Hurrah to our French friends (and Julian Schnabel)

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(L) Emmanuel Macron
Photo: Official Leweb Photos
(R) Musée du Louvre, Paris
Photo: Adam Derewecki

Last Sunday turned out to be full of surprises. First of all, our French friends made a decision that filled our hearts with joy. You could hear a collective sigh of relief as the world learned that Emmanuel Macron had won the presidential election. And what a smart and inspiring choice Macron made to hold his acceptance speech in front of the Musée du Louvre, a symbol of national pride and a symbol of French cultural identity. The newly elected president of France stood in front of the towering glass pyramid designed by Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei. Whether it was intended or not, for me, this choice of location and background ¬was sending a clear cultural and political message of liberté, égalité, fraternité.

Julian Schnabel: "A Private Portrait" (2017), directed by Pappi Corsicato
Courtesy of Cohen Media Group

The same day, I went to see the new documentary Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait, about one of the best-known American artists, whose huge personality competes with, and often overwhelms the monumental scale of his paintings. Reviews of this documentary in the New York Times and LA Times were rather dismissive, so I was not expecting too much. The documentary is directed by Pappi Corsicato, the artist's friend, and Schnabel is listed as an executive producer. The criticism of the documentary is that no one gives a critical assessment of the artist's work. His wives, his children, his world-famous friends—William Dafoe, Al Paccino, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Bono — all speak of him and his art with praise and authentic enthusiasm.

Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait (2017), directed by Pappi Corsicato
Courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Yes, this documentary gives us a privileged, though not particularly critical, glimpse into Julian Schnabel's art and his personality. The camera follows him while he slashes, stomps, and punches the canvases — rarely with brushes, often with the palms of his hands and sometimes even with a pile of fabric drenched in paint and dragged across the surface. Such footage offers a rare chance to see the artist in the very moment when things do happen, partially controlled by him, partially by happy accident.

Installation view of Julian Schnabel, "Infinity on Trial" at Blum & Poe (2016)
Photo by Edward Goldman

In the early 80s, Schnabel became famous for "broken plates" paintings with figurative images. Then, he started to make gigantic abstract paintings dominated by a few violent strokes of color. I remember seeing them then and saying that while not being impressed, I still recognized the vitality and energy of their execution. Seeing this new documentary gave me a new appreciation of these paintings that I was rather dismissive of before.

Installation view of Julian Schnabel, "Infinity on Trial" at Blum & Poe (2016)
Photo by Edward Goldman

Last year, Blum & Poe gallery gave Schnabel a mini-retrospective covering 40 years of his career. One gigantic, unstretched canvas there was dominated by bloody red diagonal strokes accompanied by four letters that read "PHIL"—Schnabel's homage to his late friend, famed actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. Which brings to mind another aspect of Schnabel's career—his filmmaking. With a surprising sense of artistic control and masterful editing, his movies hold your attention with the camera becoming a sort of magic brush in the hands of the artist. His three highly praised movies—Basquiat (1996), Before Night Falls (2000), and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)—hold their own against the best movies of the time.

Edward speaking to Julian Schnabel at Blum & Poe (2016)

At the opening of his exhibition at Blum & Poe last year, I spoke to Julian and asked him how much his painting affects his filmmaking, and how much his filmmaking affects his painting. He said that is impossible to differentiate; it is a singular, unbroken art process.



Benjamin Gottlieb