Julian Schnabel--Artist as Bad Boy

" Around 1980 the art world became much more corporate and big-business tactics began to be used, and Julian was blamed for a lot of that. But he really did open things up for other artists. "

--Lisa Phillips, curator, Whitney Museum " Julian's been called the artist everyone loves to hate, but I guarantee that when his show opens here it will be the biggest opening we've ever had--and people will stand around saying, 'I hate this work.' " --Stuart Regen, director, HoffmanBorman Gallery

The only thing everyone agrees on when it comes to Julian Schnabel is that it's essential to have an opinion about him. An audacious young painter who skyrocketed to stardom in the early '80s, Schnabel reintroduced the grand, romantic gesture to an art world starving on a diet of '70s Minimalism, and grateful collectors ravenous for high drama feasted at his table. The fact that Schnabel was a flamboyant bon vivant who carried himself more like a pop star than a painter made him an attractive piece of work to the press, which anointed him as the first certifiable art star of the decade.

An outspoken man of provocative opinions, Schnabel titillated the press with his stormy relationships, and his feuds--with dealers Mary Boone and Leo Castelli, and artists Robert Longo, Eric Fischl and David Salle, among others--are well documented. Schnabel resisted, for example, being included in a 1985 Calendar article on young New York artists because, he said, he didn't want to be "corralled with the other jerks."

Spicy new Schnabel stories are forever winding through the grapevine, and all that chat doesn't hurt business--his estimated income is in the neighborhood of $750,000 a year. It seems, however, that Schnabel's paintings themselves are often obscured by the shadow cast by their maker.

"Julian's been dealt with more as a phenomenon than as a painter and he hasn't had much serious critical response," says the Whitney Museum's Lisa Phillips. "The press has focused on his life style and personality, both of which are much more radical than his painting, which has a real connection to history. Most people aren't aware of the range of style and subject in his work, or his incredible virtuosity with materials."

Inquiring minds will get a chance to re-evaluate Schnabel when a retrospective of his work opens at the Whitney Museum on Nov. 6. Originating at the Whitechapel Museum in London where it was curated by Nicholas Serota, the show will travel to Houston and San Francisco after its stint at the Whitney. Coinciding with the Whitney opening will be the publication of Schnabel's memoirs, "C.V.J.: Nicknames of Maitre D's, & other Excerpts From Life." The Schnabel blitz will be represented locally with his first one-man show in Los Angeles since 1982, which will be on view at the HoffmanBorman Gallery beginning Saturday.

Originally scheduled to be at the Daniel Weinberg Gallery, the show abruptly changed venues when Weinberg decided Schnabel's work wasn't up to snuff. "When Julian's on, he's absolutely brilliant, but he can be uneven," says Weinberg. "The paintings he wanted to show were nowhere near what he's capable of, so I felt it would be better for both the gallery and for Julian to pass on the exhibition."

Dealers and critics have always been sharply divided on the subject of Schnabel's work. His 1982 L.A. debut at the Margo Levin Gallery, for instance, was largely received as a disappointment. "Wan and minor-keyed," wrote Times' Art Critic William Wilson--an opinion echoed by Time magazine's Robert Hughes and the New Yorker's Calvin Tomkins, both of whom disliked Schnabel's work from the git-go.

However, for every critical dissection of Schnabel's work, there are reams of outraged prose attacking his personal style. In wading through the volumes that have been written about him, one is struck by the fact that people object to Schnabel not so much for his work but because he somehow violates the mysterious code of behavior that governs the art world. Dozens of lesser artists are allowed to crank out mediocre product in peace, but when it comes to Schnabel, the umpire invariably cries "Foul!"

"I do what I want and I guess that makes some people nervous," says the 36-year-old artist during a conversation at his cavernous Manhattan studio.

During a visit to Schnabel's home turf, the arguments for and against him are easy to see. His studio is like a movie set--dozens of people arrive, depart and scurry about carrying out instructions from the maestro. Noted photographer Duane Michaels is on hand photographing the Schnabel empire for a spread in House and Garden, arrangements are being made for Schnabel's departure for Europe the following day, and the phone rings constantly. It would all seem a bit self-important but for the fact that many of the paintings lining the studio walls are undeniably quite beautiful.

Schnabel himself is the very soul of graciousness. Afflicted with a nasty cold, he is nonetheless generous with his time, candid and relaxed. Clad in a T-shirt, black jeans, denim jacket and steel-tipped shoes, his clothing is a sophisticated retooling of the working-class aesthetic, and it says a lot about who he is.

"Julian's background is fascinating," notes David Rosenthal, the Random House editor who worked with Schnabel on "C.V.J." "You don't meet that many successful artists who grew up in Brownsville, Tex., being surfer kings."

Rosenthal's observation is recounted the following day during a conversation with a New York painter who snaps: "That Texas surfer bit is a total exaggeration. He's the son of a sausage dealer from Brooklyn!" (As with all the other artists who took potshots at Schnabel, this one didn't want his name used.)

Schnabel is, in fact, from Brooklyn, but he did spend a good portion of his life in Texas. More interesting than his correct birthplace, however, is why people get so up in arms over these niggling details.

