"I really don't feel like taking pictures in the house," says Julian Schnabel, surrounded by assistants and ringing phones in his downtown studio, the third floor of an old perfume factory near the Hudson River in New York. "It's a little awkward...."
Several large canvases, including the famous cracked-plate portrait made in 1989 of his beautiful wife Olatz, lean casually against the walls. "I think there's some pretty interesting stuff in the studio right now. I'm trying to pull some stuff out ... I pulled different things out from different times."
The paintings range in date from 1982 to '89, and still pack a potent Neo-Expressionist punch. Following the recent publicity barrage surrounding his Oscar-nominated film, Before Night Falls, plus a recent show in Milan's Galleria Cardi, Schnabel has chosen to return to the studio and work on sculpture. "After working with so many people," he comments, "it's nice not to. I wanted to do something mute."
The two sculptures in Schnabel's studio are a sweeping cloth sail festooned with leather strips that is hung across a corner, and an unfinished phallic construction with two pieces hanging from the ceiling by a heavy chain. The works echo forms used in earlier paintings.
"I wanted to make some sculptures after I got through with the movie," Schnabel says. "The satisfaction of making an object." He continues, "It's interesting, this sculpture. Basically, those are parts of other sculptures that I've been reassembling for 20 years. I want to cast it in fiberglass. I want to make different versions in several different mediums."
Settling back into the rhythms of the interview form, Schnabel, in a self-proclaimed "incubatory mood," pauses before answering a question. "I've been so ... inundated. I did a lot of stuff just so people would go see the movie. I don't know if I want to show people my home right now. It's important to do things when you need to. If there's an overabundance of stuff about someone, I don't think it's good. What I'm saying is that I'm definitely not prepared right now."
The sky-lighted ochre room of the studio has a theatrical eloquence, a feeling contributed by the props on hand, from the old photo of African American heavyweight champ Joe Louis to several ornate and aged velvet religious textiles. Dried and coiled vines embellish a doorway, providing a fairytale twist to the urbane atmosphere. Painting racks are full of canvases.
Consenting to a photo-portrait, Schnabel settles into a velvet armchair. "Do you want me to just sit down right there? Want me to look at you or not while you're photographing?"
As the camera clicks away, I wander over to one of several worktables, this one next to a painting table. Neat stacks of photos, mostly black and white, depicting Julian, his family and friends cover the tabletop, awaiting filing. A copy of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children is nearby. Four copies of the Rinaldo Arenas book Before Night Falls, replete with discount price stickers, act as paperweights. "They've sold 60,000 copies since the movie opened," Schnabel says proudly.
Scrap the interview. In speaking about the Oscars, Schnabel acknowledges the surreal experience of attending the over-the-top ceremony and attendant festivities. "You've gotta keep a sense of humor," which obviously, he has managed. We talk, as New Yorkers do, about restaurants, and I tell him about the time I spotted him and his family at a small restaurant in Chinatown called Excellent Dumpling. "I've been eating there for 25 years," he says. "I used to like a waiter there," and we both smile, remembering the same charming Chinese waiter.
The other big New York topic is real estate. Schnabel says, "I lived on 20th Street from 1977 to '87, and then here." "Here" is a vast building near the Hudson River, with 20-foot ceilings, that a visitor reaches by freight elevator or dark stairs. Speaking of scale, for which his monumental artwork is famous, he says, "We're all a certain size. Things just have to be a certain size, whether big or small."
There is no doubt that Julian Schnabel fulfills his own words, "The reward is in having the life, being able to make the work," he says. Julian Schnabel is living large.