Julian Schnabel’s Art on His Own Terms

“I looked at the columns and I said, yeah, I think I have to make something specific to this place,” Mr. Schnabel said in a telephone interview from Costa Rica.

As Mr. Schnabel often does, he used found materials for the canvas, this time repurposing lonas, a type of gabardine tarpaulin he discovered covering a traveling fruit market in the Lagunillas area of southern Mexico.

“The sun bleaches this material to an extraordinary color that you just can’t mix,” he said, adding that the vendors were, “I guess, amused by the fact that someone would be interested in something that to them is utilitarian and probably even discarded. To me the bleaching of the sun is the treasure of Sierra Madre.”

It also means the materials come with their own story before the artist adds his. And in the San Francisco exhibit, another chapter will be added as the work is exposed to the elements.


His “Untitled,” 2017.

Julian Schnabel Studio, via Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

“I don’t think they’ll change that much out there,” Mr. Schnabel said.

Because of their size, the paintings were created outside at his indoor/outdoor studio at his home in Montauk, on Long Island, where he has long painted large-scale works. But these new paintings were so big they required additional riggings to reach their height, and were painted both horizontally and vertically.

“You can’t take it inside when it rains,” he said. Once dry, however, the gesso paint is durable.

Inside the museum will be additional works, including others on found materials, like the so-called Jane Birkin series painted on used felucca sails that Mr. Schnabel obtained in Egypt. Inscribed on them is the name of the actress and singer who has been a muse for musicians and the eponymous Hermès handbag.

The Legion of Honor exhibit is part of what promises to be a high-profile year for Mr. Schnabel.

A well-known workaholic, while in Costa Rica he was immersed in editing his next movie, “At Eternity’s Gate,” about Vincent van Gogh in Arles, France, starring Willem Dafoe with Oscar Isaac as Paul Gauguin. Mr. Schnabel was delighted that a portable Avid editing system allowed him to work on the film wherever he traveled.

“We’re so engaged in what we’re doing, we really don’t want to stop,” he said.

He felt that same thrill when creating the San Francisco paintings, and with those surfboards having just been delivered, he drew an analogy.

“It’s like paddling out in big surf. There’s a wall there, and you are a certain size and the sea is a certain size and these paintings are a certain size,” he said. “It happens so quickly you just want to relive that and be in that sensation again. Painting for me is like that. The joy of just doing it and being lost in the experience of that is compelling to me.”

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