MAX HOLLEIN: We have to talk about your first exhibition at Mary Boone; in a sense, the ‘80s started with that show.
JULIAN SCHNABEL: That was 1979. I was working on wax paintings—wax surfaces with images melded into them. I had already shown two paintings with Holly Solomon, who handled a lot of pattern painting; but there was other stuff going on in her gallery that I didn’t really relate to. Mary Boone had worked for Klaus Kertess at the Bykert Gallery before she opened her own space, where she showed a group of painters including Brice Marden. I thought it would be good for me to show the wax pieces in this stricter painting context. I also thought it was very clever of her to open a gallery in the same building as Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend. It was small, but anybody who walked into that building to go to their galleries would also go to Mary’s.
MH: What was the public response?
JS: Someone wrote in a review, “It is good to see a comer.” People saw the paintings, and for me the response was good. When you are a young painter hanging around in New York, you are a ghost until you show your paintings in a gallery.
MH: Did you show any of your plate paintings in that exhibition?
JS: I made the first plate painting in September of 1978, but I didn’t include that work in my first show. I had been working on wax paintings for the previous few years, and I guess I wanted to show them first. Besides, Mary felt that people weren’t ready to see the plate paintings. I don’t know what I thought of them. I kept them covered up in my studio, and sometimes late at night, coming back from the bar, I’d show them to some friends.
MH: Was there a feeling of community within the art scene in the early ‘80s? Did you feel like you were part of the New York scene, or an international one, as the rhetoric around so-called neo-expressionism might suggest?
JS: I had moved back to New York from Texas in 1973 and was painting while doing odd jobs, driving a cab, cooking, and so on. I met a German artist named Ernst Mitzka at Max’s Kansas City. He had two best friends, Blinky Palermo and Sigmar Polke, who came to New York in 1974. We all got along well—once we drove to Philadelphia to see the Duchamps at the museum. Blinky’s work, with his little aluminum triangles and little blue objects, was very different from what I was doing, but I liked his attitude. Later, when he died, I went to Germany and stayed at Imi Knoebel’s house. And I stayed with Sigmar in 1978 when I had my first show in Germany, with Gerald Just at Galerie Dezember in Dusseldorf.
MH: Did people at the time consider your interest in the European old masters to be out of date?
JS: There was a time when some American artists thought they didn’t have to go to Europe anymore and that art was something in the present, not from the past. Someone like de Kooning sought freedom by coming to New York and getting rid of his historical baggage. But the fact of the matter is that he had looked at all those old paintings: Whether he wanted to get away from them or not, he had still seen them. So when I went to Europe, I didn’t look at a lot of contemporary painting. I was really looking at the masters, going to different churches and historical buildings: I needed to see these things in the flesh. But it’s true that when I started thinking about painting Christ on the cross, it wasn’t a popular motif back home. Instead, there was talk about painting being dead.
MH: What did you think about that?
JS: I thought that if painting is dead, then it’s a nice time to start painting. The conversation about painting being dead has gone on for about one hundred years. People have been talking about the death of painting for so many years that most of the people are dead now. Painting is alive; Andy [Warhol]’s paintings are still alive. Painters will paint.
MH: Your second exhibition took place at Mary Boone later that same year, 1979, which put you at the center of things.
JS: I had this other body of work that I wanted to show. All these plate and wax paintings had been running alongside one another. They had parallel lives, happening simultaneously, so I showed four plate paintings and one double-panel wax painting. And at that point, my world went bananas, and I was able to quit my cooking job.
MH: I am a great believer in the positive impact of a booming art market, which injects an enormous amount of energy into the whole situation and allows artists to push themselves.
JS: When the paintings sold, I had a little bit of money to try out more things and focus solely on painting: That was a luxury. It was very exciting. Leo Castelli, who had seen the show at Mary’s, wanted to represent my work. That was an honor for me, since I had great respect for him.
MH: That led to the simultaneous installation of your work at the two galleries in April 1981. What was the mood around that?
JS: I was very, very happy about Leo’s acceptance and about the double show. I remember walking from Twentieth Street down to SoHo that day, hearing that Peggy Lee song in my head: “Is that all there is?” I had a big grin on my face: I was happy with the installation at Mary’s, because I was able to show drawings and a couple of big pictures in a way I liked. And it was great to go up the stairs to Leo’s-where I had velvet paintings, plate paintings, and wax paintings. First there was a moment of ebullience, then the controversy came.
MH: Did you feel this constant change of style and use of different materials as surfaces to paint on came from some kind of insecurity?
JS: It worried me at first, because it seemed like the works didn’t go together, but later I discovered it was a good thing. It wasn’t that I couldn’t make up my mind. It was just that I was attracted to different things. I wanted to expand what art materials were.
Artists make one object, then make another one, and another one. After you have a bunch of them, you compare the different works, one with the next, and then you compare how a particular material, technique, or image is used. Those things form what an artist’s view is. In the ‘40s and ‘50s, the Abstract Expressionists looked for irreducible images. So if you saw a rectangle with a blurry form, you knew it was a Mark Rothko. If you saw a white painting with a bunch of big, black, boldly painted strokes, you knew it was a Franz Kline. Their styles became the embodiments of who they were. In my case, and I don’t know if this was a conscious decision, I never seemed able to make work that went with the painting that came just before it. I would work on something for a while, make a few pictures, and then I was done with that and felt like doing something else.
I believe that paintings are physical things that need to be seen in person. It’s hard to get a painting’s intensity from a reproduction. So my interest is in the battle between the pictorial and the object-ness of a painting. In that battle, things are unendingly disagreeing with each other. I found my sensibility in that. That’s what I want to look at.
MH: There is no doubt that your works have been in high demand since 1979. But looking back, one might think that you could have been the nightmare of the market, given your constant change of styles and given that you produced work in a scale certainly not adaptable for collectors’ apartments.
JS: My decisions are not geared toward selling, although one good thing about being able to sell paintings is that I am able to paint. There is a great feeling of freedom in making something just to make it. I like to make paintings for buildings other than art galleries or apartments—the Cuartel del Carmen in Sevilla or the Maison Carre in Nimes, for instance. I made nineteen sixteen-by-sixteen-foot paintings for one room at the Musée d’Art Contemporain in Bordeaux: Where else are those paintings supposed to go? I have a soft spot for ruins.