Julian Schnabel mingles with Rodin

  • by Sura Wood
  • Tuesday May 8, 2018
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Julian Schnabel brought his celebrity, a sextet of specially created, jumbo-sized artworks, and a titanic ego to the Legion of Honor's courtyard last week. When I asked if he were intimidated by sharing the same space permanently inhabited by a bronze casting of Rodin's "The Thinker," Schnabel, a man not prone to self-doubt, responded with a flat "No." The exhibition, Julian Schnabel: Symbols of Actual Life, which also includes eight paintings from three older bodies of work, is part of the Fine Arts Museums' ongoing program to mingle contemporary art with their estimable Rodin collection, a bold idea that, so far, has yielded mixed results.

The new 24x24-foot paintings in bluish mauves and soft orange, with occasional swaths of gesso, are as tall as the colonnade ringing the courtyard where they're installed for the next four months. The artist worked on the pieces, made with tarpaulins he acquired from itinerant Mexican fruit markets, at his roofless studio in Montauk, Long Island. Their excessive height required ladders and a brush attached to a long stick so they could be painted up, down and sideways. Schnabel describes them as "geographies of feeling"; if only saying made it so. An absence of depth or reflection evident in both his remarks and the work make for art that's gigantic but vacuous. Surrounded by the paintings and ideally situated on the plaza are a few immense, distressed plaster vases, from the 1980s, that seem to float above their rusted steel pedestals. Tinged with earthen brown and produced to scale, they could be ruins from the colossal temples Schnabel saw on his visits to Egypt, which, he says, had "a huge effect" on his sculpture.

The exhibit continues inside the museum's Rodin galleries with a pair of examples of the Jane Birkin series (1990), named, for no apparent reason, after the actress and singer who inspired the Hermes bag. Created out of mended Egyptian sail cloth, and accented by strips of blue and/or stains of blood-red paint, the simplicity and taupe tones of the triangular forms harmonize sweetly with the gallery walls on which they're mounted. In another room are works from "The Sky of Illimitableness," a 2012 hallucinatory tribute to the late artist Mike Kelley, where a goat with a rabbit on its head, superimposed on digital reprints of 19th-century wallpaper remnants, reigns over a sugar-and-ice glacial paradise, a reminder of what prompts some people to ridicule modern art. But a set of angular abstractions from 2016 is quite good. They come in purple in varying hues, depending on how much the sun had bleached the material, with strokes of gesso acting as clouds drifting across an expanse suggesting the sea. Schnabel again utilized tarps that he hung out to dry between palm trees, then stitched together before packing them in suitcases and shipping them to Australia, where he was traveling.

A high-living art star of the 1980s New York art scene, famous for a louche lifestyle that included wearing pajamas in public at unexpected times and places, Schnabel earned a rep as a world-class schmoozer and self-promoter, with more than a touch of the hustler. He achieved enviable commercial success and freedom to live as he pleased early, in no small part owing to an understanding of how to play the game, with key figures positioned to advance his career.

Fashion-wise, he appears to have transitioned from just-rolled-out-of-bed-casual to slightly more formal, just-stepped-off-the-sailboat attire, like the red sweater and rumpled white cotton pants he wore to a recent press event, though his blue-tinted shades lent the unsavory impression of a tin-pot dictator. He clearly thrives on adulation, lighting up while expounding in front of an appreciative crowd or when flattered by passers-by who step up to reminisce or shake his hand. During his presentation, he had considerable less tolerance for the boisterous kids waiting on line to enter the museum, at one point calling out, "Hey, we're talking here."

Schnabel is also an innately talented, exceptional filmmaker. "Before Night Falls," based on the autobiography of gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas (Javier Bardem); and "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," for instance, both of which he wrote and directed, are brimming with rapturous imagery and passionate emotional content steered by confident storytelling. His new film "At Eternity's Gate," co-scripted with the great French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, is about Vincent van Gogh's time in Arles, and stars Willem Dafoe as the tortured painter. It's slated to be shown in August at the Venice Film Festival and during Schnabel's exhibition at the Musee d'Orsay in October.

An avid surfer, he turns to the ocean to unwind. "The face of a wave is a space, and paintings are about dealing with time and space; movies are, too," he explains. "Surfing is an anti-gravity machine. The sea is bigger and more powerful than you are, and when you're surfing, there's something you can catch for a moment. But just as it's happening to you, it's over, and you want to have that feeling again and again. That's the sensation I get out of painting."

Through Aug. 5. www.famsf.org.