In its latest issue, Port meets Brooklyn-born painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel. This is an excerpt from the feature in issue 20, available here.
Even if you don’t know who lives there, the home and studio of the artist Julian Schnabel is a familiar sight for denizens of downtown Manhattan. As the West Village stretches out toward the water, a pale pink tower rises out of blocks of low apartment buildings and townhouses. This is Palazzo Chupi, a residence that Schnabel designed and built in 2009, so called after the nickname of his second wife, Olatz López Garmendia. The structure, with its stepped-back floors, curved windows and arabesque arcades, resembles a cross between a modern condo and a medieval castle in Convivencia Spain.
To visit Schnabel, one must first make a procession through Palazzo Chupi’s imposing wooden doors on the ground floor and into a tall, dark elevator that features a wall-size mirror, pointed ceiling and a woven bench, in high Gothic style. The doors open on to a sudden mirage, or so it seems: a room of billowing red velvet curtains, stone tiles and enormous paintings covering every available patch of wall – the domain of a deposed monarch in exile perhaps, or one of the best-known and yet least-understood living artists in the world.
We meet the day after the 65-year-old artist opened a new solo show at the Pace Gallery presenting a series of pieces called Rose Painting (Near Van Gogh’s Grave). The works are heavy wooden supports covered in shards of broken crockery; a strategy that made the artist’s reputation in the 1980s, but one he has rarely returned to, until now. The crockery has been coated in sweeps of green paint, forming the rosebush’s leaves, with blushing pink flowers blooming from the ground.
Two summers ago, Schnabel was visiting the cemetery where Van Gogh is buried, in Auvers-sur-Oise, to the north of Paris. “There were these rose bushes with these pink roses, and there’s this black wall around the cemetery that had little white stones in it,” he says. The scene provided the impetus for some dozen paintings, which hang, stately, at Pace, like a room of Monets at the Museum of Modern Art, pre-historicised. “There’s a work ethic in these paintings, a paintedness that is a very old-fashioned way of being a painter.”
The grandeur of Schnabel’s current surroundings and the Pace exhibition is all part of the artist’s carefully cultivated mystique. As a representative icon of 1980s New York City painting, in all its excesses, and the mascot of the neo-expressionist wave that preoccupied painters at the time, these days the artist is famous for being famous. The New York Times called him “the carnival man of contemporary art” as far back as 1982. Schnabel and his several ex-wives and art-world model girlfriends, and his now-adult children – son Vito and daughter Stella – have been mainstays of the society pages ever since.
Another factor has increased Schnabel’s public notoriety. He leveraged his fame into Hollywood as well, tapping friendly actors and funding films with his own fortune. The results, movies like Basquiat (in which Bowie plays Warhol) and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, display a unique visual sensibility. A new film project will explore the life of his most recent inspiration, Van Gogh, succeeding his paintings.
Yet Schnabel’s new rose period presents a mystery. These are quiet, contemplative paintings, more introverted than anything Schnabel has done in decades. What happened to the bad boy of the 80s, the builder of pink towers, the unrepentant enfant terrible of the art world?
Schnabel’s salon, the room where I meet him, is hung with paintings from the various phases of his long career: an autobiographical solo exhibition that continues throughout his home. He reclines on one side of a long couch and I sit in a throne-like chair beside it, positioned like a therapist to his patient, but the painter gestures for me to sit with him. He eases back further. “I want things to be able to be different and address other things, rather than make the same thing over and over,” he says, gesturing at the work around him. “The painted world is a place where you can reside outside of the world of everything else,” he says. “In there, there’s a great freedom.”
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