Schnabel: still smashing after all these years

The artist formerly know as the coolest in America continues to break plates and drag canvases behind his old Jeep. Tim Marlow finds out why

Eight years ago, Julian Schnabel strapped three vast 22-foot-square tarpaulins to the walls of his roofless studio in Montauk, out on the tip of Long Island, New York. Every time the wind blew, they billowed off their stretchers with Schnabel holding on, as he puts it, "like a bronco rider." If not quite Turner strapped to the mast of a ship in a storm, it was at least a kind of Romanticist confrontation with the sublime forces of nature in the pursuit of art. In between bouts of wrestling with the elements, Schnabel began to throw paint-soaked tablecloths at the tarpaulins, creating cosmic-scale action paintings distantly reminiscent of those produced four decades before by Jackson Pollock, a few miles down the road in East Hampton. Schnabel's far-flung paintings were made for a Roman temple, the Maison Caree in Nimes, where they hung for four years. Now, though, they're coming to the South London Gallery for the first substantial show of the brash and sometimes brilliant American's work in Britain for over a decade.

Schnabel has a reputation for grand gestures, stemming from his rapid rise to art stardom in New York at the very end of the 1970s. From the moment he began to stick smashed plates on wooden panels, painting a whole array of images in thick swathes over them, it was clear he was a radical and ambitious artist who would provoke extreme reaction. Robert Hughes immediately dismissed his work as "shallow and pretentious", but the market took little notice of Time's art critic. Within five years Schnabel's work had hit the $100,000 mark. Likewise, the museum world took a strongly positive view and by the mid-1980s his work had been acquired by a large number of major galleries, including the Whitney in New York, the Stedelijk in Amsterdam, the Pompidou in Paris and the Tate.

The plate paintings have become emblematic of the 1980s, symptoms of an inflated market, driven by macho ego. Gordon Gekko naturally had one in his office in the 1987 film Wall Street, and the ad mogul Charles Saatchi bought heavily from the outset, selling up (and at huge profit) at the beginning of the 1990s. But in spite of this heavy cultural baggage, they have remained remarkably fresh and inventive. When I visited Schnabel's vast New York studio last summer, there was a small one on the easel with a delicately painted face peering out from amidst the shards. It looked both as if it had been painted yesterday, which in effect it had, and decades, even centuries before. "Time is a crucial element in painting," he explained. "I love the idea that something can look old and new at the same time. Paintings, for me, are panels of meaning, and although most of the time it's difficult to express the meaning in words, it all stems from an accumulative or historic process of layering."

To a certain extent, all painting involves the idea of layering. But Schnabel makes this layering the subject, object and process of his art all rolled into one. There's something distinctly archeological about looking at his work, as if you're digging out images buried beneath the richly encrusted surface. Instead of starting with a blank canvas, Schnabel establishes what he calls "a skeleton or chassis for my painting with an inbuilt history". Tarpaulins are left outside or dragged around the road strung to the back of a Jeep before he begins to make his mark on them. Although he's used plenty of "found objects" in his work, from antlers to ecclesiastical banners, he is strongly drawn to what might be called "found grounds". Aside from the shattered crockery, he's used tattered sacking, cheap linoleum, lush velvet, even the backdrops from Kabuki theatre as platforms for painting on which imagination can run riot: classical columns and coffins jostle with saints and skulls in a jungle of sign and symbol where an eclectic mixture of cultural references abound, from Giotto to Joy Division and beyond. "I feel different all the time," he told me recently, "so I paint to reflect that".

His latest work, which will also feature at the South London Gallery alongside the epic tarpaulins, combines many of the ideas which Schnabel has developed over the last three decades. It will also, doubtless, have its critics. Essentially it is full-figure portraiture painted in a Spanish mannerist style and then daubed with pools of white paint (layering once again writ large). The tenderly depicted characters range from Schnabel's second wife Olatz, a model, to friends and acquaintances all from her native city of San Sebastin in Spain, where Schnabel and his family spend months at a time every year. "I guess I feel I'm a Spanish artist. I'm certainly at home there and I love Spanish painting."

Julian Schnabel was born in Brooklyn but moved to Brownsville, Texas, when he was 14. "My Dad set up a used-clothes business and sold a lot to the Mexicans just over the border." Ostracised by the local kids as a big-city hippie, Julian hung out with "Mexicans and surfers ... learnt Spanish ... and became a kind of exile ... displaced ... which I still feel today".

