Painter JULIAN SCHNABEL’S meteoric rise to fame in the unpolished New York of the 1980s fizzled out as fast as it had begun – he fell out of favor for his incessant posturing. That did not stop him from purchasing a former stable for a good two million dollars and creating a monument to himself by converting it into an 11-story palazzo in 2007. From there, he and his clan held sway over the New York art scene, he continued to paint unabashed – and also made a name for himself as a film director. We visited this exceptional character in his home.
Julian Schnabel receives us in his palazzo on Manhattan’s West 11th Street, just steps away from the Hudson River. He just has to see his sister off, he tells us in his gruff voice as we arrive, inviting us to take a look around his studio in the meantime. There, on the third floor of the vast studio with its – at a guess – eight-meter-high ceilings, dozens of the artist’s new works are hung on or leant against the walls. The young Dennis Hopper, cigar in mouth, surveys the proceedings from a small portrait. Schnabel’s assistant is busy mixing greens for one of Schnabel’s takes on Van Gogh’s paintings. The canvas has already been prepared with the broken china typical of his work.
Schnabel bought the originally three-story building in West Village back in 1997, put eight more stories on top and named it “Pallazo Chupi” – Chupi being his second wife’s nickname. A Venetian-style extravagance in smoldering pink, it’s nostalgic, grandiose, over the top – and therefore not unlike Schnabel himself. He sold three luxury apartments on the upper floors for seven-digit sums, and holed himself up with members of his family in varying configurations in the lower part of the building. Not even New York’s sirens penetrate the palazzo’s thick walls.
In the late 1970s, when Schnabel erupted onto the New York art scene like a primeval force, Minimalism and conceptual art were still the prevailing schools of thought. Schnabel electrified critics and collectors alike, sending the price of his works skyrocketing. But success went to his head, and proclaiming himself the new Picasso, he became the embodiment of excess on the art market. Even before the Reagan era ended, the world had turned its back on Schnabel, his XL personality and his excessive self-adulation. He seemed to be finished. And he carried on painting.
Enter Schnabel, followed by his third wife, Swedish interior designer Louise Kugelberg and his son Cy from his second marriage. Contrary to expectations, the 67-year-old is wearing neither one of his signature silk pajamas and nor one of his typical bathrobes. Without these trademarks, he looks like a perfectly normal, older gentleman who’s about to take his dog for a walk – at least, he would do if it weren’t for the blue-tinted lenses in his glasses and that aura – an energy field that would send a Geiger counter off the scale. For the photo shoot, Schnabel arranges a few paintings here, a chair there. He’s looking serious and slightly bored; the artist dislikes relinquishing control of his works.
He often calls Kugelberg over to join him in a picture. Like his ex-wives, Kugelberg, 33, is beautiful. The pair have known each other for five years. “I had a special connection to him from the start, I understand him,” says Kugelberg. That was clearly useful for the development of At Eternity’s Gate, Schnabel’s movie about the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh. Kugelberg advanced from acting as a mediator between Schnabel and the scriptwriter, Jean-Claude Carrière, to being the co-author, and ultimately took on the editing, too. With Rula Jebreal, the author of Schnabel’s film Miral, it was the other way around: The collaboration ended in an affair and ousted wife number two, Chupi, from the palace.
Cy, 25, is also a painter, and he commutes between Mexico City and New York. Unlike Schnabel, he is tall, blond and slender. He has dark, hypnotic eyes and speaks very slowly. Is his father in the middle of a Van Gogh phase? “No, he doesn’t have phases. He always works simultaneously on a number of ideas and concepts, films and pictures.” So a workaholic, in the good sense? “A workaholic, period. It’s all part of his work. When he makes a film, everyone becomes a member of his family.” Patience is definitely not one of Schnabel’s qualities. After a few pictures, he says: “That’s enough up here. Let’s take a few photos downstairs.”
