Julian Schnabel: Wave Warriors in the Court of Honor

The artist's first West Coast exhibit of this scale in 30 years, “Julian Schnabel: Symbols of Actual Life,” at the Legion of Honor, pulsates with the kind of bigness that is Schnabel’s trademark.

Julian Schnabel first made his name in the 1980s through his large-scale “plate paintings,” with their use of antlers and other canvas outgrowths — along with his outlandish bravado, which spawned comments from his mouth like “I’m as close to Picasso as you’re going to get in this fucking life.”

If you know nothing else about Schnabel, know this: He knows that people blame him.

They blame him for the promotional art excesses of the 1990s. They blame him for giving the world Damien Hirst and his ’90s shark-in-formaldehyde art, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, which sold for an ungodly amount of money. And they blame him for being, well, Julian Schnabel — an artist who, in the 1980s, Time called a poster child for megalomania.

The pejoratives — and, yes, a parallel layer of applause — have never stopped. People either love Schnabel or hate him; there’s no in-between. In the ’90s, New York Times critic Roberta Smith said his plate paintings were “a mix of generosity, backwardness and relentless, thick-skulled self-aggrandizement.”

But that self-aggrandizement did Schnabel well. At 66, he’s still an art-world behemoth, and his new exhibit at the Legion of Honor, “Julian Schnabel: Symbols of Actual Life,” pulsates with the kind of bigness that is Schnabel’s trademark.

An untitled work by Julian Schnabel from his exhibit, “Julian Schnabel: Symbols of Actual Life.” Photo by Jonathan Curiel

Max Hollein, director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, gave Schnabel the run of the Legion of Honor’s “Court of Honor” — the courtyard entrance that features a version of Rodin’s The Thinker. So six new Schnabel canvases and three Schnabel sculptures from the 1980s now loom over or next to The Thinker.

Hollein also gave Schnabel three inside galleries to work with. But it’s the outside courtyard that lets Schnabel be Schnabel — which is to say, it lets him show off his ability to incorporate disparate elements that Schnabel wants people to get emotional over. Each courtyard canvas features found fabric and the chalky mixture called gesso, which Schnabel has shaped into truncated feathers, fingers, filaments, or other symbolic, primordial figures. The canvases are untitled — unlike the sculptures, which have names like Balzac and Helen of Troy to make better sense of the semi-abstract shapes and branch-like heads that suggest they’re still in an odd state of formation.

Schnabel is defensive about his reputation and his continued place in the art world, even as he’s exhibiting more work than ever. Last year, his major exhibits included one at the Aspen Art Museum (a retrospective of his plate paintings) and one at Germany’s Schloss Derneburg Museum (including paintings and sculpture from the ’80s). Later this year, he’s exhibiting at London’s Pace Gallery and at Paris’ Musee d’Orsay. Schnabel has also directed another dramatic film — this one about Vincent Van Gogh, starring Willem Dafoe, that’s expected to be released this year — which bookends his first art drama, the 1996 work Basquiat.

Asked by SF Weekly about his career, and some critics’ suggestions that he’s now undergoing a “renaissance,” Schnabel scoffs, and his voice gets agitated. 

“I think it’s hard for people to grasp what’s going on sometimes,” he says, sitting on a recent Thursday morning in the Legion’s Court of Honor, where he and Hollein — who are friends and mutual admirers — met with journalists. “We’re all moving at different speeds. I never stopped doing whatever I was doing. Probably people knew more or heard more about me or I was more well-known exponentially every year. Maybe the idea of really being a nonconformist is essentially what it sounds like — you don’t conform, and you don’t fit into something. So maybe you come in and out of view.

“I was always having exhibitions. I never made any money from my movies, and always lived off my painting,” adds Schnabel, whose other films include the 2008 Lou Reed documentary Berlin and the 2000 Javier Bardem drama Before Night Falls. “My contribution was really as a painter. If you look at actual painting that happens now, there are a couple of generations of people that have used things that were part of my practice and have been in the limelight.”

