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‘I taught Johnny Depp how to paint!’ Superstar artist Julian Schnabel on his new works – and most famous pupil | Julian Schnabel

Julian Schnabel is agitated. The artist and director has just walked into his new exhibition at the Pace gallery in Manhattan and is fixated on the folding table I’m standing behind. “What’s that?” he asks the PR person. “It’s … a table,” she replies. “I thought you could sit at it for the interview?” Schnabel looks appalled at the very idea. The table, he explains, is blocking the paintings. It’s upset the equilibrium of the room. It needs to be moved immediately.

Schnabel – who shot to fame with his smashed plate paintings in the early 80s then found success as a director with films such as Basquiat, Before Night Falls and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, does this sort of thing a lot. The Brooklyn-born 71-year-old is constantly rearranging the environment around him, making sure it is just so. Ingrid Sischy, a friend of his, once wrote in Vanity Fair about how they’d shared a hotel room in Florence. By the time she’d checked in he’d moved the furniture and taken down the hotel art, replacing it with drawings that Cy Twombly had given him the day before; he’d scotch-taped them to the walls. The staff were horrified. “He wasn’t being cute,” Sischy wrote. “It was just something he needed to do.” And, indeed, it does seem to be some sort of compulsion; the man is a director even when he’s not on a film set.

Once the folding table is dealt with I assume we can finally begin the interview. I assume wrong. Schnabel seems suspicious of me. And perhaps that’s not surprising – he makes visceral work that provokes visceral reactions and has earned a reputation as one of the most divisive artists of the modern era, prompting some scathing criticism. The art critic Robert Hughes famously described Schnabel’s work as “a lurching display of oily pectorals” and a 2014 Guardian review of his first UK show in 15 years called Schnabel’s work “vast, bombastic and entirely derivative”.

“Why are you here?” he demands, still looking suspicious. The correct answer is clearly not what I proffer (“To, er, interview you?”) but something more along the lines of: “to bask in your greatness.” He takes in my response for a minute then quizzes me on whether I’ve already looked at Bouquet of Mistakes, his arresting new collection of velvet paintings. I have. How long did I spend looking at them? I got here about 10 minutes ago, so about 10 minutes. He gives a little huff. “It took me two years to do these paintings,” he says. “Two years. It took you 10 minutes to look at them.”

‘Why in the hell would someone put that there?’ … Schnabel.
‘Why in the hell would someone put that there?’ … Schnabel. Photograph: Maria Spann/The Guardian

He takes me on a tour of the exhibition. Schnabel, who is wearing a jaunty hat and one of his trademark white painting smocks – generously unbuttoned, with his chest hair sticking out of the top – is zigzagging wildly around the room, gesticulating. He only hung the paintings in the gallery a couple of days ago and it seems he’s still trying to figure out if he likes them in this space, if they’re conveying what he wants them to convey.

“Look!” he says suddenly as he veers off towards a piece called Gesù Deriso, Jesus Mocked, which is displayed on a narrow wall of its own. He had to get that wall built, he explains, to hide the hideous exit sign above the door behind it. “Why in the hell would someone put that there?” he asks. (Probably because of fire regulations?) Still, he says, the new wall works well. “It’s like an altarpiece in some way. It’s an angelical painting, but the paintings that are near it, these sort of ghostlike or ephemeral marks that seem to be going around this structure that’s in here … when I hung the show, I felt like they echoed the fact that these little hands and this other stuff was floating around Christ in some way …” He trails off. “What’s going on in these paintings?” he demands. “I mean, what’s your article about?”

I’m still thinking about Jesus and am a little taken aback by the question. My article? Well, I dunno what it’s about yet, I say. Is there something in particular he thinks is going on in his paintings?

One of the hallmarks of a Schnabel interview is that he will invariably namecheck a celebrity within the first 20 minutes and he doesn’t disappoint today. “Paintings don’t explain themselves,” he says grandly in response. “Movies, you see people doing things. You can see how they’re reacting to other people. These [paintings], you just walk up to them and you see them and that’s that. And so they’re hermetic in a sense, but something happens to you if you’re sensitive to it. I mean, Tom Waits is a friend of mine. He called me yesterday and said, ‘God, these paintings look great.’ I’m not going to paraphrase what he was saying but I thought he described the paintings pretty well. Painting is a way of communicating with people that you’ll never meet. I’ll be dead at some moment but these paintings will be … the stability of that! I mean, everything that’s not in the painting doesn’t exist. You and me are transient here, but that painting is here until the world blows up, which it’s on the verge of doing at the moment.”

“Do you think?” I ask.

“Well, it’s very terrible,” he says. “I mean, what happened in Maui? Can you imagine living there your whole life and then getting burned up in a car? Or what just happened in Libya? Or in Morocco? What is going on everywhere. People burning up in fires and people drowning in floods.”

Does politics inform his work? “Not in a discursive kind of way, but certainly when I made that …” he gestures towards a piece called the Nine Skies and the Mountain Fortress IV which is painted on red velvet, “I was pretty agitated by what was happening.”