Downstairs – the living area is on the second floor – and here, too, you get the feeling you’ve shrunk. It’s not just the sheer dimensions of this apartment of superlatives – open hearths, wood paneling, unevenly plastered walls, a custom-built tub, tapestries, chandeliers, carpets vast enough for state receptions – that makes it feel a little like a museum. There’s a crocodile skeleton smiling at us here, a stuffed grizzly looking grim there, and everywhere, there’s art: Baselitz, Picasso, Picabia, Ontani, a Warhol triptych with three screen-print Schnabels, and the larger-than-life wax sculpture “Julian” by Urs Fischer. Schnabel took a virtuosic hand in decorating his home, playing masterfully with set pieces of Moorish, Venetian and Mexican art, having previously soaked up knowledge about them on his extensive travels. After spending his childhood in modest circumstances as the son of Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn and then earning a degree in Texas, he broke out of the world of mediocrity. Italy, in particular, impressed him. “I wanted to know how Caravaggio and Giotto’s paintings really looked, so I took the bus halfway across Italy, from Milan via Florence to Rome.”
Schnabel is now ready for a few questions, so here we go: Why does someone who was so successful so early in his career constantly make films about people who fail in life? “What’s so important about success?” he says, dodging the question. “My early success prompted a fierce backlash. People hated the person they saw in me.” To this day, Schnabel has not been able to entirely shed that image. But he found new means of artistic expression in directing movies.
It all began with Jean-Michel Basquiat, a contemporary of Schnabel’s, who died of a heroin overdose in 1988. In the mid-nineties, the Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski began researching Basquiat’s story, and that included knocking on Schnabel’s door. “Lech was a tourist in this world, he didn’t have a clue, but because I was there at the time, I didn’t have to invent anything.” So Schnabel bought the rights from Majewski and filmed the material about the New York art scene himself. The film received acclaim although no one was willing to believe that the painter could also possess masterly directing skills. Unlike most writer-directors, however, he succeeded in creating a deeply moving portrait of a lonely soul. “Each of us sees reality through our own filter. And in this film, I also drew from my own experience,” says Schnabel.
With The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Schnabel plumbs the depths of a claustrophobic borderline experience. The film is about the journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered from locked-in syndrome following a stroke that left him unable to move more than one eye, and blinking that eye was his only means of communication – which is how he managed to write a book. “I didn’t want to read it at first. But when I got an idea of the images that must have played in Jean-Do’s head, I knew it would be amazing if I could make those fantasies visible.” The film earned him a Golden Palm in Cannes in 2007. During the movie’s production, Schnabel completed his palace on the Hudson from a distance.
While New York was still feeling offended by the Schnabel of the 1980s, the painter was reinventing himself in Europe. In 2018, he was invited by the Musée d’Orsay in Paris to curate an exhibition, for which he juxtaposed his own pictures with 19th-century masterpieces by iconic artists from Cézanne to van Gogh to Toulouse-Lautrec.
“I hung van Gogh’s self-portraits at eye level; before me, no one had done that,” claims Schnabel. “Now, when you walk up to them, you look the artist straight in the eye and suddenly develop a physical connection to him.”
Schnabel’s telephone rings. “Hello, sweetheart!” he trills to his eldest son, Vito, who also lives in the palace and has made a name for himself as a gallerist and as a Heidi Klum ex. The Schnabel clan is large and hard to follow, so here a brief inventory: The children of his first marriage: Lola, 38, Stella, 35, and the already mentioned Vito, 32. With his second wife, actor Olatz “Chupi” López Garmendia, he has the twins Cy and Olmo (25). And model May Andersen bore him his youngest son, Shooter Sandhed Julian Jr., in 2013. His family is the best thing life has given him, the artist says today.
Still brimming with self-confidence, he opines that he at least deserved to win the director’s Oscar for his Van Gogh film, which opened in German movie theaters this past April. Does he have a new film project in the pipeline?
“She’d like to do another one,” Schnabel sighs, with a somewhat weary nod in Kugelberg’s direction. The subject? “I should probably make a feature film about surfer legend Herbie Fletcher and his son Nathan. I know them very well and they trust me. It would be a film that follows the history of the USA from the 1960s – and a story of survival. Nathan is always looking for the next big wave. Instead of having himself towed, he paddles out onto to the open sea under his own steam – out into the unknown. It sounds like Schnabel is looking for a massive challenge again – and he won’t be taking it up to please his wife.