“Do you need to know that Caravaggio killed a guy at a tennis match to appreciate his paintings,” asks Julian Schnabel as he sinks into the couch of a Soho hotel room. He quickly serves up another question. “Have you ever seen a Caravaggio painting?” I have. “Did it speak to you?” Err. “Does knowing he killed someone at a tennis match change what you think about it?” Not really. “Exactly!” he says, triumphantly.
Schnabel is playing the role of umpire because he isn’t taken with the way some people have criticised his Vincent van Gogh biopic — At Eternity’s Gate — for playing fast and loose with the facts, namely: suggesting the painter’s death in 1890 wasn’t a suicide and that the so-called Lost Arles Sketchbook — deemed a fake by the Van Gogh Museum — was created by the artist. “I don’t know if it’s real or not real. I don’t think that is an issue,” says Schnabel. “The only way to make this movie was to make it up, because everyone thinks they know everything about Van Gogh.”
People probably have an established take on Schnabel as well — the Brooklyn-born son of Czechslovakian immigrants, he moved to Texas, took up art (and surfing), then returned to New York in the late 1970s to become a neo-expressionist and one of the most divisive art-world figures of the modern era. Known for being outspoken, brash and arrogant (“I’m the closest thing you’ll get to Picasso in this life”), he wore pyjamas in public, hung out with the scenesters at Max’s Kansas City nightclub and seemed to revel in the image of an art-world provocateur. The critic Robert Hughes compared him to Sylvester Stallone for his brazen self-promotion. Others saw similarities to Martin Amis’s rapid ascent to become the literary world’s enfant terrible of the 1980s. To his critics, Schnabel was synonymous with the decade’s excess, yuppie culture and penchant for vapid self-aggrandising.
In 2019, there is something both childlike and bearish about the 67-year-old, who carefully builds an elaborate wall of pillows around himself on the sofa before we start to drink tea and talk.
Schnabel’s latest partner, and co-writer/co-editor on At Eternity’s Gate, Louise Kugelberg, joins us. No doubt to the chagrin of his critics, Schnabel has had a miraculous second act as a director — adapting Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir to create the brilliant The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly in 2007, which followed his biopics of Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas. He politely asks Kugelberg to pour his tea and she makes short, considered points that offset his sometimes meandering answers. Such as why Willem Dafoe, who was 63 when At Eternity’s Gate premiered at the Venice film festival, was cast as a 37-year-old Van Gogh. Kugelberg makes the point that life expectancy for men in 1890 was the early 40s, so casting someone older wasn’t a big deal. But Schnabel goes further.
“I’d say it was perfect casting,” he begins. “Obviously it was: he was nominated for [an Oscar]. I don’t care who won the Oscar. Willem gave the best performance of the year. He raised the bar. Christoph Waltz said: ‘That’s the bar.’ I don’t know what he did, he went into some other place that’s beyond the Oscars, beyond criticism.”
Schnabel does this often. First, there is the profound statement about his own work. Second, there is a celebrity endorsement (“When I made Basquiat, Dennis [Hopper] said I looked like I had been directing for 40 years”; “The biggest compliment I could get was Lou Reed saying I’d perfectly portrayed Andy Warhol [in Basquiat]”). And then, the searing, pointed reasoning behind why it might not have done as well as expected. In the case of At Eternity’s Gate, he puts any failings down to lack of backing by the studio. “It was a miracle that he was nominated,” he adds. “CBS didn’t put enough money into supporting the movie. I wasn’t nominated. A lot of people said: ‘I hear your movie is great, but I haven’t seen it yet.’
“That’s very disheartening when you’ve got a guy nominated at the Golden Globes and the Oscars. If you have a movie like Bohemian Rhapsody, which made $900 million or whatever, you can’t compare. I think that movie was silly and Rami Malek’s performance was someone impersonating someone else. I think that the brand of the Oscars doesn’t mean a whole lot any more.”
Given what Schnabel has said about award recognition minutes earlier, I’m confused — does he respect the Oscars or not? Still, you can see why he has had to develop a thick skin. Critics love putting the boot in. When Schnabel had one of his first major shows in London in 1982, the Observer’s William Feaver was part of the welcoming party .
