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Julian Schnabel: Eye of the Storm

To take the double-decker Long Island Rail Road from Penn Station to the end of the line in Montauk, Long Island, on an immaculate summer morning is to move through multiple layers of New York society. Breaking free of the outer edges of the city, Long Island opens out into wooded countryside and marshland run through with waterways and inlets. Through gaps in the trees one begins to see the mansions of the ultra-rich with their elaborately manicured gardens. All through the Hamptons, lithe teenagers in cotton dresses and polo shirts, self-conscious beauties dressed like bridesmaids, and old, shriveled couples—the men with big straw hats and the women weighted down with jewellery and makeup—spill out into parking lots and are met by fleets of black SUVs with grim, uniformed drivers who look like they double as bouncers. By the time the train reaches Montauk, it is half-empty and the mood has considerably lightened; one can suddenly see open, windswept water, the surging blue sea.

Montauk lacks the high-pressure ostentation of the Hamptons; it still retains some of the qualities of a fishing village. This doesn’t mean that the wealthy and famous don’t live there. I was in Montauk early this past August to meet the American artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, whose first museum retrospective in Canada opened at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in September and whose feature film, Miral, was one of the gala presentations at the Toronto International Film Festival. I was picked up at the train station by his painting assistant, Joe, and after passing through Montauk’s charming main drag, we headed up a hill on a dirt road. Schnabel’s summer house, built in the late-19th century by neoclassical master Stanford White, is set on the crest of the hill, its tall windows looking out across a sloping lawn and stands of trees toward the sea.

“Julian said he decided not to paint today,” Joe told me as we pulled up. “But normally I’m on call with my cell phone all the time—he’ll just call and say ‘I want to create.’ He’s very sensitive to the light; a lot of his work depends on the light.”

For anyone who has followed the art world over the past 30 years, it is difficult to approach Julian Schnabel without a lot of baggage. He was born deep in Brooklyn in 1951 to a Jewish family (his father was born near Prague and stowed away to America at 15). As a teenager, Schnabel moved with his family to Brownsville, Texas, on the American border, and attended the University of Houston. Despite being raised in a family with no special interest in art and culture, Schnabel was making art from early on, and by the time he went into the Independent Study Program at the Whitney Museum he was resolved to become an artist. “I always made things as a kid,” Schnabel told me later, “and at some point I set out explicitly to become a great painter.” With consecutive shows at Mary Boone Gallery in Manhattan in 1979 and a major travelling retrospective before he turned 40, Schnabel rose to wealth and fame early on the wave of 1980s art stardom. And he was lavished with money and attention. Schnabel’s voracious and apparently boundless ego put him in the same league as Norman Mailer, and the response of the press sometimes became resentful and vindictive.

The Julian Schnabel I encountered in Montauk, however, was altogether different from the one I expected. I was ushered in the back door through the dining room; he sat on his sun-drenched porch dressed in a sarong and a sleeveless shirt, open at the chest. Wired up to his cell phone, he was proofreading with his assistant, Bianca. He recited a passage from one of his dialogues with the AGO curator David Moos; these conversations were published in the catalogue for “Julian Schnabel: Art and Film.” “Come over here, stand in the light,” he said, leaning back. “I want to see you….”

Soon, I was introduced to Rula Jebreal, the Palestinian broadcast journalist (she has hosted award-winning political talk shows in her adopted country, Italy) and author with whom Schnabel is romantically involved. Schnabel’s Miral is based on her autobiographical novel of the same name, which appeared in English in October. In her late 30s and radiantly beautiful, Jebreal wore a white cotton summer dress and carried a wicker basket under her arm.

“I’m going out to pick up a few things.”

“You’re taking the Porsche?” Schnabel said, raising an eyebrow. “You know it has a kick.…”

“I’ll be fine,” she said, a little exasperated.

Schnabel is a big, hairy, sensuous man, and, at 59, he is also strangely fragile. One can learn a lot about him simply by taking a tour of his house. While the Montauk house lacks the baroque splendor of the Palazzo Chupi on West 11th Street in Manhattan—the dusky pink palace Schnabel built for himself atop a building that once housed a large stable—it is just as carefully conceived. “I bought the house from a woman who couldn’t afford to keep it up anymore,” he told me as he shuffled from room to room, commenting on every painting and photograph on the walls. “Fortunately, it wasn’t owned by rich people, who would have wrecked it. Still, I had the whole place stripped down.” Inside, the house is all rich, dark wood—the immaculate floors, the window frames, the railings and stairs— filling the rooms with a light that is warm and intimate. And, as one would expect, the walls are covered with art: there are old Schnabel paintings with white gesso painted on mattresses and purple spattered on a green tarp; there are smouldering black-and-white photographs from the early- 20th century; there is a painting by Blinky Palermo and voluptuous drawings by Cy Twombly. Schnabel is a classical modernist, drawn to authenticity and the immediacy of the physical; everything in his house invites one to touch it.

