Tuesday, March 31, 2009

ENCOUNTER ] Mr. Schnabel, is that you?

Click image to enlarge. Page design JR Agra

Three things I’ve always wanted to find out in case I ever meet Julian Schnabel in this lifetime: First, was he a difficult person to talk to, an egomaniac? Second, was he as big as a bear? Third, did he really always wear pajamas wherever he goes? So when I learned that he will be in Singapore for an exhibit, I did everything I could to secure a meet-and-greet: four days before the opening, I called the organizers to say that my Philippine Daily Inquirer editor was in town and would love to interview Schnabel.

We arrived at HT Contemporary Space an hour early--to look around, acclimatize, and familiarize ourselves with the artist's new works. The 57-year-old, considered a mythical figure in the international art scene, became famous in the 1980s for using broken plates as canvas. He is also known both for being prolific and constantly changing his style.

Schnabelissima! The exhibition at HT Contemporary Space, Singapore

The Space (the owners refuse to call it a gallery), located at a warehouse district in Singapore’s former port area, was stark white. Two galleries were alloted for Schnabel’s works. The main one featured his most recent efforts, relatively small canvasses (he usually paints the size of walls) being sold in the US$270,000 range.

The smaller gallery featured his print series for those with not-so-deep pockets, in the range of US$27,000. The prints were representative of his works over the past 20 years. His portrait paintings of his friends: Argentine artist Victor Hugo 'Grillo' Demo and actor Jose Luis Ferrer were easily the most stunning. The portraits are neither pretty nor flattering. They're almost as frightening as his broken plates paintings; but because the artist this time poured resin on the images, they appear glossy and sweet instead of scary and haunting.

Around this time, one of the organizers came by to say she was just there--in case we wanted to know anything about Schnabel's works. I asked about the portraits, their subjects and if they ever posed for him. Well, she said carefully, Victor Hugo is a famous writer and he's been dead for some time.

By five in the afternoon, a small crowd had begun to gather, the refreshment guys given the go-signal to serve drinks. Howard Rutkowski of Fortune Cookie Projects, which brought the show here, walked up to us hurriedly to say, “Julian’s here. You can talk to him now.” He made it clear there wasn’t going to be any sitdown interview; that’s not Julian’s style.

Just winners, no Olatz. The crowd during the opening last Saturday. Among them Julian's new girlfriend Rula Jebreal (bottom left).

When my editor Lito Zulueta and I walked to the main gallery, Schnabel was already surrounded by a coterie of Filipino admirers: artists Gerry Tan, Bernie Pacquing and Ronald Achacoso. "He was our idol when we were in UP," Ronald would excitedly tell me later on. “Kaya para niya kaming acolytes ngayon.”

What was Schnabel wearing to his opening night? Maroon sneakers, blue pants, and a black shirt, untucked, the sleeves rolled up and the buttons opened midway, revealing the famously unashamed chest hair. The hair--on his head--was both wavy and ruffled, and his moustache and beard made him look like a very affectionate Papa.

The greatest surprise was, at around 5’7”, he didn’t appear as tall as I always thought he was.

So this is what larger-than-life looks like in real life.

He was in the middle of answering a question about his 10 favorite movies (you can perhaps read it in Ronald Achacoso’s story for Rogue) when we walked in. We asked Schnabel if he would like to be known more as an artist or a filmmaker. He’s already been an artist for so long now, he said, he doesn’t mind doing something new. What’s he to do, he added almost irritatedly, there are things to be done and he has to do them. ("He's more of a filmmaker than he'd care to admit," Lito would say afterwards, to which the Filipino group concurred.)

He has written, and directed, critically acclaimed biopics: Basquiat, Before Night Falls, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. He has started on the production of Miral, which is based on the book written by his new girlfriend Rula Jebreal, the woman who has also his tenant at Palazzo Chupi, the New York apartment building he designed, built, and painted in pink. (The press had a field day writing about how he was cheating on his then-wife Olatz with someone who lived just below them). He has designed interiors of hotels and restaurants, and he is also a lifelong surfer. No wonder he's called a Renaissance Man.

This passion, the need to keep creating, is what people find very sexy about Julian Schnabel. Standing in the middle of the Space, he talked about the script he wrote for the movie version of Patrick Suskind’s Perfume, where the ending would have seen Jean-Baptiste Grenouille on top of a tower smelling all the way to Egypt. Watching Schnabel re-tell this story, and seeing his chest heave as he takes a deep breath as Grenouille would have done in the movie, is like being transported into a creative world where everything is a heightened experience.

Like being embraced by genius.

Later in the night, as Schnabel weaved in and out of the crowd, I managed to corner him and ask for an autograph. It took three attempts. At the first one, he had something in both hands and said he’d come back. The second time, I bumped into him. “Oh you wanted me to sign something,” he said, and then he disappeared again. The third time, he came up with a pentel pen and asked what he should write. I said, "To James." He wrote, "To James -- Love, Julian" (Or at least it looked like that!).

A few minutes later, not content with a measly autograph, I asked for a photo-op. "Julian," I said, "do you think I could have a photo with you?" “Yes, of course,” he said, looking at me amusedly. So with one arm akimbo and the other wrapped around my shoulder, I got my perfect Julian Schnabel portrait. As a thank you, I told him he should really go to the Philippines and surf. “You got some good waves there?” he asked. Uh huh, I replied, barely able to say anything else. Touched by genius, I was already floating in mid-air.

Julian Schnabel: Recent Work is showing until 20 April at HT Contemporary Space in Singapore (#02-04 Tanjong Pagar Distripark, 39 Keppel Road; Phone: 8133 1760). It will be shown at Manila Contemporary art gallery in the Philippines (Phone: 844 7328) afterwards


  1. akala ko nasa Sydney si James, yun pala he goes off to meet Schnabel. fabulous photo-op, i must say. i loved The Diving Bell and the Butterfly...

  2. Looking at the works of Schnabel shown here, I believe, they are nowhere near the level of a "genius". His older broken plates artworks were a lot better, but still not genius. One thing these works show is that he should go back to film making. I've seen better works from Gerry Tan.

  3. I have very limited exposure to Schnabel's paintings. But I've seen Before Night Falls and the hotels and home he's designed. They are really so much more breathtaking than these paintings. Okay, I'm not looking forward to the show coming to Manila anymore.

  4. Julian has such a marvelous presence and yet he is still so approachable. His works are awesome .wished to be able to work with him in future. A great inspiration he is!

  5. It was a great opportunity to be in the presence of the great artist/film maker.....

  6. james, i hate you...

    i didn't know you got an autograph with a heart! for free? haha

    tell valentine gusto ko rin.