THE MOST DAMNING PHRASE IN THE art world these days is "the '80s." It calls up inflated prices, unreadable blather about "postmodernism" and "deconstructivism" and artists' egos big enough to fill a movie sound stage. But all excesses come to an end. Now, for many of the most successful artists of that decade, the glamorous roar of the crowd remains addictive-and sadly unavailable in the downsized '90s. Robert Longo, 40, had an epiphany: "If a movie succeeds, it's because a bunch of people paid seven bucks to see it. In the art world, success is because a few people paid a lot of money." For Longo and two of the biggest art stars of the '80s-painters Julian Schnabel, 42, and David Salle, 41 -there's only one way to keep on making big statements to rapt audiences: direct a feature film.
Right now, Salle is shooting "Search and Destroy" in New York. It's a dark comedy about a promoter (Griffin Dunne) hustling a movie idea to a maverick TV evangelist, played by Dennis Hopper. Longo is ensconced in Toronto (where the exchange rate is kind to movie budgets) shooting "Johnny Mnemonic," from an early William Gibson cyberpunk story; his film stars Keanu Reeves, Dolph Lundgren and Longo's new wife, German actress Barbara Sukowa. Schnabel, the hood ornament of the '80s art world, hasn't actually made a movie yet. He's just opened another one-man show at New York's Pace Wildenstein gallery. In his art, Schnabel swings for fences and hits a homer about every 30 times at bat. Curiously, he's bunting this time with the midsize and elegantly framed "Boni Lux" paintings. But, yes, he's co-written a movie about the late painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, which he'll start directing in September, with a $5 million budget. (He hopes Gary Oldman will play Andy Warhol.)
Art in the '80s was already a crude form of the movie business. Abstraction was out. Cinematic figurative painting (like Salle's), with superimposition, film-noir lighting and snippets of narrative, was in. Making dense, introverted pictures with your own hands was out. Combining big, slick illustrations of urbanites doing Bonnie-and-Clyde death dances with architectural panels (like Longo's), with squads of studio assistants to help, was in. Dining well (and being seen, as Schnabel was) at places like the Odeon in Tribeca was also in. SoHo was practically Hollywood on the Hudson.
But then, with the recessionary '90s, the bubble burst. Galleries started "catering to real collectors who won't put art works into storage, but will enjoy them in the long term," says Anthony Grant of Sotheby's. That's a euphemism for "the high rollers have taken a hike." (Some major collectors, however, still display the minorpieces they bought in the '80s. Eugene Schwartz has Schnabel's "The Exile" in his home and plans to hang two Salles soon.) Prices plummeted. A 1983 Salle painting, "Tennyson," went for a jaw-dropping $500,000 at auction in 1989. About four years later the 1980 Salle, "Unexpectedly, I Missed My Cousin jasper," fetched a mere $95,000. Most of Schnabel's current work sells for $60,000 to $100,000, says Schwartz. (Pace Wildenstein won't give prices, claiming everything in the current show is sold or "reserved.") West Coast collector Eli Broad estimates Schnabel's prices are one half to one third down from their peak at the turn of the decade. Longo says simply, "If I think about my support in New York, it's depressing."
But Longo, a chunky Italian kid from Long Island, always had one foot in the entertainment camp. His late-'70s punk band Menthol Wars was less than a legend but more than a rumor. He directed a few rock videos for R.E.M. and Megadeath, then tried to get a movie project going with screenwriter Richard Price and performance artist Eric Bogosian. When that fell through, he went after "Johnny Mnemonic." Longo had long admired Gibson's stories, and called him up. (The two are now friends and Gibson "can't stay away" from the set.) The director won't specify where his "independent financing" comes from, but he will say, "Instead of getting 2 to 3 million dollars to make this movie, I ended up getting $26 million." He adds, "Basically, everyone from [U.S. distributor] TriStar has left me alone." in the movie, a futuristic courier (Reeves), who packs his brain with information via a "wet wire interface," is pursued by a killer called "Strange Preacher" (Lundgren), described by Longo as "an amped-up version of an Albrecht Durer Jesus, with long blond hair and a beard."
