Scaling up with Julian Schnabel
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Scaling up with Julian Schnabel

A visitor with a detail from Schnabel’s Australia.

During the installation of his Art and Film exhibition that opens today at the Art Gallery Of Ontario, Julian Schnabel had an idea. He wanted to include a quotation from the journals of French Romantic artist Eugène Delacroix that begins “art is so big that a whole lifetime is required to master the organization of it…”
It’s a fitting piece of poetic thought for the show, which traces a line through Schnabel’s creative practice that brings together works from “1975 until two weeks ago,” according to the artist. This line also plots a course through his body of work that connects pieces created at intersections of art and film.

The exhibition’s curator, David Moos, describes these points of intersection as sometimes quite clear and transparent, but adds that, other times, you are presented with paintings that offer more “fractal, prismatic attachments to the notion of film and the overlap of the two.” It’s then up to the viewer to come to an understanding of how they related through “content, form, or pictorial reality.”

The artist with Untitled (Self-Portrait).

Schnabel puts the curatorial process in more pragmatic terms, describing the criteria for including pieces in the show as: “what paintings did I make that had to do with films that I was thinking about?” With works like Accattone and Shoeshine (for Vittorio de Sica), painted and named for films (1961 and 1946, respectively) that were stirring his thoughts, the cross-over is clear.
Intersections, cross-overs, and linkages aside, entering the exhibition is an almost incredulous experience. For anyone familiar with Schnabel’s work only through reproductions, this will be the moment you realize you had no idea how big his works really are. Their scale is stunning, and it disorients your traditional interaction with a painting. It’s more like being next to an edifice, and verges on humbling.

Painting for Malik Joyeux and Bernardo Bertolucci (VI), left, and Painting for Malik Joyeux and Bernardo Bertolucci (V), right. Both featuring surfers, Schnabel states that an image of the ocean is an image of freedom.

Schnabel arrived on the New York art scene in the early 1980s with his well-known plate paintings, using smashed ceramics as a canvas for large-scale painted works. He embarked on a decades-long career that has fallen very much into the “go big or go home” school of thought. The emotive power of his works owes much to scale, but also to the fact that he is a narrative builder, a storyteller. When a visitor to the exhibition’s preview questioned Schnabel on Andy Warhol’s inner monologue when he painted his 1982 portrait of the famous pop artist, Schnabel replied “I hope you can see that answer in the painting.”
This is why the title of the show sits somewhat strangely. Schnabel is a highly narrative artist who works in a variety of media—sometimes paint and sometimes film. His filmography has garnered him as much, if not more, notoriety than his paintings. It may just be verbal parsing, but to relegate film to some realm outside of art seems an oddly definitive distinction for an exhibition about how an artist’s paintings, photographs, and sculptural works are intertwined with films.
This is, however, certainly only an aside when considering this monumental installation of rather transcendent artworks. It’s an art experience that reminds you of the importance of a life lived large—that all things are fleeting and mysterious and rare, and that we can or cannot pursue life’s paths with all we’ve got. It’s a reminder that it’s possible and valuable to go big.
Julian Schnabel: Art and Film opens to the public today, and runs until January 2, 2011.
Photos by Michael Chrisman/Torontoist.