Julian Schnabel is shorter than I thought. He’s gruffy, straight to the point, commanding and even downright dismissive. He’s also an incredibly emotional, some might say romantic, painter. And he likes to talk about his work. A lot. I’ve never been an exceptionally huge fan of Schnabel’s paintings, but when I learned that he was coming to Berlin to open his exhibition Deus Ex Machina at Contemporary Fine Arts in Berlin, I quickly arranged an interview.
Surprisingly, they said yes. I arrived with my camera crew from ArtStars* (my web tv show) to meet Schnabel at the gallery while the paintings were being hung. The latest work brings together old history paintings with animal collages and doused in puddles of purple ink.
You might already know Schnabel as the director of the films Basquiat (1996), Before Night Falls (2000) and the Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007). He is a painter from New York who garnered attention for his plate paintings in the early 1980s. Since then, he has questioned everything, even journalists.
Nadja Sayej: You haven’t had a show in Germany for quite some time.
Julian Schnabel: Actually I have paintings at the Art & Press show at Martin-Gropius-Bau. Did you go there?
Sayej: No, I missed the press conference.
Schnabel: Well, you can still go and see the show. There are paintings on the wall, that’s what it’s about. C’mon girl.
Sayej: Sometimes you get so stuck in your roles.
Schnabel: Unstuck yourself. Why are you here?
Sayej: I want to learn more. So if you feel like satiating the curiosity and sharing that with us and the young viewers of our show… and if not? That’s cool, too.
Schnabel: These are four paintings that I made in recent time and they have a relationship to each other.
Sayej: Can you tell me more about this one?
Schnabel: Well what do you think it is?
Sayej: When I look at it, I get the feeling of blankets and clouds and feathers. Heavenly aspect? I don’t want to say a farmhouse but definitely something domestic. But the stuff on the inside is endless, it has no parameter.
Schnabel: I do them in whatever shape I could – whatever is satisfying. What do you think it is made of?
Sayej: Huh. It looks like the canvas is unprimed and then drowned in dirt, like put in a river or something. But it’s not sand.
Schnabel: It’s interesting because I’ve done what a painter would do, treat the canvas in some way – turpentine, water or dirt to get these sort of marks. Ultimately it looks like wood. Some wood has veneer on it, but it’s just a bunch of marks. But the way that it’s made… I don’t know if I should tell you how it’s made.
Sayej: Yeah! Tell me.
Schnabel: Well. It could be really interesting since you’re filming that I whisper in your ear. (Whispering). There was a couch and it was outside and there was veneer on it that was separated from the arm so I doubled it, photographed it and made it looked like veneer.
Sayej: I feel like I’ve been included into the VIP of the art world.
Schnabel: And then I painted the white oil paint on top in a topographical way. All these paintings have a kind of history to them. I add something to it. Necessity is the mother of invention. Somehow as life happens to you, it turns up in the paintings. The nice thing is that you don’t have to have the same appearance in all of the works, the way of doing something is many ways.
Sayej: You don’t feel jailed in many ways?
Schnabel: Freedom. Some of these paintings were finished a week ago. I’ve been working on found materials for 30 years.
Sayej: Like your plate paintings.
Schnabel: This was some wallpaper from 1850 as George Washington accepted surrender and then somehow this goat with a bunny on its head entered in my studio and being superimposed into this. I work outside a lot so I take ink and use a hose to wash it to have the illuminable of the sky in there. So it’s kind of a Whitman-esque painting in a way, all things are equal, just different elements, images, along a plane.
Sayej: Do you think there’s a hierarchy in the art world?
Schnabel: A hierarchy in the art world? We’re talking about art, not the art world. I think what we’re talking about is the hierarchy in this painting – these people have no idea what’s going on. The whole point is beyond logic, beyond what I’m saying. And if you can walk up to something the poetic grabs you and either enlightens you or makes you happy.
Sayej: That’s funny, because there’s two things I think I know about you but I could be wrong: From looking at your past paintings, you’re a really romantic person. And B) whenever I stand in front of one of your paintings, I feel as if there’s a spiritual or mystical knowledge. That’s my experience with your work.
Schnabel: Well that’s very nice. Have you been downstairs yet?
Sayej: No, we didn’t have a chance to check out the work down there.
Schnabel: Ok, well let’s do that. I’m in no rush. What’s interesting is that these images with the purple is the illuminable quality of the sky – I’m going to recommend a book to you.
Sayej: Ok, what book should I read?
Schnabel: The book I recommend is ‘In the Hand of Dante’ by Nick Tosches. But with these paintings, it happens almost cinematically, watching as it changes almost as if in a film, I never look at my paintings that way but the little shift in the placement of the goat made me think about that. I like the way the ink goes on. And working outside is something I did with the ink to get a different quality of line, so for me, it’s just trying to find new ways to put paint on that will be surprising to me. C’mon lets go downstairs. (Walking downstairs). I like the appearance change from one picture to the next and it sucks up a proposition for people and seeing – how to look at pictures. What can a painting do? Probably something I asked when I started. There’s a joy of painting, optimism and hope that one can enjoy, that there’s a good thing rather than an indeterminable end in death. It’s not really life and death. Its death and art. That’s the difference for an artist, the thing you leave behind is some kind of truth.
Sayej: That’s a true legacy.
Schnabel: That’s in those things that what we’re fighting for. If you’ve decided you’re going to engage with this practice, you don’t want to mess with the work. When it comes to the integrity of anyone, making a film, what you’re doing, it’s got to be right.
Sayej: It’s like a symphony.
Schnabel: Yeah. These are the X-ray paintings. They’re paintings on X-rays from 1911 that I found when we were filming The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – the house where we were shooting, we finished 10 days early and we needed a new location. They’re printed on digital and I used ink and a hose and I drew on them like that. There’s this kind of water and the ink with shellac so you get this kind of surface to it. When you first came in, there was this kind of rush.
Sayej: Totally, you need to be in the right sort of energy field.it looks like it’s painted on silk?
Schnabel: Polyester. I found them in 2007 and repainted them in 2010. I thought it would be less radical if I didn’t paint on them. I thought I shouldn’t mess with them. I wanted to do something that would speak to the drawing that is inside the X-ray itself. I think they have to do with religion and crucifixion. We need to hang this painting now.
Sayej: Can I help?
Schnabel: Stefan, can we put the painting up? WM
Deus Ex Machina runs until July 28, 2012 at Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin.
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Nadja Sayej is a Canadian journalist, broadcaster and internationally-acclaimed art critic who is best known as the leader of the new art criticism with her web-TV show, ArtStars*. In her balls-out, snappy Gonzo approach to demystify the inner workings of success in the art world, she has interviewed top-notch art world celebrities like Gilbert & George, John Waters, Peaches, Bruce LaBruce, Robert Crumb, among others, with unmatchable wit and style. Dubbed the “Perez Hilton of Neukölln,” “Borat of the Berlin art scene,” Nadja is represented by 1A Management in Berlin. She reports on visual art and architecture for The New York Times. Follow her on Twitter @ArtStars.