Making Art About Artists

Do you only get to be an artist if you’re broke, lonely, or dead?


In my more-than-half-baked opinion, Julian Schnabel is one of the greatest living American painters. And he’s no slouch at filmmaking, either.

How’s this for conviction? At Eternity’s Gate, released in 2018, ranks up there with my top-five favorite movies ever. Sorry Godfather III, you’ll never move my needle. Imagining the final years inside the mind and life of Vincent Van Gogh as portrayed to perfection by Willem Dafoe. Again, here comes that personal-opinion gauntlet: Dafoe is also one of my top-five favorite actors.

Whenever I need a healthy dose of beauty and sadness, At Eternity’s Gate is my go-to watch. The filmmaking captures the feeling of losing one’s mind in a way so understandable in its power—the cinematography unsteady and unsettling, shooting in direct sunlight, blinding half the picture frame—that I could puke. 

A movie about a famous painter requires some serious artistry. Schnabel provided  props of all of the familiar Van Gogh images with his own painterly skill, as he also did for his 1996 debut film, Basquiat. Being so clever at painting in the style of artists so singular is a gift of its own. Sidenote: It’s also worth noting Jeffrey Wright’s spot-on portrayal of Jean-Michel in Basquiat. I always enjoy reading the juice about who was considered for a part: In this case, both Chris Rock and Lenny Kravitz were approached. Rock admitted to not knowing enough about Basquiat. Lenny probably insisted he wear leather trou and have a fan blowing on him at all times. 

At Eternity’s Gate provides nuanced performances from both Dafoe and Oscar Isaac, who plays Paul Gauguin. They create such a normal on-screen friendship I forget they are two master painters and I’m able to see them as creative beardos that sit talking at a bar. Except, you know, after a night of drinking at Grumpy’s it’s unlikely one friend slices off their ear because they’re bummed to part company. 

I’ll stop going into some cockadoody film review here, because my main obsession is Schnabel. That being said, the film will change your life: Food will taste better, you’ll find money in a jacket pocket, and you’ll get laid. 

Known for walking the streets of New York in his damn jammies, Schnabel lives in a majestic former horse stable in the West Village, which was converted into a painted-pink Italian palazzo that can probably be seen from space.

His broken plate paintings bored New York art critics in the day. But me? I could eat them with a spork. I don’t believe every artist needs to reinvent the wheel. But the mind that puts together broken cups and dishes with paint to create sculptural painting? Forget about it. 

Imagine my good fortune, visiting NYC at the height of COVID, to stumble on a Lower East Side gallery, the Brant, filled with only broken plate paintings. I had the entire exhibit to myself. Standing in front of a Willem-Dafoe-as-Van-Gogh painting, I was flooded with a rare feeling that everything in my life had led me to this random walk. JFP! J(ack) F(ucking) P(ot.)

Fueling my preoccupation with all things SHNAB is that, according to the documentary about him, A Private Portrait, he too is obsessed with The Godfather movies (as previously mentioned, I and II only) and has them running on a loop in his horse-stable palace. Al Pacino himself was interviewed for A Private Portrait, and expressed his discomfort of walking in to pay a visit to his painter friend—to be greeted with Michael Corleone on full blast. Maybe if you were buddies with Al you might’ve thought to give him a heads up that you have his breakout movie on repeat in your home? The jankiness of that thrills me.

Both his paintings and personality are large scale—think of an outdoor, mammoth canvas and a paint-soaked trench coat being thrown from a ladder. The criticism of his work seems equally pointed to his personality and monetary success. Lord, do we still have to believe the trope that a real artist doesn’t find recognition until they’ve croaked?

Best I can guess is people are turned off by his wealth and the way in which he unapologetically displays it. Maybe people think artists should be elusive and hidden away somewhere remote. A giant pink palazzo on the river a few blocks from the Whitney might appear garish. If I had the dough, I would build an Italian villa in Uptown. Mine would be painted avocado green. 

As the Van Gogh story goes, he started painting at age 27 and died 10 short years later, and the mythology that he only sold one piece of work while alive sounds romantically tragic. True? Debatable.

Van Gogh’s body was set out in “the painter’s room” at his funeral, where it was surrounded by a halo of his last canvases and masses of yellow flowers, including dahlias and sunflowers. His easel, folding stool, and brushes stood before the coffin.

Perhaps taking creative license, Schnabel’s film suggests the paintings displayed at his wake were for sale. Like some surreal yard sale, minus the haggling over the price of a dirty old Barbie Dream House.

Looch’s Playlist 

Up and Rolling, North Mississippi Allstars 

Generation (LOST), L.A. Salami 

If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be), Leon Bridges

Ain’t Got No Money, Justin Townes Earle 

Tell It Like It Is, Nina Simone 

We Belong Together, Rickie Lee Jones 

He Stopped Loving Her Today, George Jones 

Oh Stacey (Look What You’ve Done), The Zutons 

Actor Out of Work, St. Vincent 

Didn’t Want You, Faith Boblett 

Magic Trick, M. Ward 

Do I Have to Talk You Into It, Spoon

Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.