Arts Desk

Everything That Everything Else Is Not: Julian Schnabel on Blinky Palermo

The Hirshhorn is concluding an exhibition of mid-20th century German artist Blinky Palermo on Sunday. Palermo was an intriguing minimalist who died too young, and who emerged from the same group of Germans instructed by Joseph Beuys that also included Gerhardt Richter, Anselm Kiefer, and Sigmar Polke. In the context of the 1960s and '70s, his work is a rather intriguing collection of minimalist paintings and objects that range small to large, shaped, hung at untraditional levels and angles, emphasizing line, or emphasizing material. They also draw easy reference to Elsworth Kelly, or Yves Klein. After a quick traipse through the museum, it's easy to see why the Hirshhorn’s texts refer to Palermo as an artist’s artist—because he, like many others in the 1960s and '70s, fostered a variety of ideas that challenged painting—only it appeared as if he attacked those ideas all at once, and from all angles.

To conclude the exhibition, the Hirshhorn has invited painter Julian Schnabel down from New York to talk about his relationship with Palermo on Friday, and to host a screening of his critically acclaimed film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly on Thursday.

Washington City Paper: How did you come to meet Palermo in 1974?

Julian Schnabel: We met at Max’s Kansas City, a bar on Park Avenue South through a friend, another German artist named Ernst Mitzka. We decided to go see the Marcel Duchamp exhibition in Philadelphia. I had a car in New York for a while. So, Sigmar Polke and Blinky and I drove down there to see the Marcel Duchamps. But we knew each other because he used to hang out at Max’s.

WCP: I read at the Hirshhorn that Palermo had a fallow period when he first lived in New York. Was he painting at the time when you first met him?

JS: Yeah. He was. He painted a blue triangle at that time. Y’know, he drank a lot, and we used to go to this bar on 14th Street, and there was a bartender’s sister—the bartender was a woman, and her sister would sit at the bar. Blinky would go and ask her to dance. He’d put a coin in the juke box, ask her to dance a slow dance, and after the dance he would escort her to her seat at the bar, and then he’d come over and sit with me. Then he’d do it again. He was a very funny guy. Very formal. And he drank a lot, and he also ate a lot of hamburgers. And he smelled like onions a lot of the time.

It was interesting because he was probably quite famous in Dusseldorf, and certainly people knew him in Germany, but in New York he was quite anonymous.

WCP: Did that anonymity have any affect on him? Did he ever speak of that issue?

JS: You know, he never talked about that stuff. Actually, Heiner Friedrich basically supported him, and he was on a stipend, so he…first of all I was broke in those days and I had no idea if he had money or if he didn’t have money. But it was obvious that he had a studio, and that he wasn’t beholden to anyone, and he always had enough money to pay for drinks or food or whatever. And he was quite generous with me.

WCP: Did he influence your work?

JS: We really were just friends. And the idea of influence, or whatever…the attitude was something that spoke to me more at the time. I mean I was making these projected drawing test paintings. Like draw yourself when you’re 30, when you’re 40. And he believed in the anonymity of abstract art. And he would ask “why do you want to paint something that is recognizable?” And I said to him, “Well, everything is recognizable, even if it doesn’t have an name. Even if it is not a recognizable image.” So, we’d have discussions like that sometimes. And that was cool. That was interesting.

The thing is if you compare Sigmar’s work and Blinky’s work, even though their work was radically different in appearance, the poetic was very much the same even though the appearance of their work was quite different. These guys had a more irreverent sort of attitude that just seemed colder that I thought seemed pretty intelligent. And they had a great sense of humor, also. Obviously Sigmar’s work was funnier than Blinky’s work, but there was a deep sense of humor within Blinky’s work.

I think I came to appreciate Blinky’s work through our friendship. I didn’t know what he did at first. We used to just sit around and drink. And later he asked if I wanted to see his paintings some time. I felt very privileged to know him, and I enjoy the works that I own of his, also. What else do you want to know?

WCP: Prior to Basquiat I was curious if you had ever made any films: experimental or narrative, or if you had ever written a screenplay before?

JS: No. I never had a camera before that, either.

WCP: So, what made you so certain that you could direct that film?

JS: I had no idea. The one thing that I knew was that I knew that I knew my subject.  I mean, I know what it is to be a painter and I was making a film about a painter. I didn’t intend to direct the movie, somebody else wanted to do that, and came to interview me about Jean-Michel. I thought I’d help them get it made. But I realized a tourist was going to make the movie, and I had leant my name to the thing. So, really I did it as a rescue mission.

WCP: What attracted you to Rula Jebreal’s novel, Miral, that made you want to direct a film about it?

JS: I usually make movies about things that other people won’t make movies about. Or maybe because I think I am the only person who will do it. I heard the story of a Palestinian person, and as a Jewish person it was refreshing to hear another narrative of what was happening to these people whom we never really hear from. So, I guess in each case, whatever movie I’ve made, I always try to give a voice to people who don’t have one: letting them speak through my films.

There’s a lot written about [Miral]. Most of the reviews are negative. That’s because people are very prejudiced against Palestinian people: that they even have a narrative. I got a telephone call from Carl Reiner the other day, and he said to me, that it is one of the best films he’s seen this year, and certainly one of the most important films he’s seen in years. And that I should be lauded for making this film. He gave me his number and said, “Call this number for lauding.” And I have great letters and comments from other filmmakers, and Johnny Depp, and Javier Bardem. I got a note from Dave Eggers the other day that he said he only had one complaint about my movie: that it wasn’t long enough.  So, that’s good.

But, I don’t feel like making a movie for a while. I’ve been painting a lot. I have a show at the Museo Correr in Venice during the Biennale this year—a show of about 40 paintings. And there is one coming up at the MOCA in Los Angeles, and another show at Larry Gagosian’s next March in New York.

WCP: You’ve stated that one of the motivations to make movies is to give a voice to those who don’t have a voice. What is your motivation to make paintings?

JS: Well, that’s my own voice. That is that mute voice inside of me that I want to show. Painting for me is that everything that everything else is not. Painting is that unlimitable stasis where everything that is ordinary or that might bring you down does not have to enter at all. It’s the only interesting thing about getting older, actually—separate from familial relationships: something that you do by yourself. And, after making movies, the idea that I can just go and put some Prussian blue and some white on a big long brush and kind of augment or shift something—I don’t even have to know what it is that I am shifting, y’know: just following my intuition. It is something that I value and something that I love to do. And it is beyond logic. That’s really who I am, and that makes it possible for me to do everything else that I do.


You can follow the Hirshhorn's Twitter conversation with Julian Schnabel this Friday @hirshhorn at, and participate by using hashtag #askJulian

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