Thinking about Painting

Julian Schnabel

AvD: Yesterday we saw your new film, and reading a few texts the days before – one by Sartre: The Painter without Privilege – I had something like a private theory, that there are two kinds of painters: one whose work is defined, or directed, rather by the hand, the other one's rather by the eye. Of course, the eye of the beholder will always try to integrate both tendencies, but I have the feeling that Van Gogh had this special disposition of eye and hand being so strongly linked that it became his great talent as well as his personal problem.
JS: I would say that all of the painters have that special problem with their eyes and hands connected to an extent and in a sense of becoming inseparable, that is, truly individual. What you do with your hand is what your eye seems to make a decision about: after all, if you want to leave it like that or not. But there are painters – or people who think they're painters – who do it with their head. They have an idea of what a painting could be, and then they illustrate that idea. The way they illustrate it, can vary. There are people who have other people paint their paintings, or they project images on the canvas and fill them in. Jeff Koons has a bunch of assistants, painting his paintings, then places a fabricated ball in front of the painting, declaring that a painting. But that's not a painting, it just has paint on it. It's a concept of painting, and it's a product that gets made. What I do is to select materials – a beginning, an approach to what a painting could be –, and then I work on it. And then, if I'm not satisfied with it, I would work on it some more. That is something Albert Oehlen would probably say that he would do, too – which would make the practice of making decisions within the painting something that is integral to the meaning of the painting. Then there are people who paint in a certain way, and they recognize that there is something about themselves in the way they are painting, and they want to keep seeing it again, and that's known as their style. And so they become somehow, in the perfection of describing themselves, limited.
AvD: This could also be the trap for the conceptual artist.
JS: Absolutely. Thinking of the Basquiat show here at the Louis-Vuitton Foundation, I don't know if other people realize it, but for me it's basically one note. All of the work seems to address the same thing. You could say that all of my work addresses the same thing. But addressing the same thing doesn't mean that all the paintings are made in the same way. They might have been made with the same attitude.
AvD: Of course, you may take the same tree as a sujet over forty years, without getting limited.
JS: Exactly. That's a pretty good way to start. Because, what Van Gogh is doing, and that was always very important to me, is to give you a sense of someone observing observation. How am I seeing this? And if I could show how I am seeing this, can other people see it that way? So, probably the fact that he was making people notice how the painting was painted, got in the way for some people at that time. If you look at the movie we made, you see the editing, you see the cuts. We wanted you to feel the physical nature of observing … You know, people once said to Josef von Sternberg: »Your movie doesn't feel like reality at all.« And he said: »Of course not, it's much better than reality.« After seeing The Wedding Feast at Cana by Veronese – which is in the film, and we were very lucky to have that privilege – Van Gogh realized that the colors of his paintings came from his palette rather than from nature. People look for all those colors in his paintings, all the colors he speaks about – the bright light and all that. But these colors really were his own.
AvD: But maybe he needed that experience – going through that kind of illusion first: that he was depending on nature – in order to reach that point.
JS: Yes, he needed that. Who knows what we all need ...
AvD: In order to figure out that own thing.
JS: And it might seem to be absolutely disconnected from whatever that thing is. One has to say, going to Arles, being in the wind there, definitely in the winter it's not a friendly place. To go there and to show these yellow sunflowers, would have been pittoresque and misleading. When we went there, we discovered dead sunflowers.
AvD: It looked like a waste land.
JS: We were overjoyed to see that. And this is an example of going somewhere, having an idea … but idea has to change. As you're working on a painting, things change. When it's just about illustrating, then there's no reason to do it.
AvD: The idea is only part of the process, anyway. The idea is not the goal.
JS: The idea is not the goal, right. And that's the difference between what you may call conceptual art and any other approach. It's not that painters don't have a concept, that they're not thinking, that it's just a physical activity. To paint is a physical activity: to put paint on the canvas, or on wood, or wherever you want to put it, is a trace of human activity. Whether you're doing it like Blinky Palermo: white, black, blue – black, white, blue … where you read the decisions somebody is making, and that's how you feel the humanity of what he's doing.
AvD: And it's the movement, always. It's not necessarily the gesture …
JS: Also the movement of perception. Jeff Koons once said something about my work, as somebody had asked him about it, speaking of gesture. And he said: »Yes, it's gesture, but it's also gesture of idea.« Which was nice, considering what he does. And what he wanted to say, I think, was that there is someone who's not just accepting the material like some premise, without reflecting on it and transforming it. I was looking at Jean's paintings, and there are some you may find more attractive than others, but there is this one thing which makes it easy for people to identify.
