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Julian Schnabel Is Coming Back to North Texas

by Jerome Weeks 9 Apr 2014 1:36 PM

Before he became internationally celebrated for his ‘plate paintings’ and his films (Before Night Falls), Julian Schnabel was a New York teenager growing up in Texas. We ask him about that and about his new painting show coming to the Dallas Contemporary.


schnabel grey roughnecks

Grey Roughnecks, oil, wax, resin on polyester, 2003.

Artist Julian Schnabel is coming back to Texas. Before he became an international star for his huge ‘plate paintings’ and directing such movies as Before Night Falls and Berlin, Schnabel was a New York teenager who moved to Texas. The Dallas Art Fair opens this weekend, and Friday, the Dallas Contemporary opens a new show of Schnabel’s paintings. KERA’s Jerome Weeks contacted the artist in his New York City home.

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Weeks: So Julian, a major survey of your paintings just closed in Greenwich, Connecticut, and later this month, you have a new gallery show opening in New York. So why’d you squeeze Dallas in between all that?

Schnabel: Texas has been a big part of my life. I mean, I moved to Texas when I was a teenager. Lived on the Mexican border. And so I spent a lot of time, besides living in Brownsville, traveling down to Mexico and spent a lot of time in Mexico, and I think Texas’ proximity to Mexico had a big effect on me.

Weeks: You eventually spent some time in Dallas, after graduating from the University of Houston. Even worked for awhile at the Grape Restaurant.

Schnabel: Actually I was accepted to graduate school at SMU, had a scholarship there and I quit. And working at the Grape Restaurant? Part of my existential training.

Weeks: Why’d you quit SMU?

Schnabel: Wasn’t learning anything. Was a waste of time. I mean, I thought it could be interesting, to live in Dallas. I knew some artists there. And I liked it there. But I wasn’t there really very long. I was sort of in Houston part of the time. I actually had a show at the Contemporary Arts Museum [in Houston – his first solo museum show] in March  of ’76 when I was supposed to be in graduate school in SMU. 

Weeks: In fact, in your 1987 memoir, CVJ, in your acknowledgements, you thank your parents for moving to Texas.

shutterstock_182559221Schnabel: Yeah, I thank my parents for a lot of things. But yeah. I think that part of my upbringing had a huge effect on, you know, what my paintings look like and also what my life is like. I mean, I met a lot of people that I’m still friends with, that I surfed with when I was a teenager that I still surf with, and I’m 62 years old.

Weeks: So what was the effect of Mexican art on your paintings?

Schnabel: I mean, I saw Frida Kahlo’s paintings early on when I was a teenager. Just stumbled upon them before I ever heard anybody else talk about it, to see the double portrait of Frida. You know, and to see mural paintings and then to compare the Mexican mural paintings to Giotto or Piero della Francesca paintings in Italy. I also love ex voto paintings, all the small ex voto paintings. You know, I like paintings on tin and just the kind of invention of somebody that believes that by making a painting they’re going to speak to God, and they’re going to thank God for fixing some problem that they might have had.

Image from shutterstock.

Weeks: Now, in your new show coming to the Dallas Contemporary, you have 15 paintings. And they’re certainly identifiable as yours. They’re big, for one thing. And many of them also take an image, a landscape, a portrait of some kind, and they distort it, obscure it, they layer it, they paint over it, often blurring figure and ground or making a big, painterly, in-your-face gesture. Is there anything that links these paintings, why you chose them, why you do this?

Schnabel: Most of this work is from the past ten years. I think all of it is, actually. And there’s all different kinds of levels of printing and surfaces that I think co-inhabit these works that are in that show. I mean, whether it’s a painting that’s been made because somebody had an oil leak in their house and they put canvas down to sop up the oil so people wouldn’t track it into the house and ended up giving you horizontal lines that look like they were in some deep space in a lagoon in Venice or if it was something that I actually took an image of that I took outside, and the rain and the weather kind of burnt it until it became turquoise — they’re just different ways of making paintings, different ways of finding painting solutions. And if your eyes are open, you can use those things. So there’s a lot of convergence in these different works, even though they look radically different from one to the next.

In addition to this Friday’s opening for his show, An Artist Has A Past (Puffy Clouds and Strong Cocktails): 15 Paintings Over the Last Decade, Julian Schnabel will talk at the Contemporary Saturday morning.