The conceit of “Julian Schnabel: Art and Film” was devised by Moos, but it is hardly arbitrary: long before Schnabel made his first film, Basquiat (1996), he was alluding to great filmmakers in his paintings—Jean Vigo, Vittorio De Sica, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Francis Ford Coppola, Oliver Stone, John Huston and Héctor Babenco. “Films were always an escape for me,” Schnabel told me. “When I was a child, I would sometimes go and see several in a day. I went and saw Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments and looked at the colour and the way the Red Sea opened.” Cinema appealed to Schnabel because of its scale, its enveloping immediacy and the way it can command the undivided attention of viewers, but his most powerful early influences came from other artists, such as Francis Bacon, Joseph Beuys and Cy Twombly.

Julian Schnabel is not by temperament a studio artist. It is hard to imagine him spending weeks on a single painting only to scrape it off the canvas and start over, like Willem de Kooning. He is too restless, curious, in the moment, acquisitive. He likes surfing and owns a collection of big-wave surfers’ boards, which hang from the ceiling in his studio. He likes travelling.

He likes beautiful women, and has married two of them; he likes children, and has five. He likes making things. Given all this, his spacious, open-air summer studio in Montauk is ideal. Situated up the hill from the main house, the studio consists of a broad wooden platform with three retaining walls; beside it is a lodge of Schnabel’s own design, featuring a great room with elegant tile floors and a big stone fireplace. The studio itself drops off into a swimming pool that has in its centre two cherry trees entwined with honeysuckle vines—he can literally dive from his studio into the pool.

“I’ve always liked to work while I travel,” Schnabel said. “I would be in Morocco or somewhere and make a painting, and I would just send it home. When I started painting outdoors, the paintings would get rained on, stuff would get on them, and I thought, Well, that’s just part of the painting.” In the late 1980s, Schnabel’s paintings began to open out, both in scale and composition, and they look as though they have absorbed the processes of the physical world into themselves. Painted on an old tarp, JMB (1988) was created the day Schnabel’s friend Jean-Michel Basquiat died, but seems soaked through with years of stains. The dirty, mottled-grey Cortes (1988) is covered with jagged rips, and has a piece of 17th-century Italian brocade velvet affixed to its centre. The big, triangular sail on which Jane Birkin’s signature is painted in Jane Birkin #2 (1990) looks as though it might have been lifted above a rickety boat in bad seas; cloudy shapes drift in from the edges of the canvas. Whereas early paintings like Accattone (1978) pay tribute to films, these later paintings are themselves cinematic—not just in their encompassing spaciousness, but in the way they exist in time and command the presence of the viewer. Even contemplated inside a museum, they invoke the elements, and one can almost smell the wind, the sun and the rain.

Some of Schnabel’s finest work from the past two decades has this turbulent, cinematic scale and atmosphere. One of the best examples is the cycle of massive paintings he created for the Maison Carée, an ancient Roman temple in Nîmes, France. El Espontaneo (for Abelardo Martinez)(Maison Carée) (1990) has a flood of fleshy pink rising up from the righthand edge of a tarp, and a heraldic, tattered cloth hanging in the middle. In Anno Domini (Maison Carée) (1990), “AD” is menacingly lathered in the middle of the painting like a portent, spattering eruptions of blood-red all around it. Catherine Marie-Ange (Maison Carée) (1990), by contrast, is less apocalyptic and more ruminative; birds seem to flutter across an expanse of Naples yellow and mineral violet. These paintings breathe along with the viewer, creating spaces that are both immediate and interior, both physical and introspective.

“I didn’t set out to be a film director,” Schnabel insisted, speaking of his first film, Basquiat. “I was interviewed by the director because I knew Jean-Michel, and I realized the film was being made by a tourist, someone who didn’t know about Jean-Michel or the art world—so I ended up taking over.” Schnabel’s first three features were, in different ways, about artists and their relationship to the world, about the transformative moment of creativity. While Basquiat’s script is sometimes stilted, from early on the film channels the imaginative innocence and beauty and freedom that filled Basquiat before he was crushed by fame, wealth and drugs—those electric moments in which the painter was drawing with syrup on placemats in a Lower East Side diner, or envisioning great waves arching over the island of Manhattan. Similarly, Before Night Falls (2000) is about how writing and imagining were ways for the gay Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas to survive an oppressive, dictatorial regime and the alienation of exile, while The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) tells the story of Jean- Dominique Bauby, the paralyzed former editor of French Elle magazine, discovering the poetic richness of his own inner life. “In the end,” Schnabel told me, “Bauby becomes an artist. I don’t think he could have done that if he hadn’t become paralyzed.” Shot in a highly subjective, poetic style that moves fluidly between the immediacy of the moment and ecstatic visions, all three films are about the triumph of the imagination.

