Julian Schnabel Tries to Settle with Ex-Acolyte

The nine-page document dated March 8 was called a “letter of redemption,” but the fake notary public’s stamp bore sign of the devil: 666.

“I, Lázaro Gómez Carriles deeply regret having requested the highly reputable art galleries, Mary Boone, Pace and Larry Gagosian Gallery to see my work. Knowing that you, Julian C. Schnabel-the greatest artist who ever lived-grandstand your supreme art in these galleries,” read the first plea of the screed. “For that, I also beg your pardon.”

In the next paragraph, Mr. Gómez Carriles, a Cuban writer and painter, copped to another supposed infraction: making a video of his artwork. “I now see the truth,” he continued, “thanks to you, the most celebrated Motion Picture Director.

“To show my redemption,” Mr. Gómez Carriles wrote, “I will never paint again, touch a brush, or canvas, or write, without your approval. I just want to make your stretchers, frames, photograph your work, fix your bed, etc.” In another section of the document, Mr. Gómez Carriles also wrote that his duties at Mr. Schnabel’s house included cleaning the artist’s cars, installing cable, fixing the pool, polishing the antique silver flatware that Mr. Schnabel’s wife Olatz had bought, and functioning as the personal chauffeur for Mr. Schnabel and his parents.

He also promised to address Mr. Schnabel as “God” from here on out, because “no mortal name shall dignify you.”

Not even two years ago, everything seemed fine between Lázaro Gómez Carriles and Julian Schnabel. The two had met when Mr. Schnabel set out to make Before Night Falls , a film about the life of the late Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas. Mr. Gómez Carriles, a longtime friend of Mr. Arenas and a beneficiary of his estate, had given his blessing to the film and was credited as one of its screenwriters.

For his part, Mr. Schnabel had not only dedicated the film to Mr. Gómez Carriles-who was played in the movie by hunky Olivier Martinez and depicted assisting the AIDS-stricken Mr. Arenas’ suicide bid by suffocating him with a plastic bag-he had hired the Cuban immigrant. Instead of working two shifts making and delivering bread, Mr. Gómez Carriles got to work in the heady environment of Mr. Schnabel’s Greenwich Village studio, where characters like Dennis Hopper or art dealer Larry Gagosian might drop by. In his spare time, he even got to use Mr. Schnabel’s materials to create the art that, he said, he needed to create.

By the time Mr. Gómez Carriles sat down to write his letter of redemption, however, his relationship with Mr. Schnabel was about to disintegrate in an acid bath of anger and accusations, much of it coming from Mr. Gómez Carriles. On April 10, the Cuban artist, who said he was a political prisoner of Fidel Castro’s regime, was relieved of his job at Mr. Schnabel’s studio. And a few days later, he was being threatened with legal action by one of Mr. Schnabel’s attorneys for complaining about his treatment and branding Mr. Schnabel a “fraud” in the New York Post ‘s Page Six column.

After years of having to watch what he said in Cuba, Mr. Gómez Carriles seems determined to exercise his freedom of speech in New York. Though his letter of redemption made no mention of it, he told The Transom that before production began on Before Night Falls , Mr. Schnabel had allegedly promised to pay him $1.1 million for his work as a consultant to the film and his contribution as one of its screenwriters. Additionally, he’s claiming that Mr. Schnabel cut him off because he became jealous of the art that the Cuban expatriate was making in Mr. Schnabel’s Greenwich Village studio.

“Everything was fine until he started seeing my art,” Mr. Gómez Carriles said.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Schnabel’s camp contends that not only are Mr. Gómez Carriles’ claims preposterous, but they’re particularly ungrateful in light of the generosity that Mr. Schnabel has shown his former employee. Sources close to the artist and director said that Mr. Schnabel tried to put the struggling Mr. Gómez Carriles on his feet by giving him a job, lending him $80,000 (including a down payment for a 150-plus-acre homestead in Roscoe, N.Y.), allowing him the use of his art studio and materials, and even finding a lawyer to untangle Mr. Arenas’ complex estate.

False and Bitter

Mr. Schnabel’s attorney, Andrew Lee, called Mr. Gómez Carriles’ assertions the “false and bitter accusations of an ex-employee who is upset that the relationship was ended.

“He was not fired so that he wouldn’t be able to make art,” Mr. Lee said. “Julian hired him because he wanted to employ Lázaro’s skills. He trusted him and thought Lázaro was his friend. That relationship ended because Lázaro’s conduct became inconsistent with those beliefs of Julian’s.”

Mr. Schnabel’s attorney declined to cite any specific incidents or behavior to illustrate his comment, but some close to Mr. Schnabel contend that he and his family felt threatened by the 44-year-old Mr. Gómez Carriles. (Mr. Lee declined to comment on this.)

“I’m a poet, not Mike Tyson,” Mr. Gómez Carriles said with a laugh, when asked if he had ever threatened Mr. Schnabel.