Many people--artists in particular--reinvent themselves over the course of their lives, but Schnabel's persona is deemed politically incorrect by many art world insiders. Why? Perhaps because despite the fact that he was very much in sync with the world at large (that's why he got rich), he was out of sync with the art world zeitgeist during his ascension to stardom.

One of the generation of baby-boom artists fed on mass media, Schnabel responded to that information overload with an emotionality at odds with the cool, analytic approach favored by the hard-core avant-garde. Prone to retreating into history, Schnabel is a highly romantic fellow who spends the bulk of his time at his rambling estate in Brideghampton--remade to resemble an Italian ruin.

Described by a New York artist as being "totally into that moth-eaten myth of the tortured genius," Schnabel--both his life and his work--represents an ideology that the art world seems to find embarrassing at the moment.

"I don't see anything wrong with making art out of my life," Schnabel recently told Newsday, even as he insisted with his next breath that what he truly wants is for people to focus on his work. With his position in the art firmament in the midst of a major transition, he may get his wish. There's a new generation of artists--the Appropriationists and Neo-Geo crowd--currently outraging the critics, thus allowing the media dust around Schnabel to begin to settle. "People are finally ready to look at Julian's work," says Lisa Phillips.

It's a moment Schnabel has been working toward for 14 years. Accepted into the Whitney Museum's Independent Study Program in 1973, Schnabel left Brownsville for Manhattan where he spent a confused year testing the waters of the art world and driving a cab. In 1974 he returned to Texas--Houston this time--where he spent two years working as a cook and painting, then returned to New York in 1976.

Continuing to support himself as a cook, he began meeting the right people, talking himself up in a big way and getting noticed. Holly Solomon included him in a group show in 1977, then Mary Boone--26 at the time and just launching her gallery--offered him a solo exhibition that didn't come to pass until February of 1979. The show sold reasonably well so in November of the same year, Boone gave him a second show. It was then that he introduced the style of plate painting--massive low reliefs made of smashed crockery embedded in a viscous swamp of paint--that generated the initial Schnabel frenzy.

"Everything seemed to change," Schnabel recalls of that period in "C.V.J." "People wanted to buy my paintings. They had gone up very quickly in price. Enthusiasts appeared, and with them, hecklers." Esteemed dealer Leo Castelli then agreed to jointly represent Schnabal with Boone and all hell really broke loose.

Says Schnabel: "It was an honor to be the first artist Leo had taken into his gallery in 12 years, but this single act of acceptance placed me in the middle of a storm of jealousy that has not abated. There were so many supporters that it encouraged antagonists, many of whom had never even seen the paintings themselves."

Schnabel felt then--and continues to feel--that many of the people with opinions on his work never really looked at it, and it is his work, rather than the politics of the art world, that he's most keen to discuss.

"We can talk about my relationship with this or that dealer, but really, who cares?" he says. "If people want to know what I'm up to they should look at the work. At the same time, the work is not about me," he cautions, "nor is it Expressionism. It's about things that exist in the world, things we might have to face. I'm attracted to extremes, but I don't think my work is about heroism. Many of the paintings are simply notes to various people who showed me something or sparked something in me."

Though Schnabel denies that his work is heroic, it is frequently--and understandably--described that way. Saints and martyrs abound in his pictures, most of which are dauntingly large and appear to chronicle some kind of holy struggle.

Employing a wide variety of styles--from the ragged snarl of early Willem de Kooning to the unbridled zest of Franz Kline--Schnabel speaks in grand, Shakespearean tones. The gestures are always expansive in these ambitious pictures, and the figures he depicts often look to be in a state of torment evocative of Francis Bacon. Painting on such unlikely surfaces as velvet, shag carpeting and corduroy, with unwieldy materials that include plates, wax, fiberglass and cowhides, Schnabel is a high-risk artist who likes to stack the deck against himself then bet the house.

Schnabel comments that "a fixation on death informs all my painting" and religious issues--persecution, sacrifice, redemption--do seem to be at the heart of his work.

"I'm Jewish and I went to a Marist Brothers' school when I was 15, but I'm not religious in the conventional sense and I don't go to temple or church," he says. "Whatever one's upbringing, the notion of religion has an immense effect on people both positively and negatively."

"I doubt that Julian is personally deeply religious," says Phillips, who's spent a lot of time with him and his work in the course of installing the show at the Whitney. "But living in Texas may have had a lot to do with the religious element in his work. Religious art is the central art of Mexico, and Mexican culture is very much a part of Texas."

At odds with the raw, primitive thread in his work--many of his paintings have the quality of folk art memento mori --is a generous dollop of languorous European Classicism. Schnabel favors a classically muted palette, and his paintings are infused with an elegant sense of deep space appropriate to the larger-than-life figures--Artaud, Milton, Dostoyevski--they revolve around.

Some observers find these European affectations objectionable in an American artist. To that, Schnabel replies "When you look at a Van Gogh do you think about the fact that he was European? An American can feel the time of day and the quality of light Van Gogh describes without ever having been to Europe or knowing anything about European painting. I don't have such academic, pedantic notions of my job as an artist."

