Costa Rica's Julian Schnabel makes art on his own terms

Julian Schnabel is enjoying a revival with a larger-than-life exhibition and a film in the works

A rendering (left) of artist Julian Schnabel's (above) installation at the Legion of Honour museum in San Francisco.
A rendering of artist Julian Schnabel's installation at the Legion of Honour museum in San Francisco.PHOTOS: FINE ARTS MUSEUMS OF SAN FRANCISCO
A rendering (left) of artist Julian Schnabel's (above) installation at the Legion of Honour museum in San Francisco.
A rendering of artist Julian Schnabel's installation at the Legion of Honour museum in San Francisco.PHOTOS: FINE ARTS MUSEUMS OF SAN FRANCISCO

SAN FRANCISCO • On a Friday in Costa Rica, artist and film-maker Julian Schnabel was waiting for his surfboards. They were tied up in Customs, but finally arrived that January morning.

"It makes a big difference when you're surfing on your own board," he said.

Schnabel, 66, is still catching waves and leading the rest of his life as he always has - on his own very particular terms, whether surfboards or art.

Noted initially for his broken plate paintings, he headlined the star-studded art scene of the 1980s, becoming a larger-than-life pajamaclad persona often associated with, and derided for, the excesses of that decade. He never stopped painting and later added films - The Diving Bell And The Butterfly (2007) bagged him a Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival - to his repertoire.

Today, he is in the midst of an American renaissance of sorts.

His work was feted at shows in New York and Aspen last year, while a new movie - about Vincent van Gogh - is expected later this year.

Next month, there will be an unusual exhibition of new paintings in San Francisco. The works are enormous and will be displayed outdoors for months, exposed to the city's famously foggy climate.

The six abstract paintings, measuring 7.3m on each side, will surround the columned Court of Honour at the Legion of Honour Museum. The exhibition is set to create a dramatic contrast to the museum's Eurocentric collection and neoclassical design - the building is a replica of the Musee de la Legion d'Honneur in Paris.

The giant paintings will surround and dwarf a casting of Auguste Rodin's The Thinker, the popular permanent centrepiece of the courtyard. The scale of the exhibit is expected to envelop visitors, making them feel inside the art.

"You're standing in this other world, a different relationship with the art," said museum director Max Hollein. "It's a fairly physical experience to see these works."

At the behest of Mr Hollein, who has worked with Schnabel, the artist visited the courtyard last year. "I looked at the columns and I said, yeah, I think I have to make something specific to this place," the artist said.

As Schnabel often does, he recycles materials for the canvas, this time repurposing lonas, a type of gabardine tarpaulin he discovered covering a travelling fruit market in southern Mexico.

"The sun bleaches this material to an extraordinary colour that you just can't mix," he said, adding that the vendors were "amused by the fact that someone would be interested in something that to them is utilitarian and probably even discarded. To me, the bleaching of the sun is the treasure."

It also means the materials come with their own story before the artist adds his. And in the San Francisco exhibit, another chapter will be added as the work is exposed to the elements.

Because of their size, the paintings were created outside at his indoor/outdoor studio at his home in Montauk, on Long Island, where he has long painted large-scale works.

But these new paintings are so big they required additional riggings to reach their height and were painted both horizontally and vertically.

"You can't take it inside when it rains," he said. Once dry, however, the gesso paint is durable.

Inside the museum will be more works, including others on recycled materials, such as the so-called Jane Birkin series painted on used felucca sails that Schnabel obtained in Egypt. Inscribed on them is the name of the actress and singer who has been a muse for musicians and the eponymous Hermes handbag.

The Legion of Honour exhibit is part of what promises to be a high-profile year for Schnabel, a well-known workaholic.

In Costa Rica, he was also immersed in editing his next movie, At Eternity's Gate, starring Willem Dafoe as van Gogh with Oscar Isaac as Paul Gauguin. Schnabel was delighted that a portable Avid editing system allows him to work on the film wherever he travels.

"We're so engaged in what we're doing, we really don't want to stop," he said.

He felt that same thrill when creating the San Francisco paintings, and with those surfboards having just been delivered, he drew an analogy.

"It's like paddling out in big surf. There's a wall there and you are a certain size and the sea is a certain size and these paintings are a certain size," he said.

"It happens so quickly you just want to relive that and be in that sensation again. Painting for me is like that. The joy of just doing it and being lost in the experience of that is compelling to me."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 19, 2018, with the headline 'Making art on his own terms'. Subscribe