What I learned from spending the day with Julian Schnabel

Julian Schnabel discussing a Willumsen painting

Things are what they are but they are what they are not also. ~ Julian Schnabel

Julian Schnabel discussing a Picabia painting
Julian Schnabel discussing a Picabia painting

Julian Schnabel’s work is part of an exhibition at the NSU Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale. Prior to the opening of the exhibition, the museum held a juried-in workshop for artists, and I had the awesome opportunity to be included. We spent the morning with Schnabel in the museum, where he explained his work and how it related to the others in the show. In the afternoon, we painted at the Autonation Academy of Art and Design, which is affiliated with the museum. Then, Schnabel came into the classrooms and critiqued our work.

During the museum tour, we heard about the many unusual tools he has used to make his paintings and mixed-media work. He mentioned he used his fingers to paint the huge portraits displayed. In one of the abstract paintings, he told us he used a tennis ball covered in paint to make circles, and linen tablecloths with oil paint on the ends to make certain marks. In another work, he described how he used a garden hose to move around ink.

There was one point during the afternoon critique that Schnabel pulled out some Masonite boards, normally used as backboards for art paper. He said, “Now, this is the best thing I have seen so far.”

There is a brief clip in the video below that shows this comment. He was referring to the left-over marks or drawings that were made without much intention on the board. The drawing was loose and “not too fussy,” he observed. I was standing next to Bonnie Clearwater, the director and chief curator of the museum, and she complimented this “work” as well.

This was a moment that really resonated with me. My interpretation of his comment was this: Don’t think so much about the work; let it happen without trying so hard to orchestrate things. I inferred from many of his critiques that he believes orchestrated or controlled work appears contrived.

Schnabel was so clear and direct about his beliefs that I think he helped all of us in the workshop question and reexamine our views about making art. For me, he confirmed my views that I already held and, in doing so, gave me added confidence and a clearer direction.

Here are some of the views Schnabel expressed:

Julian Schnabel discusses his painting made out of plates.
Julian Schnabel discusses his painting made out of plates.

• Be original in your work.

• Do what works for you, not what others are doing.

• Be honest and authentic about what you are doing.

• It’s OK to borrow imagery, but make it your own.

• Don’t let anyone tell you what to do.

• Pursue the unexpected.

• Don’t overwork.

• The ordinary can be and is interesting.

• Don’t over think — just do the work instinctively.

• Don’t follow trends.

It was definitely an extraordinary experience, and I appreciated how open and approachable Schnabel was during the process.

The exhibition is really wonderful — check it out if you get an opportunity.

Café Dolly: Picabia, Schnabel, Willumsen will be on view at NSU Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale from Oct. 12, 2014 to Feb. 1, 2015.