‘Can an image be architecture?’ asks artist Julian Schnabel in his Manhattan studio. ‘I spent a lot of time making things into objects so that they could receive whatever I was going to draw on them. At a certain point I realised that imagery could also be architecture because there is always this battle between what is literal and what is pictorial.’

This was one of several driving thoughts behind his most recent works for an exhibition at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor – Schnabel’s first on the West Coast in over 30 years. ‘Julian Schnabel: Symbols of Actual Life’ greets visitors with a six painted tarps affixed to the neoclassical building in the museum’s open-air courtyard. Each tarp measures 7.3 by 7.3m and will weather the elements during the show’s four-month run.

Schnabel found the tarps in Mexico and painted them en plein air in his Montauk studio, ensuring that they would hold up to the foggy San Francisco climate. ‘I don’t think they will change that much, but I welcome whatever will happen. Because what do they say – if it doesn’t kill you it will make you stronger?’ the artist quips.

Untitled, 2017, by Julian Schnabel, gesso on found fabric

Untitled, 2017, by Julian Schnabel, gesso on found fabric. Photography: Tom Powel Imaging. © Julian Schnabel Studio

Inside the building, eight of Schnabel’s paintings from three different periods surround the iconic sculptures by Auguste Rodin. Schnabel worked with Max Hollein, director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, to select abstract pieces painted on Mexican market stall canopies (2016); goat paintings from The Sky of Illimitableness (2012); painted Egyptian felucca sails from the series Jane Birkin (1990); and three sculptures from the 1980s. All three series feature a mix of found and created elements, from the original colour of the market stall canopies to the Revolutionary War-inspired wallpaper behind the goats from The Sky of Illimitableness.

‘I thought that the different shapes of those Rodin sculptures were echoed in these shapes even if that wasn’t nameable,’ Schnabel explains. ‘I don’t feel like every picture that I make needs to be something you can recognise.’ And – even including the imposing goats – the soft triangular forms, curving arches, and sweeping lines do in fact play off of Rodin’s corporeal artworks, creating a visual conversation and elevating the meaning of the abstract works.

The show kicks off a busy year for Schnabel, with an upcoming biopic on Vincent Van Gogh, At Eternity’s Gate, and shows at London’s Pace Gallery and Paris’ Musee d’Orsay, leading several publications (including The New York Times) to declare a renaissance. ‘I was making movies and doing other things, but I don’t think I was dead,’ said Schnabel, in response. ‘I’m just always looking to put paint down in ways that I have never seen.’