Julian Schnabel

(Orig­i­nally published in Boston Maga­zine, 1996)

It’s harder to paint than to direct a movie,” says painter/director Julian Schn­abel, whose first film, Basquiat, mythol­o­gizes the life of fellow artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Schn­abel, who was played by Gary Oldman in the movie, is now preparing for an exhi­bi­tion of his own paint­ings, due to open in Bologna this month. The cata­logue for that show is being written by Rene Ricard, the poetic art critic who “discov­ered” Basquiat and who is also a char­acter in the movie (“Every­body wants to get on the Van Gogh boat…”). We had a brief, intense conver­sa­tion about painting and making movies, and the over­lap­ping, inter­twining bound­aries between life and art.

Rebecca Nemser: Your paint­ings are char­ac­ter­ized by grand gestures, grand scale, and also found objects, like the broken plates you’re famous for affixing to enor­mous canvasses. How did you trans­late those qual­i­ties into film?

Julian Schn­abel: After shooting for 32 days, and shifting with the ebb and flow of making a movie, I created it like a found object. I made the situ­a­tion so I could specif­i­cally give myself the time to fiddle with it until I found it was perfect.

R: And working with actors?

JS: It’s a wonderful luxury to work with actors. They hit these really idio­syn­cratic notes. They are like some unname­able color.

R: My favorite scene in the movie is when Basquiat is painting, alone, in the base­ment.

JS: That’s my favorite, too. Success is when you’re making the work of art. The moment of perfect sonorous bliss. It’s his space. Then the friends come down, and the dealer, and the collec­tors, and the girl­friend, and after a while there’s no more room down there, and he has to leave. No one is to blame, but they’re blindly pushing him into the next world.

R: Is that a metaphor for why Basquait died — the whole fame thing? Is that what drove him to his early death, from a heroin over­dose, at twenty-seven?

JS: He didn’t have a place to get out of the rain. He felt like people were using him. He got para­noid and susp­si­cious, and a lot of that’s the drugs. Some­body doesn’t always get to grow up. Most of the artists I know — they stay chil­dren. They’re big babies. They play in the sandbox. He didn’t grow up. He died. He was very much a child.

R: How did you survive?

JS: I was lucky. I was married. I had two kids. I had a place to retreat, there was some kind of cushion. That was some­thing Jean-Michel didn’t have. It’s very hard to take some­body along on that trip.

R: How auto­bi­o­graph­ical is Basquiat?

JS: It’s like 400 Blows. It’s about Truf­faut, but it isn’t Truf­faut’s biog­raphy. It’s about watching a kid in peril, and what formed him.

R: The music –

JS: Sound has a way of coloring every­thing. And some of those songs — he was with me at an opening of mine in Switzer­land, and I took off his earphones, and he was listening to Kind of Blue, Flamingo Sketches. He had such a sophis­ti­cated and eclectic taste.

The scene when he’s painting — the Charlie Parker and Max Roach riff is from his record collec­tion. It’s very heady at that moment. And the time when he’s stoned, the tire scene, that music was some­thing I heard in a taxi cab, and a Persian taxi driver was playing that tape. And the hibiscus plant was in front of a flower shop. It’s very much like painting, in a sense. When you’re painting, you do some­thing and respond to it. I behave the same way no matter what I do.

by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com

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