AvD: People like to recognize – basically themselves in everything. I think, the movement is important not only because it brings in some physical moment, but it is also the one element which induces presence. Because with each work, especially when we're talking about painting, there is a kind of model – which is the prefigured reality, so to speak –, then there is the mere function of depicting, defined by one's particular conception. But the movement is crucial, as it is this third element which captures the world.
JS: If you look at the plate painting over there, I'd say that you're describing that. My impulse to do that in 1978 was to bring in the world. And bringing in things from the world that you recognize but with their meaning commandeered for another set of meanings, the familiarity of the plates to me seemed to be part of a psychological understanding of the object. An abstract-expressionist would have been happy with putting the plates on the wood, but then you would just be the guy who puts plates on the wood. I wanted to give a subtraction. Before that, my paintings were more diagrammatic, like The Patients and the Doctors. There were more anthropomorphic forms, biological forms – primordial, like veins of a hand looking like barks of a tree. There were all those kinds of analogies. At that time, I hadn't seen The Stations of the Cross by Matisse, in Vence. If I would have seen the white tiles with just black paint painted on them, I might not have made a plate painting. This energy you were talking about, and that transference of energy that becomes meaning, is the magic: a currency, the invisible thing that's outside of the materiality of things. There is a line in the movie, where Gaugin is saying: »Without your brain there is no landscape.«
AvD: The eye itself doesn't see anything …
JS: Until the field is in front of it. And the field doesn't exist, until the eye sees it. The eye turns it on, and it turns the eye on, and this transgresses death. Tarkovsky speaks of art being a living organism, and that it is a denial of death, because it is a representation of life. Life contains death, representation of death does not. So all art is optimistic, even if the subject is tragic. You only have talent or mediocrity. I think that's a pretty cool statement. And I feel that. Anyway, death is a big topic.
AvD: It is a big topic. I'm thinking about death once a day, since I'm twelve years old.
JS: Me too.
AvD: So, I'm quite familiar with it, whatever it is. But I wonder how it comes into visual art, except just by being a companion of life.
JS: The idea of being able to be in the present – in the sense of Van Gogh's saying: »I think, through my paintings I can make people feel more alive.« And I think he did. He does. He makes people feel more alive. And maybe that accompanies them, in their fear of death.
AvD: This reminds me of the first time I actually saw a painting by Van Gogh. Before, there had been all those clichés, the posters etc. Then, when I was at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, just walking around some wall and, by surprise, being confronted with that one painting, immediately I was taken to another level. All of my senses were provoked.
JS: I got that feeling just yesterday. Somebody asked me to stand there for a moment, in front of that self-portrait. I looked at it, and I was noticing something like he was speaking to me.
AvD: Of course, this work is particularly dense, in its integrity of means and meaning: this one line, constituting the whole.
JS: Absolutely.
AvD: I've got another little theory, that every image is something like a close-up, an excerpt taken from an unseen reality. In consequence I'd say that each image is complex. But would you think that complexity implies ambiguity?
JS: I always thought that my paintings were a fragment of the whole, that they were sliced out of the world. In some paintings it was like there were certain shapes and shadows of something outside. You are not seeing everything, you're seeing just what's been selected to be seen, and by the nature of that there's something omitted, this heightens what's deliberate about the decision what you want to show. For example the plate paintings, I felt they were not really a collage, instead that the world was all like that and that I selected a section of that to present it. Once that was established, and I accepted that, there were other versions of what a plate painting could be: sometimes images that were more identifiable, or nameable, more of what looked like a figuration, others that just looked like marks. The image was the material, the surface, as well as its coexistence with paint. It wasn't a portrait of somebody, it wasn't a particular image of something superimposed on that surface.
AvD: So, you'd say that you can deal with or just get by with complexity as a quality in itself, without being ambiguous?
JS: Yes. What you're making is a physical fact that is an eidetic image, something that is what it is. The interesting thing about it being a painting is, that you look at it and it is something, and at the same time you can't quite comprehend why it's like that, even after you've seen all of its parts and know how it's been made. That doesn't make it ambiguous. It just provokes more than some superficial experience.
AvD: If you'd break an image – like a mirror –, that would by nature make that image more complex, but not necessarily more ambiguous.
JS: That would be a completely different image. But this reminds me of a painting by Francis Bacon, Double Portrait of Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach. What's compelling to me ... I'd hate to say that I don't want to see both panels, but I think the painting isn't better with both panels. And it makes a great difference, to see either one or the other, or both panels together. Here's that red figure, and there's the other red shape, with the green going through it and with the body like one line – together they make that piece of work.
