Art World

Julian Schnabel’s Symbols of Actual Life comes to San Francisco

Artist installation proposal of Julian Schnabel — Symbols of Actual Life at the Legion of Honor. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The Legion of Honor brings a rare exhibition to San Francisco by one of the most significant painters of our time. Julian Schnabel’s first West Coast exhibition in 30 years features new large-scale paintings that will occupy the Legion of Honor’s open-air courtyard.

Themes of creation, destruction, and transformation inform this unique installation experience. Six 24-by-24-foot paintings, like architectural monuments, are executed on found tarp-like material, which will be exposed to the elements over the four-month exhibition run. Reminiscent of earthworks like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty or the tradition of Tibetan sand paintings, the artworks will change and morph in their physicality, their appearance finalized by chance encounters with the elements.

This approach continues inside the museum where eight paintings from three distinct bodies of work highlight Schnabel’s unorthodox, experimental approach to use of materials and his gestural painting style that lives somewhere between abstraction and figuration. Found materials shape the finished works, including components such as broken plates; textiles like Kabuki theater backdrops, sails, tarpaulins, and velvet; images, names, fragments of language; and thickly applied paint, resin, and digital reproductions.

Canvas made from sack linen burnt by many hours of sunlight exposure while covering stalls in a fruit and vegetable market in Mexico are repurposed into a new series of abstract paintings. Works from Schnabel’s The Sky of Illimitableness series, begun in 2012 as a posthumous tribute to Mike Kelley, presents a surrealistically oversized goat superimposed onto reprints of 19th-century wallpaper. Also included are paintings from Schnabel’s Jane Birkin series (1990) shaped like the felucca sails the artist viewed during his travels in Egypt. These canvases were sourced from the sail cloth Schnabel acquired from the sailors. The boat’s name, Jane, reminded Schnabel of the famous actress Jane Birkin, so he added her last name along with abstract marks in oil and gesso.

Symbols of Actual Life combines the monumental with the ephemeral and, in the artist’s words, “epitomize much of what are the essential characteristics of the smallest and most nascent proposals of how imagery drawing and material could be called a painting.”

Events related to the opening include a conversation between Julian Schnabel and Max Hollein, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, which takes place on April 19, 2018 from 6–8:30 p.m.  This program is free and open to the public. Attendees are encouraged to RSVP, as space is limited.

Julian Schnabel: Symbols of Actual Life: 9:30 a.m.–5:15 p.m. Tuesday–Sunday, April 21–Aug. 5; Palace of Legion of Honor, 100 34th Ave., Lincoln Park, 415-750-3600,


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Sharon Anderson is an artist and writer in Southern California. She can be reached at