Harmonic Convergence: When Julian Met Plácido
Julian Schnabel paints portraits the way the old masters did, starting with a dark background and then layering on light and color. Where the masters varnished their pictures, Mr. Schnabel sometimes coats his with resin. The main difference is that the old masters took weeks or even months to complete a portrait, and Mr. Schnabel can finish one in several hours, which, even allowing for several centuries’ worth of inflation, makes for a much sweeter payday.
On Thursday Mr. Schnabel painted Peddrick Sheffer, a truck driver from York, Pa., who had won a Schnabel portrait as part of the MasterCard “priceless” campaign. (Or not quite priceless: the contest rules estimated the value of the painting at $350,000.) He played some Willie Nelson tunes to put Mr. Sheffer at ease and also tried to talk him into voting for Barack Obama. “I told him, ‘If you like my work, trust me on this,’ ” Mr. Schnabel said.
On Friday, using a giant, dolly-mounted Polaroid camera from the ’70s, Mr. Schnabel took the B-list actor Mickey Rourke’s photograph for a forthcoming Village Voice article about his new film, “The Wrestler.” And then he painted Plácido Domingo.
That portrait was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera to commemorate the anniversary of that tenor’s Met debut, and is to be unveiled at a gala there on Sept. 28, 40 years to the day after Mr. Domingo, then 27, stepped in for an ailing Franco Corelli and sang the role of Maurizio in “Adriana Lecouvreur.”
“Most tenors don’t last 14 years, let alone 40,” said Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met. “We were just trying to think of an appropriate way to honor a career of such duration and excellence.”
He added: “The Met has a long history of very large and not necessarily well-painted portraits of singers in costume. Some of them are quite good, but some are the painting equivalent of what you’d see in a wax museum.” Ever since Mr. Gelb took over in 2006, the Met has reached out to visual artists; in approaching Mr. Schnabel, the opera house was hoping to buff up its collection still further, Mr. Gelb said, and to expand on its mission of rebuilding connections to contemporary culture and society.
Before he got down to painting, Mr. Schnabel, 56, wearing purple pajama pants and maroon slippers, took off his shirt and posed, barrel-chested, for some pictures with Mr. Rourke and Mr. Domingo. Using a black marker, Mr. Rourke inscribed over Mr. Schnabel’s right pectoral a Rourke-like tattoo that said “Got Milk.” Mr. Domingo looked straight ahead. They took up a lot of room, three towers of ego burning oxygen by the barrelful. But luckily Mr. Schnabel’s studio, on a lower floor of his 17-story palazzo in the West Village, is airy and enormous, with ceilings as tall as a church.
Mr. Rourke, deeply tanned, shone with a slightly unnatural glow: he has, after all, come back from the dead more times than any actor since Burt Reynolds. Mr. Domingo was patient and relaxed, giving no indication that he leads a whirlwind life that would be the ruin of most people. Not only has he sung more roles, and sung them better, than probably any tenor in history, but at an age when most singers have begun to trim their repertory, he is also still expanding his. He runs two companies, the Los Angeles Opera and Washington National Opera, and in his spare time he conducts.
“My secret is that I enjoy so much what I’m doing,” he said. “Yes, sometimes one gets tired, but my work also gives me so much energy.” And he added: “You have to be lucky, and keep the voice in good shape, and then you have to do this job with a passion. It’s not a job where you go to the office and just check in. You have to dedicate all you have.”
Mr. Schnabel is himself a singer of sorts, and in the ’90s recorded a rock album, “Every Silver Lining Has a Cloud.” More recently he has made headlines as the director of prizewinning films like “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” But Mr. Schnabel, who once said of himself, “I’m the closest you’ll get to Picasso in this life,” remains a painter of prodigious energy, productivity and self-confidence.
A couple of days before painting the portraits, with the help of some black-clad assistants, he sorted through the summer’s work, most of it done outdoors at his house on Long Island, picking some pictures for a coming exhibition in London, some for a show in India, keeping a few for himself. “I’m like a whaler who just came in, and I’m taking in the whale oil,” he said.
There were dozens of paintings, most of them huge, and most made from photographs or from some antique French hospital X-rays that had been blown up on canvas and then Schnabelized with ink, paint, resin and blobs of gesso. In some a figure shimmered faintly in the background; in some surfing pictures the waves seemed about to roll right through the canvas and flood the studio.
“I like when I’m looking at something that’s just about to form itself,” Mr. Schnabel said, adding, “The disagreement between the surface and what’s behind it — that space in between is what interests me.”
About painting portraits, he said: “I never paint from photographs. The idea of accident or surprise is very much a part of it. I’m putting myself where there’s no guarantee of a return trip. You hope your painting looks like the subject, and mine seem to do that. When I paint paintings of people, I really get them. It’s very important to me to capture the soul of the person.”
He had never met Mr. Domingo, he said, adding: “I think he’s probably a good man — he has a nice face. I don’t want to paint anybody. I don’t want to paint Fidel Castro. I wouldn’t make a painting of George Bush.”
After Mr. Rourke took his leave, Mr. Schnabel schmoozed with Mr. Domingo for a while, sometimes speaking in Spanish, and led him on a tour of the studio. He also took a few photographs with the giant Polaroid, which with sepia-tinted film tends to make people look as if they’d been exhumed from the Mathew Brady era.
“It’s very mature, but I guess that’s me,” Mr. Domingo said, uncertainly, of one that made him look almost marmoreal. He stroked his beard. “It’s making me very old.”
Later he cautioned a newspaper photographer snapping his picture, “The light tends to make hollows in the head, you know.”
For the portrait, an assistant from the Met had brought along Mr. Domingo’s Act III costume from Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” — tights, brocaded robe, shin guards, breastplate, gauntlets, cape — and after Mr. Schnabel announced, “O.K., kids, we can dress him up,” Mr. Domingo retired to a corner.
“The tights wear out the hair on my legs,” he said, wriggling into them, and after putting on the breastplate, he remarked: “Oh, it’s hotter than I remember. I thought it was just the stage lights.”
When he was done, he struck a heroic pose for Mr. Schnabel and said: “One of my strongest roles, for which I am best known, is Otello. There is also Adorno, from ‘Simon Boccanegra.’ But this could be Otello.”
Mr. Schnabel said: “I’m just going to paint you as you.” He stationed Mr. Domingo in the shadow of a pillar, explaining to him, “I like painting in oscurida, because the face comes out more,” and told an assistant to tune his iPod to some songs his daughter’s boyfriend had recorded.
A jazzy, rocklike melody filled the room, and holding a cigarette in one hand, his brush in the other, Mr. Schnabel began quickly sketching, almost scratching, in white on a brown canvas roughly seven feet square. After about 20 minutes, the shape of a head emerged, a halo of hair, a glint of armor, the outline of a torso. Mr. Schnabel stepped back and ordered all bystanders to leave the studio. “I’m just painting the light in,” he said.
He started at 3:15 p.m., and at a little after 6 someone from the Met came by to collect the costume, and Mr. Domingo left for the airport. He had to be in Washington the next day for his company’s season opener, “La Traviata,” an opera about a woman who burns herself out.