25 self-portraits of others, as painted by Julian Schnabel, are now hanging at the Brant Foundation in the East Village. There are “self-portraits” of Van Gogh, Willem Dafoe as Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, Oscar Isaac as Caravaggio and his son Cy as Velasquez and Christ.
It’s an interesting concept, which came about as Schnabel was working on his film about Van Gogh, ‘At Eternity’s Gate’. Schnabel is obviously an artist who likes a challenge, having directed a total of six movies, created artwork that hangs in major museums around the world (the Whitney, MOMA, Pompidou, Tate Modern etc.) and recorded an album of mostly original songs (which was not approved of quite as well as his other work). We wondered if the painter thought about how this series would be received and we were quickly apprised of his state of mind, at the beginning.
“I thought they would think I was pretty stupid,” the artist replied. “But I know that a great idea might not make a great painting.”
Not only did Schnabel make his approval of the work known to a group of 20 or so preview invitees, he spent about an hour taking them on a tour of the show, explaining his thought processes, techniques and his love of other painters while taking the time to evaluate for himself what he had accomplished.
“The paintings look radically different here than they did in my studio,” he noted. One reason for that could be that Schnabel doesn’t just prefer to paint with available light, he finds that the less light he has, the happier he is. “As it’s getting darker, I paint more,” he explained. “These paintings are happy in the dark.”
To make his point, he had the room lights turned off, leaving the paintings transformed by the change in illumination. Periodically Schnabel got close to the works and took in the results of his work.
“You don’t really know what you’re doing when you’re painting, you’re not thinking about painting, you’re just painting,” he explained. “If it’s a good painting, then every time you see it it’s like the first time.”
Schnabel, who created his signature style of using a large canvas (the works here are 72″x60″) covered with broken ceramic plates in 1978, continues to employ that method with a minor change in methodology. “Of course when I started I placed all the plates, but others prepare the canvas now. Sometimes I think their attitude is, OK, let’s see you deal with that!”
“Every placement of plates poses a different problem artistically,” he muses. “It’s an agitated surface – it surprises you.” And, he notes, “a problem can be an opportunity.”
Information for viewing ‘Julian Schnabel – Self Portraits of Others’ can be found at www.brantfoundation.org