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Julian Schnabel: Symbols of Actual Life

Legion of Honor Museum, San Francisco

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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“Artists always want to see something. They don’t make the work so they can sell it, they make it so they can see it, or I do.” Julian Schnabel

At the recent press preview of “Julian Schnabel: Symbols of Actual Life,” the artist sauntered into the courtyard of San Francisco’s Legion of Honor Museum sporting blue sunglasses, accompanied by his retinue, looking more like a celebrity chef than a neo-expressionist artist and independent film director (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” “Before Night Falls,” and soon to be released “At Eternity’s Gate” about Vincent van Gogh).

Immediately assuming control of the press conference from his longtime friend, Fine Arts Museum director Max Hollein, (soon to depart to lead New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art), Schnabel insisted that Hollein put on the “Wave Warrior” tee-shirt Schnabel had brought for him. Graciously, albeit a bit sheepishly, Hollein obliged.

Hollein has been trying to add more contemporary art to the more traditional and European-focused Legion, a beautiful Beaux-arts building in Lincoln Park, overlooking the Pacific and the Golden Gate Bridge. Last year Hollein offered Schnabel the chance to make use of the expansive colonnade courtyard of the Legion, with Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker” in pride of place.

Schnabel created six gigantic (24-foot square) abstracts on faded purple-colored cloth made from gabardine tarpaulins he discovered in a Mexican fruit market. With white shapes painted in gesso on the cloth, the abstracts will hang in the open courtyard for four months. They will likely continue to fade and weather, which would delight Schnabel, who appreciates that life is ephemeral.

Also in the center of the courtyard are three large plaster sculptures that Schnabel created in the 1980s, which combine surprisingly harmoniously with the cloth hangings, as well as the Rodin masterpiece. This part of the exhibit is open to the public without charge. So if you like what you see, there are 11 more large canvases inside the museum.

In the three first-floor interior galleries, amidst the Rodins, are art from three distinct periods of Schnabel’s oeuvre: a recent series of abstractions painted on fabric that Schnabel found in a Mexican market stall; “The Sky of Illimitableness” series, aka the “Goat Paintings” (started in 2012) and the “Jane Birkin” series (1990).

The “Goat Paintings,” started as a posthumous tribute to artist Mike Kelley, combine a jumble of images, including parts of a copy of a painting of George Washington accepting Cornwallis’s sword, a large goat (influenced by Diego Velázquez’s “A White Horse”) on top of a dog’s head, superimposed onto reprints of 19th century wallpaper.

Schnabel found old sails he liked in Luxor, one of which had the name “Jane” already written on it. He thought of the actress Jane Birkin, and incorporated her name into the oil and gesso abstract works on the sails.

This exhibit is most interesting for the juxtaposition it presents of the realistic, somber, solid and enduring Rodin sculptures with Schnabel’s gigantic, abstract, vivid and ephemeral art. It presents a new perspective on the Rodins and warms the dramatic colonnade and marble interior of the Legion of Honor Museum.

By Emily S. Mendel

emilymendel@gmail.com

© Emily S. Mendel 2018 All Rights Reserved

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