Like Mike Tyson, however, Mr. Gómez Carriles is angry. And over a series of extended phone conversations-a brief chat with Mr. Gómez Carriles is virtually impossible-he expressed fury at his predicament, at having to find a construction job to feed his family, at having less time to create his art, and at Mr. Schnabel, who he said made him feel like “a trained monkey.”

“Everybody made money with Reinaldo. But me-I’m in the street,” said Mr. Gómez Carriles, who is a writer as well as a painter. “Everybody’s making art, but I can’t make art. I can only write some angry shit.”

Monetary claims and artistic merit aside, what’s most interesting about this split is that Mr. Schnabel and Mr. Gómez Carriles are not that different from each other. They’re both big guys with tremendous amounts of ambition, chutzpah, raw charisma and the need to be the center of attention. They just happen to be on opposite sides of the line that determines who is part of the Establishment and who is not. Mr. Gómez Carriles’ ambition different from Mr. Schnabel’s because it seems to be tethered to his belief-one that could only come from someone who has grown up in a totalitarian regime-that America is a place where freedom of expression knows no bounds.

According to Mr. Gómez Carriles, Mr. Arenas believed that the occasional offensiveness of unbridled expression is “the price you pay for freedom.” And he seems to have practiced what his late friend preached while in Mr. Schnabel’s employ.

Friction between the two men seems to have come to a head over artwork that Mr. Gómez Carriles created while working for Mr. Schnabel. Mr. Gómez Carriles claims to have started a new movement in art called Membranofonismo , in which the artwork doubles as a kind of musical instrument and is meant to be touched rather than just observed. Some of Mr. Gómez Carriles paintings, for instance, consist of blood-washed cowhide stretched so that it becomes a kind of gigantic drum.

The Membranofonismo art found an early fan in Jonathan Kutzin, a Rhode Island School of Design graduate, who also worked as an assistant to Mr. Schnabel for approximately four years. “To me, Lázaro’s art is a window to the future,” the 28-year-old Mr. Kutzin said. “The philosophy, the idea that a painting has a voice, is a logical addition to the history of painting. It’s making a painting more complete.”

Last fall, Mr. Kutzin decided to do something about his admiration of Mr. Gómez Carriles’ work. He attempted to interest a number of gallery owners in the Cuban artist’s oeuvre . Mr. Kutzin started at the top: One of his first appointments was with gallery owner Mary Boone, a dealer who tends to represent artists who are at the apex of their careers.

According to Mr. Kutzin, “Never before has an assistant of a major artist gone to a major gallery to talk about another artist. It was a major statement, and Julian didn’t like it.” Mr. Kutzin said that he also convinced another heavy hitter, Pace Wildenstein gallery director Peter Boris, to check out Mr. Gómez Carriles’ work. (Mr. Boris didn’t return a call from The Transom.)

Birth of a Movement

When Mr. Schnabel found that Mr. Kutzin had been approaching his esteemed art-world contacts on Mr. Gómez Carriles’ behalf, he called Mr. Kutzin on the carpet. But the art assistant was not deterred. Early this year, he appeared in a promotional film masquerading as a documentary about Mr. Gómez Carriles called Membranofonismo, Birth of a Movement , which was co-directed by another former assistant to Mr. Schnabel, Jeff Pickett.

In February, Mr. Kutzin said he sent copies of the finished film to Pace, Mr. Schnabel’s dealer Larry Gagosian, the artists Jeff Koons and Francesco Clemente, as well as collector Peter Brant, among others. Mr. Schnabel also eventually saw the film.

Needless to say, he wasn’t happy about Birth of a Movement , or the way in which it had been sent to the recipients. And one of those recipients said he could understand why. “I received art materials that I thought were from Julian, and they were not from Julian,” the source said, adding that the ploy seemed “unprofessional.”

“I was being resourceful,” Mr. Kutzin said, explaining that the packages came bearing the address of Mr. Schnabel’s studio. “But I wasn’t using Julian’s name.” In response, Mr. Lee told The Transom: “I know of at least one instance where this stuff was sent with a note saying, ‘From Julian.'”

When Mr. Schnabel found out what had happened, Mr. Kutzin said he hit the roof. (According to Mr. Lee, Mr. Schnabel dealt with his former employees “rationally.”) Mr. Gómez Carriles said that he and Mr. Schnabel had bumped heads over many things, artistic and otherwise, over the course of their five-year relationship-but after Mr. Schnabel learned about the documentary, “he was never the same. He said, ‘You can’t establish a movement.'”

Mr. Gómez Carriles responded with his March 8 letter of redemption, which he called “a moment of intellectual fun.” Mr. Schnabel did not see it that way, however. In a letter addressed to Mr. Gómez Carriles and dated April 10, Mr. Schnabel wrote: “Your letter is filled with much anger and resentment, as were your comments during our phone call-all of which, to me, is plainly unjustified.

“I have really thought about this a lot, and it is clear to me that you cannot work for me any longer,” Mr. Schnabel wrote. “However, out of concern for you and your family, my attorney, Tom Moore, will contact you with a transition plan for you.”

