Schnabel the unstoppable art machine

Macho painter and film-maker, Julian Schnabel's life is on an epic scale. Rosie Millard meets the great bear
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The Independent Online

At least the man doesn't disappoint. You read that Julian Schnabel is very famous, that he is friends with Dennis Hopper, that he swanks around in pyjamas. And here he is. In his 10-bedroom country mansion in the Hamptons, on the tip of Long Island. He comes out of his panelled study not only in pyjamas, but a dressing gown. Waving a cigar around. He introduces me to Dennis Hopper, who is loitering in the background. Beautiful women (his daughters), skitter around. His art decorates the grand staircase. This is a portrait of the artist as a movie star.

At least the man doesn't disappoint. You read that Julian Schnabel is very famous, that he is friends with Dennis Hopper, that he swanks around in pyjamas. And here he is. In his 10-bedroom country mansion in the Hamptons, on the tip of Long Island. He comes out of his panelled study not only in pyjamas, but a dressing gown. Waving a cigar around. He introduces me to Dennis Hopper, who is loitering in the background. Beautiful women (his daughters), skitter around. His art decorates the grand staircase. This is a portrait of the artist as a movie star.

"Come on, come on. Let's go to my studio. Dennis, you come too." We charge off across the vast lawn to a concrete block high on a hill. Hopper follows us, in a baseball hat and golfing gear. He looks like any middle-aged American on holiday in the Hamptons. We reach Schnabel's studio, which is a tall, green concrete rectangle with no roof. Famously, Schnabel paints in the open air, in the rain, in thunderstorms. He hurls paint at huge canvasses and then, when he has had enough, he strips off his pyjamas and dives off a 20ft-high concrete diving board, conveniently sited at one end of the studio, down into a bright blue, 80ft-long swimming pool. The whole thing is a great glorious, macho celebration of his artistic vision and his fame.

"I've been working outside since 1979. I paint in oil, so the rain doesn't matter. In fact, I think it's about to rain now. But if it gets too hot, while working, you can just jump in the pool. You've gotta try it," he says enthusiastically. The idea that Julian might hurl me, and then himself, into the pool, flickers through my mind. "Go on. Feel the temperature." I walk down the stairs to the pool and touch the water. It's like a hot bath.

"I've got everything I need here," shouts Julian. In case I don't quite get the picture, he helpfully lists his needs. "Floor. Paint. And water, in case I get too hot. Did you see the trees over there? That's nature. I need to escape in order to work. I can see better out here."

Julian Schnabel winters in New York, and summers in the Hamptons. And in between, he makes movies. People were lining up to slam it, but his first film, a bio-pic of the short life of the artist Jean Michel Basquiat, was outrageously well received. His second, Before Night Falls, is about the exiled Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas. It has just taken second prize at the Venice Film Festival. Schnabel is on a roll.

Not that he was ever in the background. His rapid rise to stardom began in New York at the end of the Seventies, where his very presence on the scene earned him a jealous mention in Andy Warhol's diary. His paintings, involving smashed plates stuck on wooden panels, were damned by the equally famous critic Robert Hughes as "shallow and pretentious", but that didn't halt the juggernaut that was Schnabel, or the market. Charles Saatchi bought heavily, and the price of his art rocketed. Schnabel became symbolic of the inflated art market of the Eighties; Gordon Gekko even had a plate painting on his wall in that paean to capitalism, Wall Street.

For an artist who has been in the hit parade so long, Schnabel himself is surprisingly innocent. "I've been famous for such a long time, that it's no surprise any more. It has plus points. You get a good table in a restaurant. If people know who I am, it helps when they're thinking about buying the paintings. Yet I am always surprised when I have enough money to pay for dinner. I remember when I didn't have any dough and so I appreciate the privilege of being able to work."

However, meeting this big bear of a figure incongruously attired in a bath robe, it is obvious that he never once conceived that he might fail. So confident was he of his talent that he got his work first noticed - by the Whitney Museum's Independent Study programme - by sending in his slides sandwiched between two slices of bread. Films, however, were not originally part of the Schnabel game plan.

"I never thought I was going to be a film-maker. I've seen a lot of films, that was all. That's one of my heroes over there." As if he hadn't earlier introduced us, Schnabel points out Dennis Hopper, sheepishly padding around the pool. Schnabel waves at him. "Come over," he yells. Hopper gives a tense smile. We continue. "I was a movie fan. When someone wanted to do a movie about Basquiat they came to interview me and I decided to help them. Then when it didn't turn out the right way, I thought I'd do it myself," he says, in typical Schnabel style.

But after Basquiat, Schnabel says he's done his thing with artists. He even turned down a bio-pic of the man he is so often compared with, Jackson Pollock. "I knew if I ever made another film it would be about Reinaldo Arenas. I had once seen a documentary about him on television. I felt as if he was in my blood. The film is about censorship but not only in a communist country. There's censorship in capitalism, too. Did you realise that? People put tons of money into making movies about the dumbest possible subject matter for the lowest common denominator, insulting the audience. That's a form of censorship."

We pause for a moment. Suddenly Schnabel raises his arms to the sky. He is still clasping his cigar. "Hey! I told you it was going to rain! Don't worry. These paintings won't be destroyed. All that can destroy art is other art."

I stand in the rain along with Dennis and Julian. Julian is delighted it is raining. Happy to show off the versatility of his studio and his art, Schnabel's own persona is similarly weatherproofed; critics on both sides of the Atlantic have mauled him so often that Schnabel-bashing is almost a recognised sport. Yet he keeps on painting and the audience keeps on buying. I ask him about the critics. "I don't care about the critics. Why are we even talking about them? I will tell you something, though. British critics - they are wankers. Aren't they, Dennis?"

"What's a wanker?" shouts Dennis across the studio. Julian laughs, then returns to his current obsession. "Reinaldo Arenas is one of the greats. He's the Walt Whitman of Cuba."

Arenas was born in 1943. At the age of 14 he was swept up and educated by Castro's revolution. However, when he gained adulthood, he experienced horrendous persecution. "He was a homosexual but also the greatest poet in Cuba." Arenas only ever had one book - his first - published openly in his homeland. His other novels, short stories and poems were all published internationally but banned in Cuba. In 1973 he was arrested and incarcerated for two years in Cuba's El Morro prison. "He was put in prison for supposedly molesting kids. Later the charges were dropped, but he was imprisoned for two years."

In May 1980 Castro allowed anyone who was homosexual, mad or who had a prison record to leave Cuba. Arenas was one of 250,000 Cubans to leave, although he greeted America with as much disillusion as he had done post-Revolution Cuba. He died in New York City in 1990; in 1993 his memoir Before Night Falls was listed in New York as one of the year's 10 best books. Schnabel's film, shortly to screen in the New York Film Festival, has the same title. It is Schnabel's attempt to "bring Reinaldo's voice to film. I think he speaks for many. Most people don't want to make movies. They want to make money. They talk of product, not a specific creative thing. But artists have to be naïve - or optimistic. I am optimistic. I have to be. I'm free."

It's still raining, a long slow drizzle. We walk back to Schnabel's mansion. I learn that Dennis, with the formidable travel ease of the astonishingly rich, has dropped in on Julian from LA on his way to Europe. "I'm having a great time with my freedom. That's why I made a movie about someone who didn't have any," says Julian.

'Before Night Falls' will be released in the UK next year. Rosie Millard is the BBC arts correspondent

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