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The Enfant Terrible Meets Some Terrible Infants: Julian Schnabel at the Legion

New show for the famously prickly artist doubles as Max Hollein’s curtain call.


Installation proposal from Julian Schnabel: Symbols of Actual Life in the courtyard of the Legion of Honor.

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Untitled (2016), gesso on found fabric.

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Julian Schnabel.

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At one point in the very early going of Thursday morning’s press preview at the Legion of Honor for Julian Schnabel: Symbols of Actual Life Max Hollein, the outgoing director of the Fine Arts Museums, stumbled a bit over his remarks. In the course of introducing Schnabel, the famed neo-expressionist and onetime enfant terrible of New York’s early-’80s art scene, Hollein was interrupted by a pack of, well, terrible infants. (Or, rather, high school kids; let’s not let the facts get in the way of the story too much here.)

Perturbed, Schnabel, who is known perhaps as much for his outsize ego (which Morley Safer once described on 60 Minutes as “the size of Manhattan”) as for his broken-plate paintings, turned toward the queued teens, and, perfectly in keeping with his public persona, delivered them a sharp shush! Aghast, the kids shushed, as the gathered press nervously laughed. Did someone say something about symbolism? 

The rest of the morning, Schnabel, dressed in white, paint-speckled pants, a red sweater, white khaki coat, and trademark tinted glasses, behaved himself. For the exhibition, he produced six new paintings, each 24-feet high and staged outside the museum in the courtyard, where they’re set “in conversation,” as they say, with a series of Schnabel’s sculptures from 1982 and, of course, Rodin’s Thinker. Inside, three galleries are given over to work from different periods of Schnabel’s 40-year career—one that saw him zoom to the upper reaches of art-world fame in the 1980s, then experience a tremendous and nearly-as-sudden backlash and all but disappear from museums and galleries for two decades. (Although his film directing career, which included Basquiat in 1996 and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly in 2007, served to bridge the gap.) By 2011, though, he'd found a second wind, and his work began reappearing in international galleries.

Inside the Legion, the Spreckles Gallery is taken over by a pair of enormous, 17-foot-high paintings, together referred to as Schnabel's Egypt works (from 1990). Both are muted oil-and-gesso paintings on pieces of real sailcloth, which Schnabel purchased right off the dock in the port of Luxor (or so he says). In a second gallery are a series of irregularly shaped two-tone polyester canvases (2016) made from found materials in Mexico. (Their curious shape was the result of ad-hoc stretching of the canvases between palm trees in the jungle, Schnabel explained.) Finally, in the Shorenstein Court, a quartet of Schnabel’s striking “Goat Paintings” (2016): Four slightly different printed images, in which a stuffed goat wearing a scarf around its neck and a plush bunny as a hat are superimposed onto a landscape taken from Dufour wallpaper from the 1850s, with splashes of color painted over the whole thing. As for getting any help deciphering the images, Schnabel is typical Schnabel: “I can’t chew your food for you.”

But Schnabel wasn't the only story Thursday. Looming over the event as surely as the two-story-tall paintings was the recent news that Hollein has been named the next director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, making this a swan song of sorts for the museums' Austrian leader. He’ll have one more opening to preside over here, a survey of the Pre-Raphaelites in June, but the Schnabel show is perhaps more emblematic of the legacy he’ll leave behind. Under his brief, two-year tenure, Hollein oversaw major shows including the de Young's Summer of Love blockbuster and a small but impressive showing of works by Gustav Klimt; although his personal stamp could be felt more clearly in the contemporary works program he launched at the Legion, which brought in artists including Sarah LucasUrs Fischer, and Lynn Hershman Leeson, and which is expected to continue after his departure.

Asked about leaving on such a note, Hollein characteristically downplayed the significance of his own role in the museum’s evolution. “It’s a great institution, you know?” he said of the Fine Arts Museums. “We just want to amplify it.”


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