap) shots include the firmly held views that he is too famous, too lucky, and too fat. He has too many famous friends, his apartment is too fantastic, and his wife, or wives (both models) are too beautiful. (Serious artists apparently are not meant to appreciate beauty.)

And as if being an artist, an abstract artist, was not bad enough in itself, there is a school of opinion that wishes he had stuck to art rather than making a movie (‘Basquiat’, about fellow New York art phenomenon and 80s celebrity, Jean-Michel Basquiat).

The sumptuous splendour of Schnabel’s apartment at least testifies to the fact that, like the character in ‘The Godfather’, Schnabel has taken the shots and not only survived, but prospered. He has emerged triumphant if not entirely unscathed. When I ask which of his paintings he would save if he could only save one, he cites ‘Saint Sebastian’.

Tied to a stake, pierced by a hundred arrows, and refusing to renounce his principles, no-one, the sub-text of the symbolism suggests, knows how he felt better than Julian Schnabel.
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SCHNABEL welcomes me into his studio wearing, as he is prone to, regal purple slippers and (something else people have a go at him for), pyjamas. He is in tremendously good spirits, as he also tends to be.

Whatever else, you can say about him, Schnabel is an incredibly merry soul, somehow still affable, open, and eager to meet new people. He points out that alot of nice things have been said about him too (which can’t be an easy thing to mention when you’re regarded as an ego-maniac.)

There is something indomitably larger-than-life about Schnabel. David Bowie, one of Schnabel’s clique of famous friends, compares him to Orson Welles.

Maybe it’s just his rather raffish, regal, whiskers or the notoriously ample girth but he has an unquenchable appetite, an enthusiasm about the things he has made, that often contributes to charges of arrogance but is actually rather endearing. There is something of the awkward, chubby child who wants to be liked in him and in the way he wants to show you all his paintings, all his riches, even tracking his down his wife and children to say hello.

The tour of the (palatial) apartment is actually a real pleasure. Brian Eno called the bedroom “the most incredible bedroom I’ve ever seen.”

You can see it in all its glory in the movie.

An awesome set of vast red abstract paintings, which he estimates would sell for in the region of $ 250, 000 each, dominate one room. They have a compelling sense of their own greatness.
As Eno says, Schnabel “has no doubts about his status in the pantheon of great artists”. He seems quite content to carry the concept of greatness round his shoulders, a self-confidence Eno admits he found impressive. This is how he first invented himself to be and he has stuck with it.

The studio is on the top floor of a block Schnabel bought around the height of his fame in 1987. It has the air of a large, high-ceiling-ed, car park, empty except for a piano, two trolleys full of paints, and a music centre. (Hole, The Fugees, and Mozart being his current playlist). A cigar sits on a patterned table next to a book on Velasquez. When I walk in a young assistant is on the phone ordering brushes.

Schnabel is not sure how much time he can spare.
“Every day I forget what I’m supposed to do. I always think the one thing I’m supposed to do is paint,” he says with a hearty grin.

Taking on the task of making ‘Basquiat’ though meant that for the past two years Schnabel has had a thousand other things to do as well, although he continued to paint throughout.

Even now, he complains, the cover of the American video, has been “fucked up”. Of all the pictures he was shown they are using the one image he specifically said he hated. Used to being able to determine the shade and size of every fleck of paint in his paintings, being ignored or over-ruled exasperates and infuriates him.

Still, his obsessive attention to detail – along with his affection for Basquiat and his determination to make a memorial not only to the young Haitian prodigy but their mutual friend, Andy Warhol – is what makes ‘Basquiat’ such a rich, original, piece of cinema.

Determined to set the record straight about the ‘hype’ over Basquiat’s work, his friendship with Warhol and cinema’s portrayal of what it is young artists actually do and have to go through, he put his own money into the $ 3.4m budget, and called on friends and admirers of Basquiat’s such as Bowie, Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, Willem Dafoe, Courtney Love, and Gary Oldman to appear in it.