His own brand of hybrid Spanish art, mounted in fibreglass casts of 17th-century frames, stemmed from several earlier trips to Europe, "when I saw various Old Masters and wanted to put white paint on them". In other words, art history becomes the surface for a Schnabelesque intervention, just as the maze of embedded plates evoked, as Schnabel explained, "Cubism and Picasso or Pollock and Abstract Expressionism, as a starting point on which I felt I had to build". In the plate paintings, though, images rise to the surface whereas the recent portraits are threatened with obliteration by a thick white haze, a subtle variation on the violent undertones invariably present in Schnabel's art. Materials are never in harmony. Rather, he says, "there's a disagreement between the elements, a battle between pictoriality and physicality. My paintings, particularly these portraits, feel like they're split in half. They create a sense of doubt which is unsettling. I like that. I'm comfortable with unsettling."

Schnabel may have doubts but confidence is infectious. In the past four years he's experimented with an even broader range of media, as if to live up to Picasso, one of his artistic heroes, who, Schnabel says, "had no fear of failing, only of not trying". But even Pablo didn't attempt a rock'n'roll album. Julian did, in 1995. It was called Every Silver Lining has a Cloud, inspired apparently by Lou Reed's Berlin, but seemingly more an eclectic mixture of flamenco, funk and ballad. It was written together with Gary Oldman at a time when Schnabel felt "very isolated ... drinking and taking sedatives". The critics were less sympathetic. "Sasha Distel in mid-life crisis." said the Independent, but still conceded "a vague admiration" for the attempt. Schnabel, tongue ever so slightly in cheek, retorted that "this is the kind of record that grows on you. I think it will have a life of its own. My wife likes it anyway".

About the time that the album appeared, an altogether more successful project was getting underway. Schnabel was interviewed by a film-maker who was planning to make a movie about the short life of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the New York painter second only to Schnabel in the Eighties art firmament. Given that he knew Basquiat well and the New York art scene even better, Schnabel decided to make the movie himself, and duly assembled a glittering array of star-friends to help him, including Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, David Bowie and Courtney Love. Certain people were snide, but Schnabel retorted, as he'd done when criticised for quoting old masters in his painting, "why not use the best if you can?"

Basquiat also became a Schnabel family affair, with his two daughters and his parents all taking part, and with his partner in rock Gary Oldman playing a larger than life painter called Albert Milo, for which read Julian Schnabel. (One or two people accused Schnabel of vanity, but vanity, surely, is casting your alter-ego as Colin Firth when you look like Nick Hornby.)

The finished film was, with only a few exceptions, highly acclaimed. Vanity Fair and the New York Times liberally used words like "humility", "subtlety" and "maturity", unprecedented in their reviews of Schnabel's work. The cut-and-paste sequences of Basquiat painting in his studio were mesmerising and authentic, not least because the young actor Jeffrey Wright was adeptly directed and because Schnabel himself actually did the paintings.

Film-making remains very much a sideline but it's an area that Schnabel still wants to pursue. His next movie is provisionally titled Before Night Falls. Shooting begins later this year with a cast which includes Johnny Depp and Sean Penn. "It's about Cuba and censorship," Schnabel says cryptically, "although Hollywood would rather make Pretty Woman 2".

There was a rumour that he was approached by Hollywood to make a Pollock biopic. "Yeah, I was," he said, "but I've already made a film about a painter and I'd rather paint my own pictures". Pacing about his studio, he continued to talk about Pollock and his admiration for him and a host of other painters past and present. "It's said that amongst artists, some are cowboys and some are Indians. Pollock was definitely an Indian. I mean even though he was a cowboy, he was definitely an Indian. Van Gogh was an Indian. There was a kind of heat to the way they worked. Georges Braque is a cowboy. Roy Lichtenstein is a cowboy. It doesn't make somebody good or bad, it's just that they're different types of people." "What about you?" I asked with an image of the bronco boy out on Long Island slowly appearing before my eyes. "Me?" he replied with a quizzical grin. "Oh I'm an Indian. Definitely an Indian.

Julian Schnabel: South London Gallery, SE5 (0171 703 6120), Wednesday to 28 February. Tim Marlow will be in conversation with Julian Schnabel on Wednesday, 6.30pm. Call South London Gallery to book tickets (limited availability).

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