Julian Schnabel inspires violent reactions in people, and even though I find some of his work indefensible, I fall on the side of thinking he’s a great artist—not just for the paintings, but also for everything else. He’s as much a fantasy of what a world-famous artist should be as he is the real thing, complete with studied, George Plimpton-esque dilettantism that has also resulted in successful careers in Hollywood and interior design, and the general absence of fear and humility.
I last spent time with Schnabel in 2013 while I was working on a profile of him for a weekly newspaper based in New York. In person, he was strange and almost comically self-serious, but he was also kind, in his own way, even when he was telling me how I should write the article and blocking my access. (He was very interested in me not talking to Mary Boone, his former dealer.) He was a gracious host, walking me around his mansion in the West Village, pointing out paintings of his that hung on every wall, and offering commentary. (“It’s funny how a formal intervention or different marks can actually steer you into a different feeling about being,” etc.) We had started the interview in his bedroom, and he offered directions on where both of us should sit, like a choreographer. We both ended up lying awkwardly on his bed, my recorder in between us, feigning a casual comfort. This positioning lasted, mercifully, for maybe one minute before Schnabel decided he didn’t like it, but the fact that he wanted to do an interview in bed at all helped put his penchant for wearing silk pajamas around town in a new context.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, I met Schnabel at Andrea Rosen Gallery in Chelsea, where some of his new paintings were on view alongside work by David Ostrowski, Martin Barré, and Reena Spaulings. When I asked if he would show me around the exhibition, Schnabel’s first response was, “No,” and he told me to look around myself. Fair enough.
I stood in front of a large canvas featuring, in a corner in the background, what appeared to be a hazy print of a photograph of a house with a flag in its yard. Schnabel had painted a murky purple, mitochondrial blotch over that backdrop using, he said later, ink and a hose. It turned out that Schnabel couldn’t help himself from pontificating on his work, because as I looked at the picture, I felt a presence behind me. I turned and there was Schnabel, wearing his more or less typical uniform: purple sweatpants, tennis shoes with the laces untied, and a blazer with a sweat shirt underneath that had one of his paintings printed on the front. He had on plastic glasses with blue-tinted lenses. There was a little piece of lint stuck in his beard.
“I wanted the paint to impregnate the material,” he said dramatically, “instead of being on top of the material.” He gestured at a streak of paint at the bottom of the canvas. “In another life that was a flag,” he said.
I asked him what the story was with the photograph of the house. “The whole point is to make great paintings, not to tell a story,” Schnabel said, but then he told me the story anyway. Russ Meyer, the exploitation-film director who made Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, had given Schnabel a photograph of a “a bunch of people in Florida at a boat race.” He framed the picture and mounted it on the porch outside his Montauk house, where it hung for 19 years, laid bare to the weather.
“The humidity removed the emulsion from the photograph and you ended up with gook,” he said. He then photographed the deteriorating image through the frame, and printed it onto a series of canvases, with whatever strange patterns produced by the weather destroying the photograph further distorted into non-recognition. Schnabel stared intently at another painting, this one with a kind of big white tumor in the center with a yellow smudge trailing behind it.
“I have no idea what it is,” Schnabel said. “It could look like a carousel horse’s head. It has its blonde mane”—the yellow smudge—“and a stick going through its head.”
He finished the paintings three weeks ago in Mexico, outside, tying up the canvases between two palm trees, and then mailed them back to himself in New York. He started talking about the other artists in the show. The Reena Spaulings works looked an awful lot like half-hearted Schnabels—white canvases with brown stains that resembled dirt—one of Schnabel’s recurring mediums. The canvases were, in fact, tablecloths leftover from various art-world dinners, and the stains were literal.
Schnabel has a tendency to speak in cryptic aphorisms, and when asked about the artists he was sharing walls with, he said, “What’s interesting about a dialogue is we could talk about it, but it’s not the same as the dialogue itself.” He proceeded to cite a quote about painting, printed on a wall at the entrance of the show, by the author of The Recognitions, William Gaddis—Schnabel’s friend, peer in stylized maximalism, and occasional model, who died in 1998. Schnabel continued, “Maybe all art comments on other art, but that’s not enough for me as an artist.” He added he was more interested in “expanding my itinerary of marks” than talking about what those marks might mean.
Regarding interpretation, he said, “I’d rather ask this person,” turning to a slightly stunned-looking visitor who had wandered in off the street. He had shoulder-length hair, and a camera dangling around his neck. “What do you think about these paintings?” Schnabel asked him.
A pause, and then: “It seems like a microscopic look at something,” the man, named Scott, responded in a meek voice. “Like a petri dish.” Gathering some confidence now: “Then I thought, ‘Does this have a photographic element?’ I think about human insides, or biological interior.”
