Julian Schnabel

Interview & Photography by: Mart Engelen


Mart Engelen: What was the main inspiration behind the exhibition we see here today?
Julian Schnabel: Well, I have been painting portraits for more than 30 years and Guy Pieters (gallery owner) wanted a portrait show: plate paintings at the gallery. I started making plate paintings in 1978 but basically around 1989 I made the last sort of large abstract plate paintings. But I have always made portraits because I never know what they are going to look like. I mean, people show up and I paint them in different ways according to what they look like. So I never know what it’s going to be like until they are standing in front of me. So it has always been interesting for me. It’s something I’ve continued to do over the past 30 years.
ME: The portrait as such.
JS: Plate portraits, yes. I also make flat paintings out of portraits; oil paintings. Usually I put a coat of resin on them. Did you see them?
ME: Yes.
JS: So they’re kind of like 17th or 18th century paintings in a way, but they have this resin on them so they look modern and old at the same time. All my work basically is about time.
ME: So the show we see now is new plate paintings?
JS: All the paintings here were made recently. In fact, May, who you saw sitting there, wrote the catalogue text and she’s the subject of three of the paintings and I’ll probably make more paintings of her. I did four of the paintings in Denmark, two in Paris; I am an ambulant painter.
ME: Is there a theme to this show?
JS: Well, it’s exactly what it says: Versions of May and other 21st century plate paintings. There is one painting of my daughter Stella, and other people who are artists, people that are close to me. You know, I think it’s important for painters to paint and after a while if you have a painting, whether it is by Velasquez, Goya or whoever, it’s not really important who the subject is. In a way it’s another Goya painting. Obviously it’s important to the artist because he was alive. I mean there is an incongruity between life and art. You have different relationships with the people living around you. What exists after you’re dead and gone is a record of that interaction whatever the quality of the paintings.
ME: If you make a portrait, how long does it take to finish?
JS: For example, the painting of Guy that was made today; it took a few hours to glue the plates but the actual painting took about three hours.
ME: I am asking because it’s interesting what you said earlier about making a portrait of the person who is next to you at that moment. It’s different if it was yesterday or next year?
JS: Right.
ME: It’s a totally different approach, also in feeling, from the way, say, Lucian Freud worked.
JS: Very different. I mean, I paint very quickly.
ME: You are also interested in photographs. You take or use photographs for your artworks.
JS: It depends. There are different things that I make. There are different tools I need for different works. I use various processes. Obviously I photograph paintings, wallpaper, recycle them and than they become the ground I put the paint on top of. I might also take photographs; I am sure you have seen the 24 by 20 inch polaroids but again that particular machine affects the meaning of the photographs. The look and the meaning are inseparable. In the same way that you can’t separate the plates from the images that are painted on top of them. I like paintings that are painted quickly. I mean Caravaggio painted quickly. Goya painted quickly. I basically try to do the same thing. I mean I paint
the light in. For example, the painting of Guy: essentially I painted over part of the plates raw and then painted the light in. Anybody who says you need to use acrylic paint because oil paint doesn’t dry quick enough doesn’t know what they are talking about. (laughs)
ME: How do you look at art today?
JS: (Silence)
ME: Does it still please you? The mechanism, the dealers?
JS: You ask me about two different things; you ask me about dealers and you ask me about art. Art and dealers have nothing to do with each other.
ME: More the first thing that comes to you.
JS: What comes to mind is: art is always interesting to me. I see paintings everywhere. I look outside, I see paintings.
ME: Do you see an influence of social media on art?
JS: I am totally uninterested in that. In the same way that I am uninterested in glass. People discovered glass. We have glass buildings everywhere but that doesn’t mean I want to make a glass building. We are attracted to certain kinds of materials, things in the world, nature, the sky, time of day. I mean you see things, you think as a painter. I look at you sitting here now, I am looking at the light at the side of your face; that side is dark. So when I painted this man today, I asked him to stand on the steps in the gallery because if we did it out on the
beach, the light….
ME: Too harsh?
JS: It wouldn’t be the thing I wanted to do. You have to decide also when he puts himself in your hands, if you care about them recognising who they are or you just want to subject them to your treatment. I think that interactive thing is quiet important. I made a painting of
Andy Warhol many years ago. Doing that or directing a movie with Javier Bardem. They are putting themselves in my hands. I am responsible for not letting them down.
ME: When you were a young artist, what artists did you admire?
JS: Living or dead?
ME: Doesn’t matter.
JS: I loved Italian painters. Caravaggio always, Goya, Velasquez. I always think about that a lot.
ME: For me it’s fascinating to see an uncommon interest in Europe in your work when I look at your art, movies. How come?
JS: It’s pretty obvious when you look at a movie, Into the Wild by Sean Penn and The diving bell and the butterfly. He sees it more like an American person and I see it more like ‘without a flag’. My father was from Czechoslovakia and my mother’s family was from Romania. I was
married to a Belgian woman. I have spent a lot of time in Europe. Actually, I came to Knokke Le Zoute thirty years ago. I am interested in other languages. The great thing about art is that it breaks down borders. In Spain, I made paintings of people that you can probably only find
in Spain.
ME: Talking about Spain and the influence of Spain. I love the colour red you use in your paintings. It’s very much a ‘corrida red’.
