Julian Schnabel is no shrinking violet

The notorious artist-filmmaker talks about his upcoming T.O. exhibit—and issues a smackdown

Nathaniel Welch/Corbis Outline/ Andrew Tolson

“I’ve gone vegan,” said Julian Schnabel. “It’s been three weeks.” From anyone else, that might not have been a shock. But this iconic painter and filmmaker of enormous appetites—for reading, surfing, music, fatherhood, fame—is known for his pyjama-wearing lifestyle of excess. “I need to be in good shape to deal with the pleasures and battles that life might set upon me,” explained Schnabel, 59, over the phone from the famous pink palace he built in New York’s West Village.

The 170-foot-tall Palazzo Chupi is the perfect emblem for Schnabel’s pleasures and battles: some neighbours protested because it blocked their view; some found it gaudy or thought it unseemly for an artist to dabble in real estate development, while others marvelled at its beauty or seethed with jealousy. Richard Gere bought one of the five upstairs units for a rumoured $15 million.

“The art world has its own etiquette about what’s acceptable behaviour, and Julian has trodden all over that line,” said Sarah Thornton, the Kingston, Ont.-born author of Seven Days in the Art World. “He looms larger than life. But the art world likes it when an artist speaks only to them. You can’t get too popular with outsiders. Becoming a successful filmmaker confuses things. At this point, his films are pulling up interest in the paintings.”

The Art Gallery of Ontario is banking on it. Starting Sept. 1, the fifth floor of the AGO will be given over to Julian Schnabel: Art and Film, a mid-career retrospective conceived and curated by David Moos.

Schnabel, 15 lb. lighter, is coming to Toronto to celebrate the exhibit, and the screening of his new film Miral at the Toronto International Film Festival. Schnabel is a regular on the film festival circuit, where he has premiered his critically acclaimed films Basquiat, Before Night Falls (it earned actor Javier Bardem an Oscar), and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which took home, among other awards, one for best director at Cannes in 2007. His new film, about a woman’s efforts to set up an orphanage in Jerusalem after the 1948 partition of Palestine, is highly anticipated as Schnabel’s first sweeping epic.

“But basically the big deal for me is having the show at the AGO,” said Schnabel, while munching on a salad and praising his chef, Dahlia, for making delicious vegan meals that taste like “junk food.” “Movies are just part of my work as a painter. Wait?.?.?.” Schnabel’s pilot was on the other phone line, arranging a flight back to Montauk, where Julian has an outdoor studio. “I’m back. One minute. Dahlia, is it possible for me to have a glass of that chocolate milk with the coconut water and Brazilian nuts? You should taste this. It’s better than Yoo-hoo.”

Talking on the phone with Julian Schnabel is like reading his diary, playing pinball and taking an art history test. He’s likable and loopy. Between his entertaining segues—singing Dirty Old Town by the Pogues and reciting lines from William Gaddis’s 1955 novel The Recognitions—he would circle back to underscore his original point. “Painting is the ultimate, in terms of freedom,” he said. “You don’t have to explain yourself to anyone. You don’t even have to decide if a painting is good until the next day.

Painting is an escape from cinema, from talking to people. But people continue to wonder if [I’m primarily a painter or a filmmaker] because it has never been done before. There’s a sort of sui generis moment here. You see, I’m a painter. It’s not that I’m just a painter. I’m the painter. There are some people who paint and some people who make art. Damien Hirst is not a painter. Richard Prince is not a painter. He makes paintings but you don’t look at them and go, ‘God, the way this is painted is so inventive.’ That’s not what speaks to you about the work, about those artists. They have other qualities. Me being a director? It’s like if Mark Rothko decided to become a film director.”

Schnabel burst onto the art scene in the late 1970s with his famous “neo-expressionist” plate paintings. “Julian’s work was the antidote to the cold bath of minimalism and conceptual art of the 1970s,” explains Jeffrey Spalding, an artist and curator who acquired eight prints by Schnabel for the University of Lethbridge Art Collection in 1987. “We’d been fed a steady diet of brainy, ironic art, so his paintings full of smashed crockery were tremendously powerful.”

What followed—self-aggrandizing comparisons to Picasso, the sarongs and pyjamas, the writing of a memoir, skyrocketing prices for his work—set him up as a symbol of the heedless 1980s. When the art market crashed in 1990, the backlash was inevitable. “Artists of my generation lived a hair-shirt existence. We weren’t comfortable with money, or looking like we had any. And we didn’t mature in the white-hot glare of the spotlight, which is hard,” said Chuck Close, Schnabel’s older friend and peer. “Some things were said in youthful arrogance and there became a sense that [the younger artists] needed to be knocked down a peg or two.”