Rather than crediting a director who is, if nothing else, closely involved with his subject matter and was friends with both Warhol and Basquiat, even critics who liked the film derided him.

“Schnabel likes his friends so much he’s made a film involving all of them,” taunted one rather pathetically, inadvertently validating one of the main messages of the movie itself – that society can’t accept the pursuit of a career as an artist as a serious lifestyle.

“The only way to be a respected artist in this culture,” Schnabel grunts, undaunted, “is to be dead.”

HAVING sought to interview him because I liked the film, thought it funny, touching and acutely illuminating about the mechanisms of the New York art scene, it was with some trepidation that I took up Schnabel’s invitation to go and see the new paintings he is working on.

The new set of six paintings are placed along one wall. He has been working on them for a week – “a week, 4 months and 45 years,” he beams with a wink.

One abstract image – suggesting (loosely), a green, lurid sunset or swamp – is placed in an old ornate frame. Parts of it are blocked out in white patches, seemingly still to be filled in.

“It’s pretty obscure right ?” Schnabel smiles, breaking my rather awkward silence.
“Well it will be,” I venture, looking at the empty white patches.
“No, no,” he assures me. “It is.”

That the white shapes are, it seems, permanent, makes the painting even more confusing. The other pictures in the series feature four old-fashioned-portraits also partially covered with white shapes, as if paint has been poured in trickles directly out of the paint pot.

The idea for the paintings came when he was visiting a friend’s house in Italy full of old paintings of family relatives and “wanted to paint white over them ! So I painted the portraits myself.”

Their faces are pretty disquieting with something of Munch or Bacon to them.
“They look like they’ve seen something terrible, right ?”
Schnabel grins with jolly enthusiasm. “Like God or hell or something.”

Close-up, they have a coating, a two-part resin that Schnabel has developed that creates a fetid-looking film over them (“a weird space”) giving the impression the figures have been drowned or trapped under formaldehyde. The addition of shapeless white blobs makes it even harder to know what they’re about, although he seems happy for them to remain “kind of enigmatic.”

He supports the view that art is over-analysed, over-intellectualised and that “alot is said about it that doesn’t help the way of understanding it. Paintings are not made to be explained. I love the idea that words can’t really explain something that’s visual.”

Talking about them though, Schnabel’s passion for the white patches, which he has used before in paintings like ‘The Migration of the Duck-Billed Platypus to Australia’ (see picture) begins to make them more intriguing.

“I like it that there’s no sentimental attachment or investment in the portraits. It’s like someone has just come along and put white on them. They seem old and new at the same time.”

Jackson Pollack was undoubtedly right when he described painting as “the discovery of oneself. Every good artist paints what he is” and Schnabel’s signature patches obviously say something significant about Julian Schnabel, though neither of us could probably say what. If Schnabel knew what it was, he, presumably, would stop.

SCHNABEL has spent most of his life in New York, inspiring derogatory descriptions in the press as “McEnroe-like” or (because of an early penchant for cap-sleeved t-shirts, “the Rocky Balboa of the art world.”

As a teenager, he spent three years in Texas on the Mexican border before studying art at the University of Houston and then entering the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study programme, getting his work noticed by the “dumb trick” of sending his slides in sandwiched between two pieces of bread. It is this sort of thing that has his critics suggesting his success has been down to “marketing”. He had jobs as a cook, selling sunglasses and driving a cab and scraped around Europe without a penny.

Schnabel is the youngest of three children with a sister and brother who are, he tells me, “11 and a half, and 8 and a half years older than I am.”

Children in this position are often lonely and end up playing by themselves and Schnabel has often portrayed himself as morose and without many friends, walking round New York as a youth “talking to buildings”, feeling “located outside of everything” in Paris and Italy.

The isolation of being an artist – in contrast to the dizzying demands of the scale and suddenness of modern fame – is certainly a theme of the film. It strikes me that perhaps he actually invites the hostility he receives in order to in some way remain an outsider, a pariah; that maybe that’s what he needs.