On the same day that the letter was dated, Mr. Kutzin said Mr. Schnabel told him that Mr. Gómez Carriles was going to be let go. Mr. Kutzin said that Mr. Schnabel also had a message for him. “He told me I couldn’t work there anymore because it was like having a spy [in the studio]. But he wanted me to keep working for the moment.” Mr. Kutzin said that he initially agreed to stay on, but, in the middle of showing the paintings to a group of Mr. Schnabel’s clients, he decided to quit immediately. In front of the collectors, “I said ‘Julian, I cannot do this. I will not work for an interior decorator any longer,'” Mr. Kutzin said. “I said, ‘I believe the best art you made was when you met Lázaro-the movie-and now I believe you are censoring this man.”

At least initially, Mr. Schnabel decided to soften the blow of Mr. Gómez Carriles’ termination.

A letter from another of Mr. Schnabel’s attorneys, Thomas Moore (who is a partner at the firm of Proskauer Rose, where Mr. Lee works), also dated April 10, indicates that Mr. Schnabel was willing to give Mr. Gómez Carriles $5,000 a month in pay for the next four months, pay his 2001 income taxes and cancel the alleged $80,000 loan at the rate of $10,000 a year.

“Julian was very generous and fair to this guy,” said one source close to Mr. Schnabel. Others noted that Mr. Schnabel enlisted fellow artists Mr. Koons and Mr. Clemente to write recommendations for a grant for Mr. Gómez Carriles, which he did not get. They also said that Mr. Schnabel got attorney Michael Ward Stout-who represents the estate of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, among other artists-to straighten out Mr. Arenas’ complicated but not particularly flush estate, which led to Mr. Gómez Carriles getting approximately $30,000.

A condition of the offer made by Mr. Moore was that “both Julian and you would promise not to say or do anything in public that insults, demeans or degrades the other, or that divulges confidential information.”

I don’t hate you

In a letter to Mr. Schnabel dated April 12, Mr. Gómez Carriles seemed to apologize to his former employer. “There is no fight left in me,” he wrote. And here Mr. Gómez Carriles seemed to be appealing to the artist in Mr. Schnabel: “I found in you a heart of compassion. I wrote and said things to you, it was a release, and a celebration that I could, without punishment. I don’t hate you. I admire you. I need you. I am haunted by my constant out [sic] lashing of thoughts.”

It wasn’t long before Mr. Gómez Carriles lashed out again, however. In the April 15 edition of the New York Post ‘s Page Six column, he called Mr. Schnabel a “fraud.”

That same day, Mr. Moore responded, withdrawing the settlement offer that he had outlined in his previous letter and threatening legal action if Mr. Gómez Carriles continued to scream to the press. “For the sake of clarity: your relationship with Mr. Schnabel is over,” Mr. Moore wrote.

Mr. Gómez Carriles’ claims that Mr. Schnabel owes him money-he said that the $80,000 Mr. Schnabel is claiming as a loan is really part of the $1.1 million he had been promised-are going to be tough to prove. Before Night Falls was a small-budget picture that, according to the Internet Movie Database, has grossed a little over $4 million to date. And Mr. Gómez Carriles doesn’t seem to have any documentation that he was ever promised such an amount. Drafts of his agreement to serve as a consultant to the film put his fee at $25,000 plus 1 percent of the producer’s profits, which is considered a sucker’s bet in the film business.

Once again, Mr. Gómez Carriles has Mr. Kutzin backing him up. “From the moment I met Lázaro, he said he was going to be a millionaire because of the film,” Mr. Kutzin said, although he also admitted that he never heard Mr. Schnabel make mention of what Mr. Gómez Carriles was paid for his work on Before Night Falls .

Mr. Kutzin also agrees with Mr. Gómez Carriles’ assertion about Mr. Schnabel’s feelings toward his art. “He’s jealous,” Mr. Kutzin said, adding that Mr. Schnabel spent “nine months … trying to convince me that Lázaro’s art was not as good as it is. He said that my belief in Lázaro’s art wasn’t going to get me anywhere.”

And what does Ms. Boone, who has seen the Membranofonismo art, think? Ms. Boone declined to discuss the brouhaha between Mr. Schnabel and his former assistants. But she did offer one comment in response to the claim that Mr. Schnabel is jealous of Mr. Gómez Carriles. “I can tell you that’s ridiculous,” she said.

But Mr. Kutzin remains a convert. During the weekdays, he said he’s working with Mr. Gómez Carriles and donating all of his salary so that the Cuban expat can continue to make art. Though some in Mr. Schnabel’s camp privately wonder what made Mr. Kutzin drink Mr. Gómez Carriles’ Kool-Aid, the RISD graduate referenced Picasso to make a point. “When Picasso invented Cubism … the Old Masters opposed it because their art became a part of history, and the new art went into play. That is being repeated here,” he said. “Lázaro is the future. Julian represents the Establishment. Lázaro will succeed.”