Schnabel's 'day job'

Times Staff Writer

Oscar nominee Tilda Swinton hadn't taken more than three steps inside the Gagosian Gallery on Thursday night before she was mobbed by photographers. They wasted no time enveloping the statuesque British actress in the strobe-like cocoon of flashes. "I want to look at the work!" Swinton exclaimed, seemingly taken aback. She teetered away on stiletto heels to view some art.

But not just any art. On display was a series of massive-scale paintings by her fellow Oscar nominee Julian Schnabel. And befitting his outsize multi-hyphenate hipster status, the throng of people who turned up at Beverly Hills' poshest exhibition space weren't just the usual art world suspects. Among them: Hollywood power brokers, rock royalty, movie stars, cult icons and tabloid fixtures, as well as celebrity gawkers, art world grandees and a random selection of the town's USDA-certified Beautiful People.

It should have been a crowning moment for Schnabel, arriving within months of walking away with best director statuettes for his third feature, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," from both the Cannes Film Festival and the Golden Globes (at which the film also landed best foreign-language film). And just a few dozen hours later, he was set to arrive at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre to square off against such fellow filmmakers as the Coen brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson for a best director Oscar.

But to hear it from the artist-auteur, the confluence of art and award season might have been too much of a good thing. "I feel numb," Schnabel said, bundled in a long overcoat and clutching a just-emptied glass of bourbon.

He was flanked by well-wishers that included Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger, William Morris Agency head Jim Wiatt and Lilly Tartikoff, founder of the Entertainment Industry Foundation. They stood together in a secluded upstairs gallery adorned with small drawings by Richard Serra.

"I wanted to show some paintings," Schnabel added. "It's my day job. It's what I really do. All this stuff is the product of one mind."

Which is to say, for the Brooklyn-born Schnabel, 56 -- a portly polymath whose various avocations have included surfing, interior decorating a boutique hotel, designing furniture and constructing a massive Pompeii-red palazzo overlooking New York's Hudson River -- creativity is not something that simply happens in a vacuum.

His ethereal, garage door-sized canvases depict fragments of a giant skeleton: a femur, a cervical spine, a pelvis. But again, they aren't just any old bones. The renderings were blown-up from X-rays Schnabel discovered in a building near the naval hospital at Berck-sur-Mer in northern Normandy, where he shot much of "Diving Bell." (The film is an alternately nightmarish, haunting and mordant exploration of a French magazine editor's interior life after he suffers a paralyzing stroke.)

Both his movie and the art it inspired seem to grapple with how fragile yet exquisite human mortality can be.

'Don't touch the paintings!'

"Rush Hour 3" director Brett Ratner arrived at the Gagosian with one of "Diving Bell's" stars, Emmanuelle Seigner, and stood contemplating the work.

"I don't know if I would hang it in my house, but I find it very interesting," Ratner said. "He's definitely an artist and a filmmaker. An artist can make art in any medium."

The director paused. "Alina, don't touch the paintings!" he suddenly admonished a gorgeous female companion he spotted absent-mindedly leaning most of her shoulder onto one of Schnabel's canvases.

Ratner surveyed the room where socialite Nicky Hilton, photographer-director David LaChappelle, scatological satirist-director John Waters and Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante were milling about and then added: "There's so many people you can't look at the paintings. I wish it was less crowded, more exclusive."

Schnabel's sculptures and paintings on cracked plates, old carpets and even discarded Kabuki theater backdrops have been widely admired and dissed in almost equal measure -- and for many of the same reasons Schnabel has. A card-carrying member of New York's art elite since the '70s, both he and his work are bigger than life, with the price tags to match. The new pieces go for $350,000 to $500,000.

Seigner pointed out that Schnabel's bone paintings can also be seen in "The Diving Bell's" opening title sequence. "I think he is a genius," she said.

By 8 p.m., the gallery had reached a kind of celebrity critical mass -- Hey, there's Diane Keaton! Cuba Gooding Jr.! Dennis Hopper! Vidal Sassoon! -- with expensively dressed people packed together like war refugees and a line of art appreciators stretching down the block despite a gentle but persistent winter shower.

The event was one of two big-ticket Oscar week bashes held that night, the other being Paramount Vantage's cocktail reception at STK restaurant in West Hollywood, which drew "There Will Be Blood" director Paul Thomas Anderson and its star, Daniel Day-Lewis, both Oscar nominees.

Fortuitous timing

In a private Gagosian back room, tucked away from the madding throng, a small cross-section of VIPs cracked a bottle of Champagne near a giant red Schnabel sculpture resembling a navigational buoy, titled "Blind Girl Surf Club."

The work struck Christine Nicholls, a special projects director at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, as appropriately biographical.

"I know the big cat can throw down grace on the long board," Nichols said of Schnabel, as she broke into a wide grin.

According to Gagosian director Candy Coleman, the gallery never planned the exhibition, titled "Christ's Last Day," to coincide with the Oscars. She said the artist simply called up about six months ago and asked if he could put his work on display.

Still, the timing seemed to be pure Hollywood synergy.

"Nobody's smarter about promoting than Julian," said actor Seymour Cassel, who befriended Schnabel when the director tried to cast him in his first film, "Basquiat." "He can promote a boat out of water."

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