His mother and father, who worked in the wholesale meat trade, are both still alive, which is note-worthy only in so much that so many of his paintings, interviews and now his film refer to the quite astonishing number of friends or idols he has had who have died. He has made several tombs and dedicated endless paintings to many of them. ‘Basquiat’ is nothing if not his own requiem/memorial.

Though most of his paintings are abstract, a sense of death and dominates them and as Danilo Eccher writes in the catalogue of the recent Schnabel retrospective in Bologna, “violence appears as a constant presence…. Everything draws one back to the brutal and bloody line.”

Talking about the plate paintings, which propelled him to fame in his first solo exhibition at the Mary Boone Gallery in 1979, he told one interviewer back in 1986 that maybe he was “interested in broken-ness and fragmentation.. Maybe the paintings are about death – while we’re sitting here, we’re coming un-glued ! I like the way (the plates) break up the surface, cohering and deconstructing at the same time. The emotional density and the oddness of the way they configure is the same in all the paintings.”

Looking back, he jokes, “I wasn’t in any trouble until I showed the paintings.”

That was his big mistake. The British press in particular set on him, branding him forever as an over-priced 80s phenomenon, a brash, fat, American who had claimed he was a genius. In garrulous early interviews, he talked so much he inevitably provided the arrows for them to fire at him.

When asked about his influences or predecessors, he would talk about Goya, Duccio, and Picasso, only to find himself condemned.
“Should I compare myself to people I think are bad ?” he complains. “I’ve been accused of saying alot of things I never said.”

In a scathing manifesto for Artforum, for example, the lines.
“I can go where I want, eat whatever I like, make a pig of myself” have often been quoted literally, as a boast when they were obvious bitterly ironic.

“Who would like to be a pig you know ?” he moans, not without reason.

Even now, the polarity/polarisation of opinion Schnabel inspires virtually confirms his influence. It is remarkable how many people will profess to hating him when they have never met him or seen any of his work. Some of the most prestigious figures in the art world contacted (but not quoted) for this article demanded to know which camp I was in – the friends or enemies.

Writer, Robert Hughes, has made a career (and become famous himself) by accusing Schnabel of being no more than a self-publicist.
“If people like Robert Hughes had any power,” Schnabel shrugs, “I wouldn’t be sitting here.”

Critic Brian Sewell called him “a bruising Rambo” and even a symbol for Reagan’s America. People in the artworld who rated him, such as Mary Boone or Nicholas Serota of The Tate were dismissed as “apologists’ who Schnabel had net-worked.

“So many people think he’s a pig” his wife, Olatz, said to one journalist on the set of ‘Basquiat’.
“Who’s a pig ?” asked his daughter Stella.
“Daddy is honey,” Olatz said. “But he’s not a pig, he’s a teddy bear.”

Even now he is, predictably, billed as “the richest and most famous painter of his generation”, rarely one of the most talented or important. Even if he wasn’t the first person who wanted, or enjoyed, fame, you might think only a madman or a fool would devote years of his life to painting in order to make money.

“I don’t make paintings to make money,” he shouts. ‘I never did. I just paint the things I like. I didn’t make them to sell them either. I made them to see them.”

The film certainly endeavours to show the struggle and isolation that bonds artists, no matter how competitive they are, as well as the confusion and pressures of being discovered. Above all, it’s this way that Schnabel seems to have related to Basquiat.

Schnabel’s fame became unstoppable, though like Basquiat, he was not responsible for his fame – its scale and suddenness.

He became famous for his famous friends, his two beautiful wives and the apartment which was widely featured in Design magazines – hardly great crimes. His work featured in ‘Wall Street’, as if he was somehow to blame for the excesses of Wall Street too. Scorsese’s episode of ‘New York Stories’, featuring Nick Nolte, was thought to be based on Schnabel.