He means artists like Hirst, who continues to occupy large spaces in museums and the public imagination. People hold opinions about Hirst’s (and Schnabel’s) work who’ve never actually seen it firsthand. And in an era when everyone’s a critic, Schnabel is an easy target. He says it’s always been undeserved — now and in the early 1980s, when he first exhibited in New York with the acclaimed gallerist Leo Castelli, who represented Andy Warhol and gave Frank Stella, Jasper Johns, and Roy Lichtenstein their first one-man shows.

“When I first started showing with Leo Castelli, I was the first artist he’d taken in the gallery for 12 years — and that pissed a lot of people off,” he says. “There was a cynical approach, where the notion of celebrity was something that fueled whatever and was part of the art — and I was responsible somehow for some of these personalities. But it really didn’t have a whole lot to do with me.” 

As Schnabel finished talking, Hollein walked over. Wearing a suit and a “Wave Warrior” surfing T-shirt Schnabel had given him that morning, he concurred that Schnabel is misunderstood.

“There is no renaissance, from my perspective,” said Hollein, who in April was named director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which he will join this summer. “That’s what the [Legion of Honor] show represents. It’s not a retrospective. It’s more that certain people are putting their attention back on his oeuvre. Every time [Julian’s] work manifests in an exhibition, it creates a moment of sudden and immediate attention. It’s not a renaissance. It’s a sign of power and also impact of the work.” 

Hollein commissioned Schnabel to make paintings for the Legion’s courtyard that would be exposed to fog and mist and sunshine — and for his outdoor paintings, Schnabel used a type of tarpaulin he’d came across at a fruit market in Mexico, whose culture has influenced Schnabel for decades. “Julian Schnabel: Symbols of Actual Life” is Schnabel’s first exhibit at a West Coast museum in more than 30 years. Schnabel, who was raised in New York before moving to Texas with his family, agitates easily, it seems. Earlier that Thursday morning, as Hollein was addressing journalists in the Legion’s courtyard, a large group of young, talkative art-goers walked by on their way to the museum’s entrance, and Schnabel shouted at them from a distance to lower their voices.

“Hey, kids — kids!” he yelled. “Shh! Please! He’s giving a talk.”

En masse, the group looked back at Schnabel with big eyes and obliged.

When Schnabel and Hollein entered the museum a few minutes later, the tour was equally memorable as the duo narrated Schnabel’s art, as with the series of three large-scale, ink-jet works from 2016 that feature a mountain scene and goat with what appears to be a stuffed animal on its head. Or is that the goat’s oddly shaped hair? Schnabel painted over spots of each work with different figurations and blotching. The blotches and the goat, whose neck has bells and what looks like a scarf, are the elements that make the artworks foundational — make them funny, thought-provoking, and memorable. But there is history in the painting, too, one that only the most resourced artist would know. 

First, the goat.

“I have a stuffed goat in my office,” Schnabel told the collective tour. “I guess someone put a rabbit on its head. And I never really noticed it had a rabbit on its head. I just thought its horns were deformed. But I accepted that as an image.”

As for the scene’s mountainous background, Schnabel said, “I have wallpaper from 1850, and in that wallpaper, there were images of George Washington accepting [British General Charles] Cornwallis’ sword, and they were in the bottom of the wallpaper. I digitally removed them from these paintings and made a reflection of the mountain going in the lake and opened up that space.” 

So out went the nation’s first president, and in went a taxidermied creature. The three works are from a series that Schnabel calls his “goat paintings,” some of which keep in Washington and his soldiers. Even small prints of the goat paintings go for thousands of dollars. Schnabel’s original artwork regularly sells for $1 million or more.

After the press tour, when Schnabel found his way back in the courtyard, he took a seat close to The Thinker — and it was hard not to notice the contrasts and similarities between Schnabel and Rodin’s century-old figure. Both are contemplators. And both are brooders. But as Schnabel reflects back on his life, he says he’s just like everyone else in at least one respect.

“I paint, and I make films,” he said, “and I try to get through the day, every day.” 

“Julian Schnabel: Symbols of Actual Life,” through Aug. 5 at the Legion of Honor, 100 34th Ave. $6-$15; 415-750-3600 or legionofhonor.famsf.org.

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