“He obviously reckons that the bigger or thicker the picture the better,” ran his review of Schnabel’s show at the Tate. “If in doubt, it appears, add a crucifixion or two to the brew. Do anything, absolutely anything, to keep them guessing.”
Critics in his native US were even more savage — and Schnabel has kept the dog-eared copies of their reviews, too.
I would have killed myself if I thought it was just a bunch of junk... But I didn’t compromise. I didn’t give away my authorship. Once you sell that you don’t exist any more.
“Usually it was hate mail masquerading as art criticism,” he says. “I never compromised. Luckily, I’ve had the good fortune to survive, whatever these people wrote or whatever their problem was.
“I’ve looked at my work — I’m 67 years old now — and I looked at what I did in the 70s and 80s,” he continues. “I would have killed myself if I thought it was just a bunch of junk. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe it is. But I didn’t compromise. I didn’t give away my authorship. Once you sell that you don’t exist any more.”
He sounds a bit like Robert De Niro’s Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, telling Sugar Ray Robinson that he hasn’t been knocked out, even though his face has been torn to shreds by the beating he has just taken. There is a stoic stubbornness to Schnabel. He seems committed to existing on his own terms and doesn’t get why he can’t just do what he wants, have his art exhibited or films released and be appreciated for the fantastic things they are, rather than be criticised or — God forbid — tossed into the promotional circus.
When I mention a particularly entertaining interview Schnabel did with Charlie Rose and David Bowie to promote his Basquiat biopic, I can barely get the words out before Schnabel cuts in. “It’s funny when you say: ‘You were promoting the Basquiat film’,” he says. “When you make a painting you don’t go around trying to convince people to like it. You just make a painting. You don’t have meetings and try to coerce people into thinking it’s good. You make a movie and, all of a sudden, you’re explaining why it’s good to a bunch of people. Well, maybe you should just look at it?”
This single-minded, purist streak can come across as being rather privileged. Such as when he scoffs at the idea of people protesting against the Sackler donations to major art institutes because of their connection to OxyContin. “I think to start to say that there is a cloud hanging over an institution because [people who donate money] have acquired it in some sort of nasty way ... it’s hard.”
What about people who buy his work? Does he care where the money comes from? “When someone buys my work, I have no idea how they made their money or what they did. I’m happy to be able to sell a painting so I can make another painting.”
Then he moves on to the furore surrounding Open Casket, Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African-American boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for wolf whistling at a white woman. When it was included in the Whitney Biennial in 2017, there was an outcry over whether a white artist has the right to use such subject matter as source material. “Why can’t a white person tell the story of a black person?” he asks. “I made a film about Jean-Michel Basquiat. Was I exploiting him by making that movie about him? I think I did him a solid by making that film. My daughter Lola says: ‘Everyone is pink inside.’
“Robert Mapplethorpe had a show at the Whitney Museum and there were guys with their dicks out or whatever,” he continues, as Kugelberg shifts slightly uncomfortably in her seat. He seems to be embarking on a rather confusing stream of consciousness ramble. “Now it seems if you’re transgender you have a better chance of getting an exhibition in a museum,” he continues. “All of these kind of political, kind of topical trends about things are...”
There’s a long pause, where Schnabel seems to realise he is approaching a cliff edge. “I think everyone should have their own personal way of relating to the world and it’s very difficult to make generalities about any of these things. And to attack an institution for having money from some source that may be suspicious in some way, if you want to spend your time doing that, great. That’s your problem. It’s completely uninteresting to me.”
This just seems hard to believe. The idea that public art institutions are supplemented by a company that popularised — and makes vast sums from — a drug that has contributed to the deaths of thousands of people worldwide is not “uninteresting”.
“I understand,” he says. “I don’t know who paid for the Franz West show [at Tate Modern], but I can tell you it’s a good thing for a little kid to walk in there and have that experience with art. Art is about freedom, and superimposing these political agendas on things — wherever they are coming from — obscures the meaning of things or complicates the experiences.”
There’s another pause. “I’m probably the wrong person to ask about these things,” he concedes before paraphrasing John 8:7. “Let somebody who never sins, throw the first stone.”
That’s far from the first stone Schnabel has thrown and, knowing him, it won’t be the last.
–Guardian News & Media Ltd