Julian Schnabel’s Polaroids


Written by Venetia Rainey
25 Monday 25th October 2010


Julian Schnabel never really meant to show these pictures. The artist and director who once proclaimed, "I'm the closest thing to Picasso that you'll see in this fucking life", is insistent on this fact. These casual snapshots of his nearest and dearest, and the lavish self-styled New York palazzo in which he lives, have ended up framed in Colnaghi gallery, one of the most prestigious galleries on Old Bond Street, while simultaneously being published in a book, Julian Schnabel, Polaroids.
Only these are not casual snapshots. They are large format polaroids taken using a Polaroid Land 20 x 24 inch camera built in the 70s, of which there are only six left in the world today. The polaroid has died a death since its heyday in the 70s and 80s, if not in terms of aesthetic value, then definitely in terms of actual manufacturing. "To have a contemporary artist using it is fantastic," remarkedgallery director Blanca Bernheimer. "There is no other means to have such an instant work of art."
The true purpose of these photographs are as a vehicle for Schnabel to show off what he considers his real works of art. In his own words, "I never thought I was a photographer.” “People ask, 'are you still painting?' And I think it's the stupidest question." He pauses in front of a photograph of a room in his house and turns to look at me, a half smile on his face. "Maybe you were going to ask me?" He is not looking for an answer, however, and we are soon back to talking about what the photographs are clearly meant to focus attention on: him.
"I made all of this," he tells me, pointing to various elements of a picture of a room inside Palazzo Chupi (his home). "The rug, the chair, the fireplace, the floor, that painting... I'm not just photographing something I passed by, this building didn't exist until I built it." We move to the next photograph.
"I made the door, the frame, the painting. If one wanted to see what Julian makes, you could see. What paintings would he hang in a room? You could see." Next photograph. "I designed and made this bar." Next photograph. "If you wanted to look at paintings, here is a Picasso..." Next photograph. "Or a Warhol, here is an Andy Warhol."
It is as if he wants to catalogue his life, or else feels that his importance is such that his life should be catalogued by someone. As such Schnabel’s polaroids are half-inventory, half-insight. "I think it shows a painters life," he muses. "And I like that it looks like nobody took the pictures."
"Don't you agree," he booms across the room to a friend, "that the most unique quality of my photographs is that it doesn't look like I took them?” He turns back to me. “It looks like they were just there. I just think that going through the apartment, it's just so damn anonymous. And for someone who is supposed to be egocentric and a hero of some kind, which I'm not, it's pretty good to see something like that."
Despite the claims to anonymity, almost every single picture is an homage to Schnabel. His Palazzo, his celebrity friends, his art, his family and, when you look closely, him. Upon closer inspection he actually features in a surprising number of the photographs, normally as a small figure standing solidly in front of a canvas of his art.
This need to be noticed does not go un-noticed. Schnabel is a notoriously loud-mouthed character, derided by many as a hangover from the self-serving and meaningless extravagance of the 80s. His art, the most famous of which are his broken plate paintings, has always divided opinions. His films have been more successful, with the Diving Bell and the Butterfly receiving critical acclaim, four Oscar nominations, and two Golden Globes. In person he is larger than life, fitting into the context of the oversized exhibition.
Several of the photographs have been painted onto. There are looping daubs of paint, which he explains to me as “triple helixes. It means beyond infinity, adding that extra circle to the helix.” Slashes, dashes and flecks, all in purple, “a colour, and an emblem of a colour,” he offers. “It’s papal, medicinal, and religious. There is no other colour like purple.”
This truism does not detract from the fact that these are basically photographs that have not developed properly which he has decided to paint over, badly. “I’m not satisfied with the way the image is without paint,” he tells me, pointing at a completely blank polaroid covered in purple paint.
“This over-exposed polaroid looks like infinity, there is definitely some kind of infinite space here. Maybe this is what death looks like, who knows? Maybe if when you get out there, and it’s not too dark...” He tails off, lost in his own thoughts.
There are some gems in the collection. His portraits of Mickey Rourke, muscular and enigmatic, are intimately shot using chocolate film resulting in beautifully saturated colours. Similarly the photographs of his family, in particular his two sons from his second marriage, Cy and Olmo, are truly absorbing in the sexual androgyny they capture.
Yet it cannot be escaped. The best photographs in this exhibition are those that have no visible mark of Julian Schnabel on them. In his own words, “The process is so obvious. You take the big camera, you point it somewhere, and you get what you get.” And so long as Julian isn’t pointing it at himself or his things, the result is actually quite bewitching.
Julian Schnabel Polaroids is at Colnaghi Gallery until November 12, for more information see here.


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