inside gus van sant's major new retrospective

Today, Cinémathèque Française opens a landmark exhibition exploring the American icon’s three-decade-spanning career.

by Emily Manning
13 April 2016, 5:25pm

Gus Van Sant might be the Patron Saint of Portland, but the iconic artist is having a serious moment in Paris. Today, Cinémathèque Française — the storied French organization home to one of the world's largest film archives — opens a major exhibition and retrospective. The show revisits not just Van Sant's incendiary and impossibly wide-ranging films like My Own Private Idaho and Milk, but also his entire artmaking practice, which spans from photography and painting to original musical compositions and exciting collaborations with multidisciplinary artists, such as writer William S. Burroughs, photographer Bruce Weber, and rock god David Bowie. "With neither a banner nor a manifesto, he secretly, quietly spearheads and upholds a form of artistic freedom that shines outward from the fringes," notes the retrospective's curator, Matthieu Orléan.

River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho by Gus Van Sant (1991) © Warner Bros Inc.

The exhibition is a truly all-encompassing journey. It charts the development of Van Sant's photographic practice, collecting the Polaroid photographs he snapped of Drew Barrymore, Nicole Kidman, and Keanu Reeves during the mid-80s on the sets of some of his earliest films, including Mala Noche and Drugstore Cowboy. The exhibition also explores Van Sant's paintings, including early collages he made during his studies at the Rhode Island School of Design in the mid-70s, as well as features his large-scale watercolor portraits, which were more recently exhibited at the Gagosian Gallery. "He paints his childhood home. He paints the landscapes that shaped him. He paints the obscure objects of his desire. He paints his icons. He paints his demons," notes Orléan. By broadening the scope from Van Sant's 16 feature-length films, we can better understand the universe that shapes them.

Gus Van Sant, Polaroids, 1983-1999 © Gus Van Sant. 

Of course, these films play a central role in the exhibition. Between April 13 and May 28, Cinémathèque Française will screen all of Van Sant's films (save The Sea of Trees, which will open in Paris at the end of April) created over the past three decades: from Elephant to Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Gerry to Good Will Hunting. Part of the exhibition will focus on the role music plays in Van Sant's practice, tunes like k. d. lang's country compositions for Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and Michael Pitt's original tracks for Last Days. In addition to Van Sant's non-conformist cult feature films, the institution also gave the director carte blanche to program his own selection of screenings. These include Robert Redford's Ordinary People, Bernardo Bertolucci's La Luna, Todd Haynes' Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, and Harmony Korine's Julien Donkey Boy.

Michael Pitt in Last Days by Gus Van Sant (2005) © HBO 

Cinémathèque Française is also hosting a series of lectures throughout the duration of the retrospective. The first of these is a master class with the artist himself, which will be held tomorrow night at 7pm, followed by a signing of the exhibition's catalogue. Other lectures promise to explore the "ontology of sounds" that score Van Sant's work, and how Beat Generation writers and ideologies shape his films. Another lecture, "River Phoenix: An Angel," will revisit the life of the late actor who "[embodied] the quintessential Van Sant character." Cinémathèque Française has also collaborated with French designer agnes b. to produce a series of limited-edition t-shirt commemorating the artist.

Gus Van Sant Untitled, 2010. © Gus Van Sant. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery 

This definitive collection of works and scholarship is a remarkable opportunity for those who wish to immerse themselves in Van Sant's complex world. He's an artist who's powerfully probed America's dream of youthful freedom by exploring the gritty facets of its landscape, cultural history, and constructions of masculinity — often confronting connections between sexuality and violence. Van Sant's work is chiefly important to understanding our nation and ourselves.

'Gus Van Sant' runs April 13 - July 31, 2016 at La Cinémathèque Française. More information here

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Alicia Miles and John Robinson in Elephant by Gus Van Sant (2003) © HBO 

Jake Miller and Gabe Nevins in Paranoid Park by Gus Van Sant (2007) © Patrick Scott Green 

Gus Van Sant, Polaroids, 1983-1999 © Gus Van Sant. 

Mala Noche by Gus Van Sant (1986) © Sawtooth Film Company 


Text Emily Manning
Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho by Gus Van Sant (1991) © Warner Bros Inc. 

Gus Van Sant
cinémathèque française