AvD: Officially.
JS: I think each one benefits when it's seen separately. And I did see the left panel by itself. I think, it is one of the best paintings he has ever made: the half is a whole. If you look at it now, combined with the other one, it is interesting and beautiful but … Referring to your question, this might be an example that sometimes giving more – the additional panel or that extra thought – doesn't necessarily make the painting richer.
AvD: Would you say that the beholder is generally kind of invited to break down the complexity, or to rather add something?
JS: I'd like them to break it down, so they understand what it is. And then they look at it again, maybe to add something. But breaking down is what's called understanding.
AvD: Perhaps, what Bacon did quite often – combining segments to something which, as a whole, is supposed to become more complex – in general shows an ambition for a more analytical understanding.
JS: No. I think he was trying to tell a story. Some of his crucifixion paintings are dealing with time.
AvD: Like a sequence.
JS: Right. For me, the great thing of discovering how somebody did it, is that, when you know and then look at it again, you still can't figure it out. You look at a Caravaggio painting, and you get close to it and see that he did it with just one mark. He left a lot of it blank, a lot of it black, so that he didn't have to paint that much. He's been chased, and when you have to get away from people and you want to make big paintings, maybe it's good when part of them are black and you'd just have to paint some light into the corner.
AvD: Coming back to your film – what I found particularly interesting was the combination of two techniques, or maneuvers: one is an almost constant movement, and the other one was keeping a certain closeness, especially to the faces.
JS: I think, it's the difference between the landscapes and the portraits. When people are speaking, then there is the head moving. In the landscapes, there are no people talking, and here the movement comes in. There's a kind of a catalogue of ways of seeing, which shows the difference between the landscape painting and the portrait painting.
AvD: It seems that, more than being a portrait of an artist, this film is an essay on making art. It makes one think about the elementary conditions of producing art. And I believe that, indeed, this effect is owned to very few, simple rules structuring the film. There must have been some strict decisions, either in advance or perhaps during the editing.
JS: I think, those decisions had been made in advance, but they were reacted to in the editing. You cannot separate the form from the content, the way the story is told from what the story is. This is perhaps a more self-conscious film than any other one I've made, and I think that's why I had to avoid conformist ways even more this time. There are these black stoppages, bringing the outside world inside of Van Gogh; we are inside of him when we hear him talking. It begins with him talking to himself, and throughout the film he talks to himself as he is going through the events we are showing. It also functions as a Jacob's Ladder, in the sense that the black takes you out of the stream, so that, when you reenter it, your eyes are reorganized, though with all the informations you have already stored physically.
AvD: It helps you to rearrange yourself, and to confront a new setting.
JS: The way it's happening to him. Structurally, those black stoppages inform the physical reality of the screen to the viewer. Also, there is a collapse of time: when Vincent has escaped from the asylum, he is then brought back in the same carriage – a repetition, but slipping, as if you weren't getting anywhere. Concerning the music, it's one person playing one instrument, almost the whole time; again, you get the notion of an inner voice.
AvD: It's not a tool for reinforcing a feeling.
JS: It is supposed to explicate, but in a different language. Some parts work like silent film, in other parts there is a lot of talking. We mentioned the landscapes – which is painting horizontally; then there are the figures – the format is not really square, but the heads are so large that it appears like square. And the people often are talking to you, as if they would be talking to him. On the other hand, sometimes you just see people listening to him, that is, the way he affects people around him.
AvD: Which gives the idea of the main character being someone's consciousness.
JS: It's you being inside. You're right: it's not about Van Gogh; you are Van Gogh. It's not about being Van Gogh, it's about being yourself.
AvD: It's about essential situations.
JS: Exactly. It's a case study of being, seeing, making. Also, the blind spots, which are a fixture of our consciousness: no matter how clear we think we are, there is something falling away and missing, and you feel the tenuousness of this … The whole period from when he comes to the asylum until he leaves – it's difficult to gage how much time has passed.
AvD: I think the whole film tries – and is successful in this – to undermine the continuity; and those stops – making you step out and in again – help turning the whole thing into a more spacial perception.
JS: We are using certain dates and what seems like facts, in order to make the sense of reality more specific, and alluding to something while it might be absolute fiction.
AvD: Those facts are something like key words, or small sujets, to explore something different.