“Sometimes I make a painting, sometimes I make a movie,” Schnabel said, insisting on how, for him, these two activities are closely intertwined. “Sometimes, I have an idea for a movie and it ends up turning into a painting. I was on set with Ridley Scott when he was making 1492 and I found this scrim from the set they didn’t need anymore. I just went to the hardware store, bought some paint, and made a painting!” (It’s his 1992 Untitled (Zeus Duende).) Schnabel’s films are populated by things that anyone who knows his paintings and sculptures will immediately recognize. The gorgeous ruin in the abandoned convent banquet scene in Before Night Falls has the grandeur and sensuality of a Schnabel painting, and the dream sequences of the great diving bell in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly include images of his underrated sculptures. Schnabel is anything but an artist-thinker, and there is nothing like a governing aesthetic ideology in his work; he works on impulse and intuition and the urgency of the moment. Yet his visual sensibility is remarkably consistent, searching as it does for a place of imaginative freedom and primordial innocence. Schnabel is, at heart, an unabashed romantic.

After the North American premiere of Miral at the Toronto International Film Festival in mid-September, Schnabel sauntered up to the stage dressed in his signature aubergine silk pajamas and tinted glasses, with the glamorous Jebreal and one of the film’s stars, Freida Pinto, in tow. “Julian Schnabel: Art and Film” had opened at the AGO two weeks earlier, and the exhibition met with a sometimes sour response from critics, who largely avoided commenting on the paintings themselves. On stage in full bloom was the Julian Schnabel that Canadian critics find insufferable: gloating beside his beautiful and brilliant girlfriend, unctuous, grandiose and self-important. “Rula is Miral!” Schnabel announced, his arm draped over her bare shoulders. Schnabel is a very American artist in every respect, and what Canadian critics seem to resent is the un-self-consciousness and even naïveté of his ambitions. Canadians like artists who stake out a small territory and do it well; Schnabel works more in the mode of Walt Whitman or Robert Rauschenberg, where nothing short of everything is enough. And Canadian critics never forgive this natural lack of humbleness. By contrast, the Toronto artist Shary Boyle’s exhibition, “Flesh and Blood,” a smaller show also at the AGO, received glowing praise.

Set in Jerusalem, Miral is a multi-generational saga that begins with the venerable Hind Husseini opening a school for orphaned girls in the chaotic aftermath of the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, and follows the title character’s coming of age during the first Intifada. The film ends movingly with Husseini’s death and funeral, and Miral’s departure for a new life in Europe. Like Before Night Falls and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Miral is visually sumptuous, its beauty and sensuality literally aching as the camera tracks down the narrow, luminous streets of old Jerusalem, or pans across the rolling Judean Hills, or lingers on Miral’s jet-black hair. But compared to the earlier films, Miral is, in the end, not especially successful. It’s not just that it’s bogged down with an often clunky script, or that its didacticism is sometimes forced (the documentary clips and text on the founding of Israel and the 1967 Six-Day War tend to exaggerate the monumentality of these events). Rather, it’s that Schnabel’s intense, visual subjectivism is disconnected from the film; the story in Miral is too freighted with history for it to be primarily a story about the imagination. Schnabel is at his best when he is deeply inside the poetic moment; Miral probably demanded a more circumspect naturalism. He works as a filmmaker in the same way he works as a painter, and the failure of Miral—and it is by no means only a failure—underscores this.

Which is, in a way, fine by Schnabel. “I’m a painter,” he insisted over and over again during our conversation. “I don’t plan on making another film anytime soon—I have to work through a lot of other stuff I’ve started.” He continued, “I had a dream about Reese Witherspoon—I don’t even know Reese Witherspoon!—I was saving her, I was carrying her off, but we were being followed by an army of men in suits and headsets. I woke Rula up and she said it was an anxiety dream about the film.” If Schnabel is anxious about selling out to men in suits and headsets, he has little to worry about. “I get offered scripts all the time, but I’m not looking for a job,” he told me. “I make films I feel like I need to make.”

Schnabel, Jebreal and I spent a late Montauk afternoon lounging in the pool with Schnabel’s niece and her husband. The pool has a special importance for Schnabel. For all of his grandness, when he is relaxing, stirring the warm water with his hands, he seems incredibly vulnerable. And his paintings, despite their scale, also have an unusual intimacy and tenderness and innocence. One of Schnabel’s most disarming characteristics is his unqualified love of his parents, both of whom had cameos in his films before they died. “I managed to get my mom in the pool a few times,” Schnabel told me. “I was holding her in my arms and I asked her, ‘Do you like being in the pool?’ and she said, ‘Especially with you!’” He went on, “My dad wrote a poem the day before he died—the first and last poem he ever wrote!” Then, he recited the first few lines of “Give Me a Scratch” from memory:

You’re a gem of a man
I wonder where people like you are hatched
God sent you to me
Do me a favor
Give me a scratch
Put me to sleep so I can be reborn
I’m going to miss you
You’re my little guy.…

Schnabel remains very much a Brooklyn boy—his father’s little guy—but one whose ambition has in no way abated. Leaning up against the pool’s steps, I overheard Jebreal say to Schnabel’s niece, “For me, this place is paradise, and I live a very simple life here. Julian has everything, all of this, and he’s even in love again. But for him, it’s still not enough.” ■

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