Although "Johnny Mnemonic" sounds like Longo's art often looks, Longo complains he's criticized "every day from somebody on the set" for not having risen through the movie ranks. "There's an incredible assholism in the movie industry," he says, but tries to maintain his rock-and-roll good cheer. "I'm up front with everybody about my limitations ... The woman from continuity said that I broke four basic rules of filmmaking in one scene. Fortunately, the editor was able to cut it so that it came out right." Will such gaffes be an obstacle to his future career? "I don't know whether I want to do other movies. It's like having a job, man. You get up every morning and go to work." He's keeping his hand in the art world. "I'll have a show in Europe with the metal black flags, the wax crosses-they're 14 feet tall and kind of glow-and the gun drawings. It's supposed to be in the Kunsthalle in Dusseldorf. I've got people working on that."
Salle is a slender study in high seriousness who emerged from the cutting-edge school Cal Arts in the 1970s to set painting on its ear. Given his dark good looks (allegedly aided by cosmetic surgery), his ambitions could have been aimed in front of the camera as well as behind. Producer Ruth Charny had met Salle when he was trying to get another film project off the ground. She was impressed by his "strong visual sense, and a sensitivity to human beings." When she read Howard Korder's play "Search and Destroy," she thought of Salle for director of the film version and took the package to Martin Scorsese. He agreed to executive GALLERY, N.Y. produce, and his aura attracted, besides Hopper and Dunne, Christopher Walken, John Turturro and-surprise Scorsese's girlfriend, Illeana Douglas. Salle had to learn "how to not work simply on a flat plane," Charny says. But the production designer thinks Salle is a quick learner: "He's as specific as I am. He'll say, this curve is not right. I love that! He really knows how to communicate visually, and you don't have that all the time."
What Salle didn't have to learn is how to keep his intentions intriguingly vague. Yes, he says, "There's something different about the way this movie is going to look and feel than if someone else did it. But that would be true no matter who was doing it." And the film's subtext? "It's about what you do when you find out that people don't think like you do." Next subject. How about plans for future paintings? "Yeah, sure. But nothing I can talk about."
Schnabel was last seen after the opening of his show vacationing in Jamaica ("They can find me at the bar or something"). He's still living large, and getting larger, now resembling guys called Big Mike in biker flicks. His resume includes a string of exotic women (Belgian ex-wife Jacqueline, model Anh Duong and new wife Olatz Lopez Garmendia) and five children, including baby twins with Olatz. His idol, of course, is Picasso, who once remarked that if a great artist spits, it's art-a witticism Schnabel takes almost literally. He's been known to introduce himself to strangers as "the most famous painter in America."
Can the famous painter make the switch to moviemaking? "Film for me could never replace painting," Schnabel says. "To look at a big painting with a big white sash in the middle of it and try to comprehend the meaning is more of a leap than to figure out what's happening from one scene of 'Goodfellas' to the next." Schnabel's Miami dealer Jason Rubell says the artist is "striving for the [mass] audience that Steven Spielberg can capture ... people like Julian have a perception of what is happening in the world that's as good as any of the filmmakers'." Pace Wildenstein partner Arnold Glimcher (who made his own directing debut in 1992 with "The Mambo Kings") concurs, adding a connection Schnabel would love: "Film is the ultimate expression of collage, which began with Picasso gluing a piece of paper onto the canvas."
The artists turned directors are not exactly the three amigos. Mostly, it's fatigue with being lumped together in the '80s. Salle bristles when the decade is mentioned. Schnabel says, "Salle keeps painting the same picture over and over again. If I was painting those pictures I would stop. Get another job." Longo wishes his cohorts luck but predicts, "My movie will come the closest to being mainstream." Whatever the fate of their films, these directors will still be smaller players in a much bigger game than they were in the '80s art world. Then again, all that raucous deconstructivism could reignite, this time in the movie business. Yikes.