Like Branagh, a book about his (young) life did not help. Schnabel rejects the term ‘autobiography’ – describing it as “on-the-job training notes” full of advice for artists like “listen to everybody and then don’t take their advice”.

Probably intended to defend or explain the charges of egotism or indulgence, ‘CVJ’ was inevitably used as evidence for both, despite being full of desperate, rather touching, stories of the penury and struggle he had gone through to get to become an artist in the first place.

“First of all,” he rails, “when young artists are young, people treat them like shit. Once you’re one of the few that gets attention and start making money, then you’re accused of being co-opted by the establishment… People don’t understand painting in general, and it’s too easy to attack something if you don’t understand it. They called Jackson Pollack ‘Jack the Dripper’, and he was never really the same after that article came out in Time.”

He complains that he has never advertised Gap or American Express and that no-one ever accuses athletes, actors or pop stars of being self-publicists, egotistical or too rich and famous.

“I never met one artist who had a publicist or a marketing strategy. A show stays up for two months whether anyone likes it or not. I mean, wouldn’t it be a sad life without art ? he asks plaintively. “We want artists to make art but not be successful. Even fashion designers are getting awards now ! They don’t give Academy Awards for Art. Supermodels are treated with more respect than artists.”

People never allow for him to have any difficulties but of course fame always exacts its price.
“When people first started coming round, paying me attention, it made it very difficult for my first wife. I lost my family, my kids, but we luckily worked very hard and made it work. I felt like suicide in 1987. I never thought in a million years that I would ever want to do that. I’m totally scared of dying. I would be sitting out in the backyard getting images of Arshile Gorky hanging in Bridgehampton. At the time of my shows at the Whitney, people were saying ‘wow, the guy’s got it made’ but my heart had been cut out.”

Katherine Lampert, director of the Whitechapel Gallery in London, admits she admires the way Schnabel has endured, “even for trying at all”.

“It is very hard for a painter to sustain that sort of impact, almost impossible. His work has been uneven. That massive scale of paintings he is doing is very hard to pull off. Some of it is very good, though and I think he’s had alot of influence on young artists. You’ve got to remember his isn’t a generation of painters. They’ve gone into sculpture or video installation.”

“Great artists,” Bernice Rose, the former curator of drawing at the Museum of Modern Art tells me when she pops by the studio, “are freaks.”

Watching him lovingly describe why he likes the plate paintings, or obsessively makes me look close-up at a tiny clot of colour that is part of a massive 16ft canvas and doesn’t even show up in reproductions or catalogues, he certainly fits into that category.

He pain-stakingly move a painting an inch or two before he lets me look at it, screaming “Get away from it !” as if I’m going about to vandalise it. In fact, he just wants me to look at it from a better perspective. To get me to see them the way he sees them.

“When I’m painting, it gives me a sense of pride,” he says fumbling to convey it the right way. “It makes me feel like I’m not worthless. I make these things, and somehow they make me feel like I’ve earned my time with my wife or to play with my kids. Is that a form of arrogance ? I’m really in my own world here. It’s so far removed from what people write about it. You don’t paint to become popular . It’s not a discursive thing either. I’m sitting here looking at your face and how I would paint it. The light – it’s just a thing that interests me. I just can’t help it. ”
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SCHNABEL once said he admired the way Picasso had “no fear of failing, just a fear of not trying”.

He has always refused to see the diversity of his style as distracting or detracting from the merits of his painting.
“I think it informs you. It’s like, why go to another country when you could stay at home ? Maybe you’ll get an insight into another side of you.”

Making ‘Basquiat’ was “something I set myself to do and I saw it through. I’ve never been somebody who’s worked with a safety net.”

Predictably, some critics received news of the film with a deplorable lack of grace or respect though, once again, Schnabel played straight into their hands by describing the joy of making your first movie and using Pasolini’s ‘Accatone’ and Truffaut’s ‘400 Blows’ as his parallels.

Robert Hughes called it “the worst living American painter making a movie about the worst dead one”.

