Filmmaker Gus Van Sant first saw the Mona Lisa when he was 11. Sixty years later she is the inspiration for his paintings


In 1963, an 11-year-old Gus Van Sant traveled from Connecticut with his painter grandmother to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the Mona Lisa on her tour to New York. They waited outside the museum in the bitter cold, then faced the intrusive crowds to get a glimpse of the famously small painting. After that glimpse, he understood why some people say life is more about the journey than the destination.

Despite this stunning view of the Mona Lisa, the filmmaker revisits the painting in his own work six decades later. A series of new paintings dedicated to this pillar of Western art is now on view at Vito Schnabel’s gallery in St. Moritz, Switzerland (until February 19). With no crowds to block his view, Van Sant has broken down the iconic silhouette of the Mona Lisa into pointillist squares that resemble the pixels of a digital image.

“I’m interested in how computers work with a multicolor pointillism instead of the typical four main colors in screenprinting,” Van Sant tells Artnet News. “Obliterating a well-known character helps me play with colors without worrying about the familiarity of the subject.”

The idea of ​​using Leonardo da Vinci’s Renaissance masterpiece came to the artist through a Lego commercial in which the painting appeared broken up into 400 different colors. The image reminded Van Sant of Salvador Dalí’s photomosaic lithograph Lincoln in Dalivision from 1976, “and how the pointillist aesthetic of computerized iconography similarly consists of representative colored squares.”

Gus van Sant, Mona Lisa Gold #1 (2021). ©️ Gus van Sant; Photo by Flying Studio; Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Vito Schnabel.

Van Sant limited his materials to gold, copper and silver leaf, as well as oil and colored pencil. He views each of the 12 paintings in the series as “a different journey from concept to execution”, determined by the discrepancy between his handwriting and its printed reference.

“As much as I tried to stick to the print, the color combination of the squares defined the procession,” he said. “My references had fixed color spectra, but as soon as I painted, say, a mid-green, yellow-green followed, and then came only yellow.” Results vary in rendering the unmistakable likeness of the sitter, from immediately recognizable color contrasts with oils to rather pixelated abstractions in gold. This exercise – as he calls it, “sticking to the plan and not” – coincides with a move to incorporate technicolor aspects of filmmaking into painting.

Cinema, particularly the dingy and gilded glamor of Tinsel Town, served as narrative inspiration for Van Sant’s previous exhibition with Vito Schnabel in New York in 2019. Unlike the regimented geometry of the new works, these watercolors on linen loosely featured an enlarged nude man , roaming Hollywood Boulevard. The alienation of the anonymous character was reminiscent of some of the director’s iconic protagonists such as Bob Hughes (played by Matt Dillon). Drugstore Cowboy and Mike Waters (played by the late River Phoenix) in My own private Idaho.

Van Sant was drawn to what he called the “freak show” nature of the Los Angeles street: “Stuntmen dressed as superheroes mixed with tourists in front of the Chinese theater standing next to homeless people.”

Gus Van Sant, Untitled (Hollywood 16) (2018-19).  © Gus van Sant.  Courtesy of the artist and Vito Schnabel Projects.

Gus van Sant, Untitled (Hollywood 16) (2018-19). © Gus van Sant. Courtesy of the artist and Vito Schnabel Projects.

While the busy man set against the glittering urban chaos reflects Van Sant’s decades of work behind the camera, his career in fine art stretches back to his teenage years. He cites his high school art teacher, Robert LaVign, as his first artistic role model – “a dynamic and confident gay man in Connecticut in the 1960s”. After winning first prize at Darien High School’s annual art show for a painting of three police officers washed in gold leaf, he opened a gallery with a friend at age 16 to sell their paintings as well as LaVign’s.

In 1970, Van Sant enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design to study film and painting. After the founding year, however, a film department assistant warned him that if he wanted to be successful, he had to “eat film, dream and sleep in the film department.” and he bid farewell to formal training in painting.

In the 1970s, a time when disciplines were merging, Van Sant moved to New York, where he was exposed to both art and film at institutions such as MoMA. He bought his first 8mm camera in a shop below the museum’s subway station. “At that time, media wasn’t strictly defined and visual artists like Stan Brakhage were making films,” he said. He, too, approached the role as a kind of canvas, drawing or scratching over the film in order to make experimental short films with friends.

Van Sant’s hands-on authorial approach to filmmaking and a string of successful films further overshadowed his Engagement at the easel until the late 2000s. Aside from sporadic attempts, such as a series of tornado-swept desert landscapes that he often gives as gifts to colleagues on film sets, it was not until 2011 that the artist officially returned to painting. Gagosian’s Beverly Hills space had featured James Franco – who Van Sant had directed in 2008 on the gay political drama milk– a retrospective he did that was inspired by Van Sant’s film My own private Idaho. At Franco’s invitation, the director suggested showing his art as a salable component of the exhibition.

Installation view by Gus Van Sant: Mona Lisa, Galerie Vito Schnabel, St. Moritz, December 27, 2021 – February 19, 2022); Artwork © Gus Van Sant; Photo by Stefan Altenburger; Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Vito Schnabel.

For this return to painting, Van Sant turned a barn into a studio and made eight watercolors of cute young men. “They were an extension of what I was doing in the ’60s, with braggarts staring straight at the viewer in defined outfits, like cops in uniform or turn-of-the-century women in Victorian hats,” he said. A few years ago, Van Sant showed Vito Schnabel his paintings at Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg’s Oscar party, and after a visit to his home studio, the dealer offered him an exhibition in his gallery.

Now his latest work stretches even further back in his history, to another character who “stares straight at the viewer”, perhaps prompted by that childhood pilgrimage to the Mona Lisa so many decades ago.


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