Lola Montes Schnabel debuts on the New York gallery scene, and suddenly it feels like the '80s again

Courtney Love and Lola Montes Schnabel. (Rozalia Jovanovic)
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"This isn’t a normal gallery opening, by the way," said art historian Brian Kirsch, standing in the large room at The Hole Gallery where five sensual, splashy, large-scale paintings hung. Lola Montes Schnabel’s show, "Love Before Intimacy," her first solo painting exhibition in the United States, was having its opening night last Friday.

Kirsch had been discussing the paintings with a fellow guest.

"She was asking me tons of questions about Warhol," he said. "My mother had known him back in the '50s." He looked around the room. "It’s funny, I’m seeing people from the past—from years ago. It’s hard to believe that some of these people are still around."

In fact much of the large crowd was quite young, a parade of high and low fashion, downtown boys and uptown girls festooned in hats, parkas, clunky heels, old sneakers, and outlandish outfits looking at the paintings, but mostly looking at each other. There was not a lick of alcohol in the space.

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But in some ways it did feel like the resurrection of an art-world spirit of the '80s: Optimistic, moneyed, self-serious.

If anyone were to revive this spirit, it might not be surprising if it were Lola Schnabel, who is, after all, the daughter of one of the biggest figures in the '80s art world, painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel.

Kirsch looked at the canvases, which had layers of reddish paint beaded over the teal. Did it feel at all like the work of her father, Julian?

"She’s thinning out the paint," Kirsch said. "She's very transparent. That's not what her father does."

As for Lola Schnabel, she stood under harsh fluorescent lights, talking to Courtney Love. Love, in a long red double-breasted jacket, and Schnabel in a short fur-trimmed gold jacket and black skirt, managed surprisingly to have a quiet private conversation in the middle of the crowded room. Nearby, Swedish fashion designer Johan Lindeberg stood very tall, his white jacket complemented by his long reddish-brown beard.

Schnabel’s five paintings were in the smaller, back room of The Hole Gallery. They were all of a piece, sharing the same 5-color palette of red, ochre, teal, black, and white. The paintings mix figuration with abstraction: In one, nude youths frolic in fields and sky in milky white, teal, and blood red bisected by heavy black branches. It seems almost to channel neo-expressionism.

"I would say this is so Berlin," Kirsch said of the paintings. "Like Germany. It’s very Sigmar Polke. She’s using all those references in an intelligent way.”

“We were in a painting show together in 2004,” said Kathy Grayson, the director of The Hole, about how she met Schnabel and decided to show her. Grayson, formerly the gallery director at Deitch Projects, stood very tall in a long white pleated organza skirt, and a black top with a seriously deep “V” in the back. As if in homage to the paintings, Grayson’s hair was dyed red and gold. All told, she embodied four of the five colors in Schnabel’s palette, and, taken at a glance, seemed like one of the paintings come to life.

“I’ve known her work for years.” Grayson said. “I went to her studio and she had maybe three of these done. They were so different from her other work. They were so big, and so confident and so beautiful. They depict scenes from a narrative in which androgynous youths experience love before sexuality.”

Grayson recently returned from Miami where she had shown two paintings of Schnabel’s at her twin booths at the N.A.D.A. art fair. She sold one of them for $25,000.

Like the treated surfaces of Schnabel’s paintings—she starts with linen and rabbit glue, and uses, apart from paint, materials including asphalt, copper-plating solution, and plaster weld (a bonding agent)—the Hole provided a kind of alchemy: reactive mix of art, talent, celebrity, and money.

May Anderson, the Victoria’s Secret model, wore a hat with a black furry pom-pom with a visor. With her dramatic cheekbones and red lips that seemed to become disembodied from her face every time she smiled, she was the Mad Hatter and the Cheshire Cat in one. Anderson, who made headlines in 2006 when she was arrested and jailed in Miami for hitting a stewardess, is the assistant director of The Hole. “I’ve known Lola since she was 15,” she said. “She’s really sweet, really caring. These paintings show her relationship with nature and animals.” She smiled a big Cheshire smile.

On view in the gallery's main room is a group show called “…” that's described as presenting the work of artists exploring “new tendencies in abstraction.” “Kadar Brock’s work was all sold out … the one with the holes,” said Fabiola Beracasa, The Hole’s creative director and a Hearst heiress who was wearing a white column of a dress. Earlier, she’d been talking to a young video artist in a black-and-white varsity jacket who looked messy and sexy and British, a cross between Ed Westwick and Pete Doherty.

Lola was on everyone’s lips. “She’s going on a retreat soon to India,” said a tall friend of Schnabel’s with blonde flowing hair. “She’s supposed to not have sex before. But she’s been having sex beforehand. She’s not going to speak the whole time she’s there. Also, once when she was being interviewed by the Times she took time out to put her friend, who’s homeless, in a cab.”

Schnabel’s mother and her brother Vito made to leave, but were intercepted by Mario Sorrenti, the photographer of this year’s Pirelli calendar who’s also photographed Lola. Wearing a plaid shirt and down vest, his hair was longish and in his dark square glasses he resembled Marcello Mastroianni in his prime. By his side was Mary Frey, her bleach-blonde hair tied tightly in a bun. The Schnabels lingered, chatting.

No one seemed to be leaving. The place just kept getting more packed. 

“I’m here for Lola,” said the actor Waris Ahluwalia. Here was a room filled with the friends and supporters.

Asked about her father’s shadow looming over everything, Schnabel got annoyed. 

“It’s difficult to be asked this question five thousand times,” she said. “He’s my mentor and he’s a great dad. But I was raised by my mom, also. I’ve digested his whole body of work. I feel like someone should ask him how it feels to be my father.” 

“I’m interested in storytelling, in narrative,” she continued, more relaxed, speaking of the influence of the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky, and of the symbolic filmmakers. “This came from a film called Young Aphrodite,” she said of the inspiration for the group of paintings. “But I misheard the title and thought it was about hermaphrodites. Feeling is essential. Intuition or sense, whether you’re an animal walking through a field stepping on everything … to not be afraid of it.” And with that she was pulled back into the throng.