“Uh-huh,” Schnabel said.
“I think about purple,” Scott said, glancing at a canvas that had a predominantly purple color scheme, then gesturing knowingly to Schnabel’s purple sweat paints. “Ecclesiastical stuff.”
“Biblical. That’s a good interpretation.”
Now that he had something of an audience, Schnabel was on a roll. “All of the work in this show is discarded,” he said. “Something that comes from nothing.” He walked right up to one of the paintings and made a big sweeping gesture with his hands. “If I turn this upside down, it’s like an atomic bomb going off. It gives you a weird sense of place. But what is the place?
“I’m in the same position as you. Is it infinitely interesting to me, or is it boring? Have I seen a painting like that before?” He stopped to consider this. “That’s a good question.” He turned to Scott. “Have you seen a painting like that before?”
“Not really,” Scott said.
There was a brief lull, which Scott filled by asking, “Do you think about beauty when you make these?”
Schnabel’s face lit up at the question. He had a gallery employee retrieve a Julian Schnabel monograph. When he had it in his hands, he announced, “This is on page fifteen of The Recognitions,”1 and read the following passage by Gaddis, reprinted in the monograph, in its entirety:
…nothing retains its original shape, or purpose, among broken parts and rusted remains of useful objects, unidentifiable now, indistinguishable from other fragments of the past, shapes and sharp angles of curious design and unique intention, wasting without flame under the litter of news no longer news, pages of words torn by the wind, sodden with rain, words retaining separation, strung to the tear, without apparent purpose…the accumulation of time in walls, the toppled gateways, mosaics in monochrome exposure brought to colors of Roman life when a pail of water was dashed over them, the broken faces of cathedrals where time had not gone by but been amassed, and they stood not as witnesses to its destructions but held it preserved…he was pursued by their cries the sounds of men in agony. He was pursued down the streets by the desperate hope of happiness in the broken tunes of barrel organs and he stopped to watch children’s games on the pavements, seeking there, as he sought in the cast of roofs, the delineations of stair passages, bedrooms, and kitchens left on walls still erect where the attached building had fallen, or the shadow of a chair-back on the repetitious tiling of a floor, indications of persistent pattern, and significant form, that sentido de inevitabilidad in the past, left where it happened. There’s a permanence of disaster here, left where we can refer to it…put out there in the afternoon for the sun, to look and cough, with his piece of bread, waiting. And the sun, which had kept so close all the day, sought before leaving it to fill the sky with color, a soft luster of pink, and then purple, against the pure blue, color that refined the clouds to their own shapes and then failed, discovering in them for minutes the whole material of beauty, then leaving them without light to mock the sky, losing form, losing edges and shape and definition, until soon enough with darkness, they disappear entirely.
“So,” Schnabel said. “What a guy! He didn’t think he knew anything about painting.”
Scott left the gallery but not before telling Schnabel, “I loved your record”—Schnabel released an obscure album on Island Records in 1995, titled Every Silver Lining Has a Cloud—to which a genuinely surprised Schnabel laughed and said, “That’s amazing.” Schnabel and I went into a back office to sit down and talk.
He said he liked Gaddis because “he tried to address the all.” He talked about traveling to Philadelphia with Blinky Palermo and Sigmar Polke to see a Duchamp show in the ‘70s. He misquoted Emerson and attributed it to Martin Luther King, Jr. He said, “And since we’re dealing with infinity and time and nothingness, what will make it worth it, particularly if you’re scared of death?” He wasn’t being rhetorical because he answered: “You better make it really, really, really good.” Of the Museum of Modern Art’s new painting show, “The Forever Now,” the museum’s first contemporary painting survey since 1958, he said, “No comment.” We talked for about 20 minutes.
Then he stood, and glancing at a computer at a table in the office, said, “I’ll show you the best painting in here.” He pointed to the computer screen, which was displaying a Microsoft Word document, and had numerous horizontal lines of text of varying lengths, each highlighted in red. “It’s a white background with a line of red of a certain length, and a line of red of a different length beneath it. How come no one paints like that?”
Before I left the gallery, I wrote down the Gaddis quote printed on the wall by the entrance in a notepad: “Most paintings, the instant you see them, they become familiar and then it’s too late.”
1This quote is actually a mishmash of lines from The Recognitions—the last sentence is also carved into Gaddis’s tombstone. This particular sampling of the quotable Gaddis was first published, in a slightly different form, in the catalogue for an exhibition of Schnabel’s so-called “Recognitions Paintings” at the Kunsthalle Basel, though a portion of one of the sentences actually does appear on page fifteen of the Penguin Classics edition of The Recognitions. Do with this information what you will. I’m just the messenger here.