JS: I have spent a lot of time in the corrida, which is an unusual thing for an American probably. But when somebody says “How long did it take you to make that painting?”, I would say: sixty years and five minutes. It’s practice, it’s something that you do. Even making films, it is really using another part of your brain. It is a different kind of schedule. Somebody like Woody Allen makes two movies a year because that’s how his internal clock is set up. As a painter it’s very different for me. I paint outside in Montauk every summer or I work outside when it’s warm enough or I go to different warm places where I can paint during the winter so I have more months of summer. Even when I make these films and they are good, I am a painter and that’s what I am. Movies are so media-friendly and so many people can see them, people might know more about them. It’s a life’s work making art. So when you ask me about art, I basically think about making art all the time. I don’t think about art dealers, I don’t think about money. I just try to stay comfortable and not to get into a claustrophobic kind of situation and wait for the divine light to hit me. If you ask me about these particular paintings, it was interesting to have a kind of limited pallet in a way. I am just going to show plate paintings, portraits in this place. Look at the practice of painting from one painting to the next. I was at the Prado Museum last week looking at the pastoral paintings of Goya that he made for the tapestries. Some of the headdresses worn by the peasants are so abstract. Or the painting that he painted of Maria Luisa when she was younger in a yellow dress in Capodimonte Museum in Naples. When you get close, the yellow dress: it’s so abstract, it’s so wild the way he painted it. The reflection on the silk. I really enjoy that. I see the kind of joy he got out of doing it. It’s less interesting to me to look at paintings that are painted very slowly. I really look at the kind of marks that are made quickly and the clarity of that. Caravaggio didn’t make drawings, he painted. The exacting understanding of light and what he wanted to do is overwhelming. If you get close to these paintings you see actually how loose they really are.
ME: Do you have already your next project in mind?
JS: Yes. I have a bunch of paintings that are out in Montauk right now. In fact, tomorrow I am going back to Montauk to paint. I can already show you something on my cell phone. For example, you can see this painting, this is a goat, it’s painted on a wallpaper of George Washington accepting Lord Cornwallis’s sword from 1850. I rephotographed the wallpaperand I put ink on it and took a hose and washed the ink with it. By the way, I was recently in a junkshop in Denmark and on the floor there was a rug, there was a stain where somebody had dripped some blue and red on the floor. There was a rug sitting on the other rug and the stain came through it. So what I did, I painted white over it and I said to the guy “I want
your floor”. He said, “I’ll give it to you but I have to move some furniture off it and I’ll have to charge you 450 kroner”. I said, “That’s fine”. This painting will end up in a show next June in Charlottenburg. So I make very different kind of things.
ME: What advice do you have for young artists now?
JS: Don’t worry about getting famous. Don’t try to fit in. And make art if that is what you want to do. What they need to do is to look at the privilege of making art as a key to opening a door for themselves. And the act of doing it is the reward, not anything else. Once they realise that is the privilege, than it doesn’t matter. But unfortunately people are always looking for the agreement of others.
ME: One day, when it’s all over, how would you like to be remembered?
JS: (Long silence) I am going to leave these things around and they can judge me by my works. That’s fine. I mean everything I had to say is really said in my paintings or in the films that I have made. They judge me by my deeds and that’s fine. It doesn’t matter what my
opinion is about it.
ME: What can you tell me about practising two totally different disciplines like painting and directing movies?
JS: I am much more sure of my accomplishment for my contribution when it comes to painting than I would be as a filmmaker. I never thought I was a great filmmaker.
ME: People see you as a great filmmaker.
JS: People feel that way and they are moved by my movies and that’s great. I think that Tarkovsky was a great filmmaker. Werner Herzog made some great movies. I think I’ve made some pretty good movies. But I invented ways of painting, I don’t think I invented anything
when I made the films. Maybe I did … or it’s my own personal version of reality or unreality. In terms of paintings, I think I invented ways of dealing with materials. Ways thinking about forms. What can be included in the envelope of art that didn’t exist before. I am pretty clear
about that. If you look at the paintings over there I don’t know that anybody else ever painted like that, and if they can. I feel pretty good about that. There is a film I am probably going to make in the next couple of years called In the Hand of Dante with Johnny Depp based on a book by Nick Tosches. You should read this book. It’s pretty amazing. But I think every movie that I made probably had to do with the idea being an artist and what that meant.
ME: Do you still have a dream?
JS: No. I never had a dream.
ME: No? Not even when you were a young child?
JS: I think it has always been about ‘You live your dreams’. It is not something you are looking
forward to. I don’t see the future, I see the present. When I was a child, I found it terrifying
just to be driving in a car with my father and mother and to look at the telephone poles in front
of the car and say ‘That’s the future’ and watch them pass and say ‘That’s the past’. So where
was the present? You know I didn’t exist. Painting was a way of stopping time. If you see a
painting by Caravaggio for example it brings you into its present. I think there is one moment
that is the eternal present. That is how I see life. There is no future, no past. We are always in
this eternal present.
ME: Did you also experience this as a child?
JS: I had to figure out how to do that and understand it when I got older. I was just terrified that I didn’t exist when I was a child.
ME: What were you terrified of?
JS: Well, of nothingness. I had a huge fear of death.
ME: Thank you for this conversation.
JS: Thank you.