Contemporary art collector and Vancouver “Condo King” Bob Rennie remembers the 1990 downward spike in the art market. “But talk to Patrick Painter about Schnabel,” said Rennie. “Patrick likes to claim he killed the market for Schnabel’s paintings. He works out of Los Angeles now, but Patrick had a gallery in Vancouver then.”

“It happened at a Sotheby’s night sale in 1990,” recalled Painter, who said he and Schnabel were once friends. “I brought in a nine-by-12-foot painting of Anh [Duong], a model Julian had dated, to sell. Nobody bid! Everyone clapped when it didn’t sell! I was considered a sort of hero for busting Julian’s ego. He’d become obnoxious. People were pissed at his disregard for the value of money.” (Painter, however, says he was still able to turn around and sell the work, entitled Anh in a Spanish Landscape, to esteemed art collector Eli Broad for a $10,000 profit.)

Asked about the story by Maclean’s, Schnabel took the high road. “I have absolutely no comment about this person,” said Schnabel, before adding a smackdown. “I don’t know what market he thinks he killed. To talk about him, we’re slumming.”

“Listen, people in the art world will always love having Julian around,” said fellow art star Eric Fischl, who has an exhibit at Barbara Edwards Contemporary in Toronto opening on Sept. 24. “He’s the alpha dog! He recovered from that backlash by making critically acclaimed movies and continuing to paint the whole time.” Chuck Close agreed, adding, “The success of the films is the perfect opportunity to re-evaluate his work and cement his place in art history.”

Artforum magazine is happy to have Schnabel back on its radar. “People were dying not to take Julian seriously since the plate paintings,” said Charles Guarino, the magazine’s publisher. “Whatever was considered overhyped in his art has been mitigated by his filmmaking.”

As AGO curator David Moos noticed, much of Schnabel’s painting speaks directly to his love of films. The large-scale, abstract and expressionistic works in the exhibit sometimes have less obvious ties to cinema than, say, the portraits of Gary Oldman and Dennis Hopper, or the iconic work on sailcloth called Jane Birkin #2. However, the cinematic theme running through the paintings is not a stretch. “And Julian’s voice will be on the audio guide, talking about how his artwork is often a direct response to cinema,” said Moos, who describes the exhibition’s catalogue as “unconventional.” And there are fun anecdotes, like Johnny Depp lending the AGO a self-portrait of the artist. A show like this can’t help but name-drop—and raise eyebrows.

Toronto art dealer Miriam Shiell, for one, was surprised to hear about the AGO’s Schnabel exhibit. “I wasn’t expecting the reassessment of the ’80s so soon,” she said. “And why Schnabel? There are hundreds of artists of that decade, and I can’t name you one Canadian collection of ’80s American neo-expressionism. A survey of his painting alone [without the film component] wouldn’t be interesting.”

With the cinematic complement, there is plenty to chew on in the AGO show. “When people look at your paintings, it’s more of a hermetic voyage [than watching your movies]. It’s like learning an alphabet,” said Schnabel, who broke off the interview to plug an installation his son Vito curated for Canadian artist Terence Koh. “It’s in a cornfield in Bridgehampton [in New York]. You’ve got to see it.”

That reminded him of something else. He had to attend the premiere of Eat Pray Love with pal Javier Bardem. Off he went.

But the next morning, Schnabel wanted to make sure Maclean’s got the party line: “I’m not big on explaining my art.” He then proceeded to give a succinct explanation that perhaps gets recycled regularly: “You have a copy of The Recognitions there, right? Open it to page 15. Around there, there’s something about ‘the persistent patterns of significant form.’ Something about clouds losing their form and that’s when their beauty appears. That’s what I do when I paint.”

Likewise, when he makes films, Schnabel eschews storyboards and remains “open” to whatever might happen on set. “I certainly couldn’t have made any of these movies without having my perspective as a painter, which is the thing that makes them different,” he said.

Then Schnabel needed to get back to the editing room, where he was locking in final sound for Miral before the Venice Film Festival. The editing suite is not inside the Palazzo, but nearby, where some cranky neighbours and jealous peers had better step aside. Surf’s up.

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