The New York Times ran a piece demanding to know why other New York artists like Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf or Francesco Clemente didn’t feature in the movie.
“Make your own movie !” Schnabel protests. “You never cared enough about Kenny Scharf to write about him at the time.”

They wondered whether Basquiat really learnt of Andy’s death when he bumped into art dealer, Bruno Bischofberger. (It’s a movie, OK ?) And rather than praise Schnabel for exacting tremendously naturalistic performances from relative new-comers Jeffrey Wright as Basquiat and Claire Forlani as his girlfriend, in particular the press mocked his casting of his famous friends and his family even though any director of such a low budget movie able to do so would surely do the same.

Oldman’s performance his alter-ego was, admittedly, a bit rich. The movie version of Schnabel is incredibly cool – he fixes the TV and dances for his daughter, cooks spaghetti (also coolly). He tells Basquiat ‘I’m your friend’ and so on.

Critics also complained that rather than a typical bio-pic about an artist who overdosed on fame and then heroin, ‘Basquiat’ is (enjoyably) ‘light’.

“I hate the idea that it’s a bio-pic,” Schnabel grumbles. “It’s an impressionistic film. I didn’t want it to be predictable, where you’re building up to it through the whole movie. And we’ve all seen what it looks like when someone ODs.”

In fact, not witnessing Basquiat or Warhol’s death in the film makes the sense of loss all the more poignant. It suggests that the way people are suddenly just not there anymore, are suddenly taken from us without warning, is even harder to bare. Like the rest of the movie, a refreshingly original way of handling it.

“It is unusual yeah,” Schnabel says bluntly. “It’s like life.
It’s not like movies.”

I wondered if he’d always felt Basquiat was one of those fast flames, bound to have a short life.
“No,” he says forcibly. “I thought he was going to live forever.”

Although the film inevitably has a sentimentality to it, by the end you don’t feel sorry that Basquiat has died, it’s the sorrows of his life that sadden you.

The film highlights how difficult it is for an artist, a serious artist, to cope with modern celebrity and all the consequences that his talent accords him, using many specific incidents that Schnabel witnessed, and details the effect on his work and his self-image.

The implication is that without something like Schnabel’s own thick-skinned self-invention, Basquiat had nothing to protect him.

“He was so young. He was eaten up by it, yes definitely. I made a space. I insulated myself. Taking all those drugs confused his sense of reality and made him weaker. It made it difficult for him to protect himself. He got disenchanted with painting, just got bored with it. He felt like he didn’t have any friends. When he became friends with Andy, that relationship was extremely important to him, and people attacked those guys for being friends – wrote that he was Andy’s lapdog. Andy was his great hero. He was the sweetest guy and he loved Jean-Michel. One of the goals the film had was to show the purity of their friendship and how unconsciously people threw rocks at them.”

When I first saw the film, I thought it was the guiltiest film I had ever seen. The co-operation of so many stars seemed only to support the idea that, deep down, they all felt they should have done more. Schnabel doesn’t really go along with this, and rightly points out that artists, like the rest of us, are so self-absorbed, there’s only so much you can do. That said, even when there’s nothing you can do, you still feel guilty, especially when someone young dies from drugs.

The last time he saw Basquiat, Schnabel asked him to come over to the studio and Basquiat said, “what ? So you can humiliate me ?”

Schnabel had wanted to make a painting of him. Basquiat made him a cigar box with ‘let’s squash it’ written on it, to end the rift, but it was to no avail. “I never talked to him again.”

WHATEVER ELSE people might attack him for, you cannot doubt his naivety or fault his generosity. Inviting me along to a swanky lunchtime party at Elaine’s for the new James Toback film when you have already been subject of endless articles attacking your celebrity under headlines ‘Julian Schmoozer’ for example.
Still, he makes sure I’m introduced to everyone there who knows him, including Harvey Keitel, Natalie Wood’s daughter, Natasha Wagner and Robert Downey Jr who reminisces with him about his former fondness for champagne and Rohynpol “from my Summer Of Love.”

