C California Style

A series of paintings on DUFOUR wallpaper that are precursors to the paintings to be displayed at the LEGION OF HONOR. Photography by Elizabeth khuri chandler.

Big Man on Campus

by C California Style

Ahead of Julian Schnabel’s Legion of Honor exhibit, the artist behind the myth shows what he’s really made of

Julian Schnabel, the personality, tends to overshadow Julian Schnabel, the artist. After all, he’s notorious for living a big life: He’s had multiple wives, girlfriends and kids; was an Oscar nominee for directing The Diving Bell and the Butterfly; is exhibited widely in Europe; and lives in a spectacular Venetian-inspired building in New York City called Palazzo Chupi, aka the “pink palace.” But the instant you walk into his home, you realize the multitalented man is much more than his internet track record.


In January, Schnabel opened his infamous domicile and ground-floor studio to select journalists to show off work soon to be presented at the Legion of Honor, an endeavor thanks to Max Hollein, the director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Hollein, who has known Schnabel for many years and brought his work to the Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, Germany, in 2004, wanted Schnabel’s paintings, which skillfully “create tension between the classical and the contemporary art context,” he says.


The Palazzo Chupi provides a compendium of Schnabel’s sensibilities of color, humor, and classical and abstract elements. The bottom floor, which features a pool and a gallery space with walls lined in wood milled from Brooklyn, gives way to more intimate rooms as you venture upstairs. The walls are painted in aggressive, fearless colors: cerulean blue, Kelly green, shocking pink. “I choose them by instinct,” Schnabel says emphatically. The space is crammed with his art, as well as pieces by his famous arty friends, among them Albert Oehlen and Jake Chapman.


Exotic objects ground the rooms: a large animal skull (which resembles a crocodile) is placed in front of a cream-colored divan and a painting from his “Recognitions” series; a sculpture of Schnabel by friend Urs Fischer sits adjacent to two grand pianos (one crafted by Tom Sachs with a giant Jimi Hendrix amp nestled inside). The library even features Schnabel’s take on a Picasso. “I once went to Cy Twombly’s house and he had a ‘Picasso’ that he had painted, so I went home and thought, ‘I’ll try,’ ” he says with a twinkle.


Schnabel often paints on pre-marked materials—think plates, textiles, sails, tarpaulins, velvet or kabuki theater backdrops. Then he makes his own gestures on top, sometimes using classic techniques such as painting with wax or gesso. “You have a sense of that which was made, and then that which was made after,” says Schnabel, whose work critics and curators have likened to time capsules. “The contradiction between pictorial (the pre-marked materials) and physical is a space where the paintings exist.”


In the pink family room, a gigantic canvas from his “Big Girl” series looms over a long dining table. It’s a classic example of the other defining element of his paintings—immense scale—which render his work not only a visual experience, but also an architectural object in space. For the new exhibition, Schnabel has created six 24-by-24-inch abstract paintings on sack-linen (that once covered an open-air Mexican market) for the museum’s outdoor colonnade. “They transform the space that surrounds them and create an emotionally charged and poetic environment for the viewers,” says Hollein.


Inside the Legion of Honor’s Rodin galleries, the exhibition will include three different groupings of paintings. Work from Schnabel’s 1990 “Jane Birkin” series, which were inspired by Felucca boats on a trip to Egypt, are painted in oil and gesso on sailcloth that Schnabel acquired through trading with sailors. (The name of one of the boats was Jane.) A second series of irregular purple and pinkish canvases with marks across them is also painted on the aforementioned sack linen. And the third series, “The Sky of Illimitableness,” which was made as a posthumous tribute to Mike Kelley, uses a printed Dufour wallpaper pattern on canvas, on which Schnabel adds a goat image and marks on top, referencing Diego Velázquez’s painting, A White Horse.


Schnabel pauses in front of one of his goat paintings, which includes the edge of the wallpaper—the area beyond the pattern that you aren’t meant to see. “I kind of like that idea that you’re sort of where the paint ended,” Schnabel says. “It’s like the idea of Chicken Little and the sky falling…they have no idea what’s going to happen. And in a sense, we don’t know what’s going to happen….” How will Schnabel’s art be received in the future? Hollein is betting that Schnabel, the artist, is poised for posterity. And now Californians get to see why. “Julian Schnabel: Symbols of Actual Life,” April 21-Aug. 5, Lincoln Park, 100 34th Ave., S.F., 415-750-3600; legionofhonor.famsf.org.



This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of C Magazine.