JS: If making a film has to do with movement – or the lack of movement, or the idea of the possibility of things moving … I think we tried to accentuate and exacerbate the combinations of these structures given within the framework. At a certain moment, when he is dissolving into his brother and they become one – it's almost a cacophony of dissolves, and what it's saying is that he looses himself into his brother; it changes the dialogue. This is contradicted by the quietness of the next scene, when Dr. Gachet is asking: »May I speak?« He's at peace in that moment; he's painting him. He resolved himself to the fact that he might not live very long. He doesn't expect to teach anybody anything anymore – something that a young person hopes for. I think he might be saying: »I have my relationship with eternity. I make the paintings.«
AvD: And this has nothing to do with fame.
JS: That was a big topic, important to me. I'm glad that you said that. It's the antithesis of what people project with their bourgeois conception of what someone desires in life. Making art is about the making of it; it's not about receiving it by other people. If the audience is not there yet, it comes later, and maybe it won't. But the joy, the clarity, the sense of life that you are ascribing to happens when you are doing it, when you become a part of everything that's inside and outside.
AvD: It's interesting that this transgression brings you back to the real one which you are – that you have to step out of yourself, in order to find …
JS: In order to live with yourself.
AvD: Recently, just when Bertolucci died, I had a conversation with a fellow artist about the relation between concept and form. What makes certain forms of art, and certain artists, difficult to mediate today, is that it has become so important to talk, to explain, not the least in order to sell. But the real form always goes beyond concept.
JS: Definitely.
AvD: And this is also the unpredictable – not easy to explain.
JS: The opposite of truth is reason. As soon as you explain why you did something, it's not the thing anymore; as soon as I start to talk about it, it's my explanation, so it's a lie.
AvD: This reminds me of Leibniz' Theodizee, which deals mainly with the relation of faith and reason. He puts the How at the extreme position, that is, where only mystery is left; before there is reason and explanation. And that extreme is something you cannot reach, or you can reach it, but only to give in.
JS: When you look at a painting, you can see exactly the marks; but you can't really comprehend how it turned into this other thing that's outside of the painting. Everything is there, and it has become something else. No matter how long you look at it, it's unendingly redefining itself.
AvD: Even the fellow artist, who knows all the tricks and maneuvers – like Scorsese, who surely knows how to … I assume, he would admit that he could not explain why a film like The Red Shoes had such an impact on him. Of course, he can talk about the colors for one hour.
JS: It's an accumulation – everything that's happened to him in his whole life, and everything he was conscious and unconscious of. The moment of his life, when he saw The Red Shoes, perhaps he was just ready to see that particular color. Half of that whole thing is accident and the unpredictable we were talking about – you may have set up the situation where you are absolutely in control of the diving board; once you take off and you land on the water, what's happening then is open to a myriad of variables. When we found the church of St. Honoré, with those giant columns, we just decided to shoot in there, to see Gaugin and Vincent walking around … but it's not Gaugin running away, it's Vincent, and Gaugin trying to appease him, like a lover would do; so, when Benoît with his camera runs out into the blue light, catching them … We were set up for that, but it was absolutely spontaneous; we can take credit for it, but we were just leaning toward the divine light, with all of us being ready for something to happen.
AvD: Such things happen sometimes, when the people involved have something in mind in some mutual mode, so that nature itself will support you.
JS: People know that they can be free; people know that you trust them; people know they can do whatever, and they don't even have to know what they're doing. But it's okay, and they go out there. I made a painting once, called Oar – For the One Who Comes Out to Know Fear. It's very satisfying if you can go out and come back, to make it home from there.
AvD: Fear is very closely connected with beauty. It is overwhelming.
JS: Life is overwhelming. It's a lot to take, but we lean towards it, because we want that. I think, in the movie you feel the sense of an overwhelming beauty and largeness of nature. You feel the wind, taking place of breath. It is very simple, fundamental.
AvD: I did have that feeling – that there is one drive which keeps it all together.
JS: It's interesting how a film can take you to this other place, how it can impact your life; you are altered because of it. It gives you a lifetime of awakenings that you can use as a tool, to deal with everything in present.
AvD: When something – not only in art – appears to be difficult or strange to people, they often take the excuse of saying: »This is very abstract« – though in most cases it is definitely concrete. This almost seems to be a mental problem – why people call something abstract, as if being abstract means something like far from reality, whereas a piece of art, while making a move of abstraction, does abstract only from the cliché, breaking it down to the real thing. This is something people are very much afraid of: the real thing.
JS: The fear is one of something as concrete as a brick wall. They are forced to make a decision.
AvD: If you take it seriously you have to change your life. And most people can't afford changing their life.
JS: I remember someone who wanted a painting from me, in time. And I said to him that if he had that painting he'd have to change his whole life. So, I know what you're talking about.