It’s as if – childishly – Schnabel refuses to be cowed by people telling him what to do, just as he carries his grudges like a grumpy kid who can’t accept anything unfair happening. If he doesn’t like someone, he absolutely refuses to be discrete or diplomatic about it.
“He’s a cheating, bare-faced liar, a pimp and a scumbag,” he tells someone who had (mistakenly) asked if they had a mutual friend (a powerful figure in the art world).

Before we head off for the party, we look at what he has done to the last portrait.

The bottom half has now been filled in with white, so the figure looks as if he’s walking into a snowdrift. I manage to resist pointing out the significance of the fact that it has snowed overnight.

Schnabel eagerly scrapes some of the white away, creating a smooth undulating outline, and grins “it looks like a dinosaur walking past”, which it does.

The dinosaur’s bump is now pre-occupying him. He asks his assistant whether he should take the bump out.
“I like the bump,” says the assistant. He does not consult me. (I like the bump too. I am ready with “I like that”.)

Five minutes later, at Schnabel’s bequest, the three of us are standing there, staring at the bump, our heads tilted and fingers crooked before our faces to create the change down one side that Schnabel is considering. We continue to discuss the minutiae of the bump.

“It’s too….”
“Too white ?!” I wonder.
“Too comfortable with itself.”

He scrapes and paints the white again and again, like a kid playing contentedly, changing the shape over and over until finally he is satisfied.

“It’s beautiful like that no ?” he says standing back. “It’s so amazing that each shape forces you to look at it a different way. The paintings are almost accepting themselves as you look at them.”

The white foreground is actually now more interesting than the portrait.
“It’s like, ‘what’s the positive and what’s the negative here ?” announces Schnabel. “It feels like it happened one second ago…”

The new paintings, he says, have picked him up after a sense of anti-climax had descended after a trip to Cuba to show the film.

He is hoping to make another and has scripts flooding in, but whether he will ever find one he is as close to as the world in ‘Basquiat’ is surely doubtful. Besides his painting in the 90s, with a number of huge series of canvasses such as The End of The Summer, Hurricane Bob, and Olatz (see picture), has been prodigious.

As the likes of David Salle, Robert Longo, Jeff Koons, Haring, and of course Basquiat have fallen by the wayside, if any American painter from this period is going to develop a body of substantial work, it is surely likely to be Schnabel. His spirit and force of will almsot ensures it.

Norman Rosenthal of the Royal Academy told me “there is no question he’s got a place in the history of 20th century art. For his innovation and for the fact that he set an agenda.”

And Art critic David Sylvester says that while “it is impossible to predict what posterity will do to Schnabel, as it is impossible to predict what it will do to anyone… he’s done some wonderful paintings. And some very bad ones too.”

His paintings still command high prices and are in demand for permanent collections across the world. A big show is planned at the new museum in Bilbao this year.

“More people know my work now. I’ve had more shows in the 90s than the 80s,” he reiterates. “People would like artists to be expendable, To fit into one generation or another. They don’t like it when somebody keeps going. I think people have had time to look at the work and say, ‘wait a minute, there’s something to this’.”

Really, all he wants is for other artists to respect him, and for his friends to like him.

His sense of isolation and dedication to what he is trying to do, is what sticks with you – despite all the jibes about his lifestyle and his celebrity – as if he will always be too eccentric or morbid to not feel basically detached.

“I still feel that way yeah. You know, I have friends all over the world now, which obviously I never had growing up but only really a couple of friends I can really talk to. Not many more than that. Dennis (Hopper) is a good friend. If I’m feeling bad, I can talk to him for a long time. I kind of stay pretty much to myself. I have a very insulated life. I love being with my wife. I love being with my kids. My wife’s pretty anti-social. We go to a movie, sometimes. Or have dinner.”

He struggles for a second to come up with anything else that he does or that he likes, and looks almost pleasantly surprised when one comes to him and he adds: “I like painting.”

ends