Julian Schnabel Is the Latest Celebrity to Guest Curate a Major Museum Show—a Trend That Is Here to Stay

The artist has cherry-picked the collection of the Musée d'Orsay, taking part in a curating phenomenon that goes back to Warhol.

Julian Schnabel in between Vincent van Gogh, Autoportrait (1889) and his own Tina in a matador hat (1987). Photo by Sophie Crepy Boegly, ©Musée d’Orsay.

Julian Schnabel will be a tough act to follow at the Musée d’Orsay. The US artist and film director has been given carte blanche to mix and match his own work with paintings and sculpture from the collection in Paris—making him the first artist to participate in the museum’s new guest curator initiative.

As well as Van Gogh’s famous 1889 self-portrait, which inspired Schnabel’s new film portrait about the tormented artist, At Eternity’s Gate, he has cherry-picked works by such artists as Gauguin, Cézanne, Manet, and Toulouse-Lautrec.

“We gave him unlimited access to the works he wanted,” Donatien Grau, the Musée d’Orsay’s new head of contemporary programs, tells artnet News. Grau says that Schnabel was the natural choice to launch the museum’s new guest-curator initiative. “He was spending so much time here when he was making the film,” Grau says. Schnabel also wrote the texts in the show, and he and his partner, Louise Kugelberg, designed the two-room installation.  

Like a celebrity guest appearance on a TV show, there is a novelty value to asking a big-name artist or other celebrity to help create a museum show. A different visitor demographic can be another bonus. “Orsay through the Eyes of Julian Schnabel” is a win-win for the artist with a new film and an institution wanting to refresh its image.

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence (1889). Copyright Musée d’Orsay, RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmid.

Guest artists are now almost de rigueur. In 2011, the British Museum opened its collections to Grayson Perry, who produced a memorable installation and new work. (The Turner Prize-winning artist unsuccessfully pitched a similar idea to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) Kerry James Marshall got to select 40 works from the Met’s collection to accompany his retrospective at the Met Breuer in 2016. When the Met’s new director Max Hollein was still working for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco he invited Urs Fischer to show his sculpture at the Legion of Honor, and he previously worked with Jeff Koons among others when in Frankfurt.

In the Hague, the Brazilian artist Vik Muniz was the first contemporary artist invited to do his thing among the Dutch Old Masters. The author of the book Girl With a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier, who has guest curated three shows in the UK, tells artnet News that she dreams of curating a show at the home of Vermeer’s famous painting. “I got a little taste of it in October 2017 when I got to be curator for the night.” She chose a Vermeer-themed cello concert and herbal gins for the evening’s drinks. 

Grau points out that when the Musée d’Orsay first opened in the converted train station in 1986 it was already setting the pace in collaborating with special guests. A starry list of artists and designers created videos in response to its collections, including the theater director Robert Wilson, fashion designer Azzedine Alaïa, and artist Philippe Parreno. The MAK, Vienna’s museum of applied art, went further in the early 1990s, inviting artists including Donald Judd, Jenny Holzer, and Barbara Bloom to co-curate its permanent collections.

Grau would not say who is next on the museum’s invitation list to be in dialogue with the collection, but he did say that it would be a leading literary figure. The Musée d’Orsay is due to announce its first writer-in-residence shortly. “We will bring it to a new era, with more voices, and this ongoing commitment to keep reading the collection again and again,” he says.

When Andy Warhol Raided the Icebox

Andy Warhol may have been the first and the best celebrity guest curator in art history. In 1969, he turned a museum on its head, gleefully picking works from deep in the storage of the Museum of Art of the Rhode Island Museum of Design. Not only did the show, “Raid the Icebox, with Andy Warhol,” include works that would never have been seen in the gallery—including its entire shoe collection and works by run-of-the-mill 19th-century artists—he presented them just as he found them languishing in the museum’s basement.

Exhibition view of Wes Anderson and Juman Malouf’s show at the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna. © KHM-Museumsverband.

That radical exhibition, and its deadpan catalogue in the style of an inventory stripped bare of any scholarly pretensions, inspired Jasper Sharp, an adjunct curator at the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna, in charge of its contemporary and Modern art program. Now, Sharp has just opened the museum’s most ambitious—and risky—exhibition to be organized by a guest curator. The filmmaker Wes Anderson and his partner, designer Juman Malouf, have been let loose in the prestigious museum.

Like Warhol, Anderson raided the Vienna museum’s storage, as well as others’ in the Austrian capital. Similarly, in Paris, Grau was impressed by the way Schnabel insisted that an often overlooked work by Cézanne, La femme étranglée (1875-76), was included in his show. The grisly painting is normally tucked away in a corner of the Musée d’Orsay, overshadowed by the artist’s more famous works.

Sharp, who has invited artists Ed Ruscha and Edmund de Waal to curate the Viennese museum’s collection in the past, says that the next guest artist will be a woman. He says that he had been working with Maria Lassnig but her death in 2014 put an end to the project. The collaboration typically takes three years to organize.

Mark Rothko Among the Antiquities

In Vienna, the aim is not to invite a blue-chip artist to show their big, Instagram-friendly works like Jeff Koons did in Versailles a decade ago and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford will next year. However, Sharp is working with one major blue-chip artist next, albeit a dead one whose work could not be further from Warhol or Koons.

Next spring, the Vienna Kunsthistorisches will open a Mark Rothko exhibition that reveals the artist’s affinity with Greek and Roman antiquities through to the art of the Dutch Golden Age. Featuring around 45 works, including little-known figurative canvases by Rothko, the exhibition promises to show the artist and the historic museum’s collections in a very different light.

So who will be the next big artist guest curator? The director of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg has said he’d like to have Richard Serra, though artnet News understands that the artist has not jumped at the invitation. But with so many other living artists eager to juxtapose their work in museums, not to mention artist’s estates in receptive mood, the guest celebrity artist trend is here to stay.   

“Orsay through the Eyes of Julian Schnabel,” through January, 13, 2019, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

“Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and other Treasures, Wes Anderson and Juman Malouf,” through April 28, 2019, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, which then travels to the Fondazione Prada, Milan.


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