Smash hits … with one of his plate paintings in 1987.
Smash hits … with one of his plate paintings in 1987. Photograph: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

His agitation took more forms than painting: after Donald Trump refused to concede the 2020 election, Schnabel drafted a concession speech and emailed it to Ivanka Trump to give to her father. She never replied. Ivanka, I note, is an enthusiastic art collector – does the former first daughter own any of Schnabel’s work? “No I don’t think so,” he says curtly. Would he care if she did? “Couldn’t care less.” Does he really not mind who buys his work? “I didn’t go to South Africa for a while because black people couldn’t see my work,” Schnabel says. “But I’m not going to start editing who can or can’t see my paintings. I am sure, though, that the Trumps don’t have any of my paintings. He [Donald] doesn’t know anything about painting.”

We retreat to a rickety bench in the lobby to continue talking. I’m intrigued by the title of the exhibition, Bouquet of Mistakes, and press Schnabel on its meaning. His attention, however, is on two video screens by the gallery entrance showing a slideshow of images. “Can you turn that off?” he asks the bemused receptionists. “It’s so corporate looking, I find it offensive.”

As the gallery staff fiddle with various remote controls we get back on track. In 1978 Schnabel was in Madrid, writing in a notebook, when he noted that a painting was a bouquet of mistakes. Very nice, I say, but what does it mean?

Schnabel has an irritating but effective habit of avoiding questions he doesn’t like by firing back his own barrage of questions. He starts quizzing me on various books and films I should have read to understand the thinking behind his artistic process and, clearly, I come up lacking. “People make art,” he says vaguely, after giving me a lot of homework to do. “That’s the way that they transgress death. Andrei Rublev by Tarkovsky. You should see that movie.”

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Having children, I note, tends to be another way that people transgress death. “I mean, for women, certainly,” replies Schnabel, who has seven children ranging in age from 22 months to 42 years. Does he think it’s different for men? “Yeah, I do. Well, things are different now. They blend more than they did in the old days. But my father would go out and work and bring home money and my mother would take care of us.”

Schnabel is saved by the bell: his iPhone is blowing up with texts. It’s his 30-year-old son Olmo, who has just directed a movie called Pet Shop Days. “It’s fucking great,” Schnabel says with enthusiasm about the film as he fiddles with his phone. “Do I think I influenced him? Yeah, I do. I think that he was paying attention. I mean, he’s an excellent film-maker, pulls it out of the air. You can’t fake that stuff.”

I turn the conversation back to Schnabel’s own film project: an adaptation of Nick Tosches’ novel In the Hand of Dante. “You’re collaborating with Johnny Depp?” I ask, because that’s what I’d read online.

‘You’re way behind, girl’ … Schnabel at Pace gallery.
‘You’re way behind, girl’ … Schnabel at Pace gallery. Photograph: Maria Spann/The Guardian

Schnabel looks at me incredulously, like it was impossible anyone could be so stupid. “You’re way behind, girl.” Before this girl can interject, Schnabel continues. “Johnny and I made Before Night Falls together. He’s a great actor. A brilliant person. I thought it was a tragedy, all this stuff that he was dragged through. He loved going to the hospital and being Captain Jack Sparrow for the kids there.”

Perhaps sensing I am about to interrupt with a question about this stuff, AKA last year’s explosive Johnny Depp-Amber Heard defamation trial in which a lot of very unsavoury details about Depp emerged, he hurries on. “Anyway, Johnny had about five books and he said, well, you want to pick one of these and we’ll make a movie? And I picked In the Hand of Dante. I don’t know what happened, but we haven’t talked for years.”

There wasn’t a fight or anything like that? No, says Schnabel, Depp just vanished. There was one time, he recollects, when he was talking to a film contact and found out the guy was, right at that moment, in a car with Depp. “I said, ‘Why don’t you put him on the phone?’ but [Depp] didn’t want to talk. I said, ‘Well, tell him I love him.’ And he said, ‘Tell him I love him too, but I’m riding another wave now.’ I said, ‘What the fuck does that mean?’”

Schnabel looks physically sick at the memory. “I spent time with him and his family,” he says. “I taught him how to paint!” He reels off anecdotes that sound like disjointed rambling when you type them out but which are weirdly compelling when he tells them. The vignettes flash in front of your eyes: Schnabel leaning forward showing Depp where the light hit his nose, the shape that made, telling him how to paint it. Schnabel painting a portrait of Lily-Rose, Depp’s daughter with Vanessa Paradis, when she was little. Schnabel going on a walk with Depp and a young Lily-Rose; the child falling down and all of them joking about whether they ought to go to the hospital or the pool.

“Anyway,” says Schnabel again, emerging jerkily from the past: Oscar Isaac has got the role now. They’re starting the movie in a matter of weeks. Johnny’s not involved.”

Schnabel is summoned away for photographs and, as I pack up my stuff, I watch him in the gallery performing for the camera. Two minutes into the shoot he can’t help himself: he takes the camera from the photographer, places his hat on her head, and starts directing her instead.

Julian Schnabel: Bouquet of Mistakes is at Pace, New York, until 28 October

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