Though the carping will no doubt continue, the climate does seem to be growing more hospitable to Schnabel's work.

Early returns on his book, however, have been less than kind. An excerpt published in Vanity Fair in August was roundly trashed, while Vogue magazine reviewed the book as "a sophomoric diary, the snow job of the year from the Mr. Ego of '80s art."

The negative reviews of the book center on the notion of a man of Schnabel's age--oh! callow youth!--writing his memoirs. Schnabel, however, describes the book as "not an autobiography or a memoir--it's just some notes on the job. I wrote the book because I thought I had something to say about painting that might be of value to young people. Rather than have an art critic write a text for a coffee-table book nobody would read, I decided to write it myself. Personally, I'm interested in hearing what artists have to say."

So, apparently, is Random House, which is doing an initial print run on the book of 10,000 copies (a large edition for a book of this nature, particularly one with a price tag of $75).

"Julian's an artist of such substance that there's no question that a book on his work is merited," says Random's Rosenthal. "He has a unique perspective on the New York art world because he's been a major player for the past 10 years. Beyond that, he has talent as a writer. He has a direct, rather wry writing style, a good sense of humor, and he manages to explain the theories behind his work in a non-academic way. Parts of the book are a little philosophical and cosmic but at least it's engaging."

"C.V.J." is certainly all those things. "Now lets talk about death and stains on your pants that got there by accident," writes Schnabel on the books' concluding page, "and being alone and sucking on a homemade Popsicle whose short frozen life you watch melt on the bathroom floor."

"As far as my contribution as editor, Julian had a clear idea of what he wanted to do," Rosenthal says. "He never came begging for advice and he was rather headstrong about things, but he is a reasonable person and we never had stupid arguments. Reports of Julian's mania are grossly exaggerated."

On that point, Schnabel heartily concurs.

"The press is so misleading," he says. "I mean, I don't know what people imagine that I spend the day doing!"

OK, I'll bite. What do you spend the day doing?

"What's a typical day like? I'm out in the country and I paint in the backyard. I don't read, watch TV or exercise too much, I go surfing when there are waves, and I spend a lot of time with my three kids. I love going to the movies and I'm always listening to music (Neil Young is blasting at the moment). I'm very much a creature of habit and I see the same people all the time. I have met some new people since I've become more known, people whose work I've admired, and that's one of the great privileges of public notoriety.

"Some of my friends are painters, but having a dialogue with other artists isn't crucial for me because I paint for myself. A number of my friends are actors. Great actors have the capacity to push themselves to incredible extremes and I admire their ability to let go of everything. It's a mysterious process and I don't know if I could do it myself.

"Dennis Hopper is a great actor who happens to be a friend of mine. Dennis has pursued a particular kind of role not because they're commercial roles, nor does he do it for the dough; he does it because he has a need to behave in a particular kind of way and I respect that."

Schnabel's friends speak highly of him in return.

"A sweet and loyal friend," says Arne Glimcher, Schnabel's dealer at the Pace Gallery.

"Julian's a flamboyant person and he's not easy to work for," says Schnabel's assistant of the past two years, Sylvie Ball, "but I really enjoy my job. I'm a painter myself and I've learned a lot by watching him work. I've also learned a lot about the work of many other artists that Julian admires. As you probably know, his opinions are often very different from mainstream opinions."

Notes Schnabel's friend Don Van Vliet (better known as musician Captain Beefheart): "Julian called me out of the blue wanting me to perform at a party he was having at the Mudd Club but by that point I'd quit doing music. I told him I was painting and he offered to help me--which he did. He's been very good to me." (Schnabel was instrumental in arranging exhibitions of Van Vliet's work at the Mary Boone Gallery, the Michael Werner Gallery in Cologne, Germany, and the Waddington Gallery in London.)

Such selflessness is the very antithesis of Schnabel's public persona, but he claims to give little thought to such things.

"I don't care if I'm understood or not," he says. "Am I happy with my public image? As Frankie Pentangeli would say, 'Yeah, sure.' I wasn't totally a victim of the press and I did have a hand in shaping how I was depicted, but I never consciously manipulated the press and I've never felt I am the way I'm portrayed as being.

"There's been a lot of jealousy and resentment of the success I've had. You do things a certain way and people think you're taking their spot. Most of what was written was bull and things were very bad for a while but things are different now and are still in the process of changing. People finally seem ready to look at the work.

"But don't get me wrong--I'm well aware that I have no right to complain about anything. I haven't had it very rough, in fact I've been damn lucky. Of course, I think you make your own luck, and I did make the paintings, but a lot of it was just standing in the right place at the right time."

Yes, Schnabel has been lucky, and yes, he is talented--some of his paintings are very good indeed. But the X factor that's enabled him to parley his luck and talent into a very big, colorful career is his gift of gab. Schnabel's insulted the right people all down the line and proclaimed himself a genius every step of the way.

As critic Robert Hughes says: "When someone makes such a claim there are only three broad choices: that he is a fool, a fraud or the real thing." Schnabel looks to be a bit of all three.

'I do what I want and I guess that makes some people nervous.'

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World