Schnabel Emerges as a Celebrity Artist Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Self-confidence, extravagance, aggressive marketing and publicity, and finally talent made Julian Schnabel one of the first superstars of the art world in the 1980’s.

Summary of Event

Before 1980, almost no one outside Manhattan had heard of Julian Schnabel. In the decade of the 1980’s, however, Schnabel became a household name in art circles extending far beyond the SoHo art district. His often vast neoexpressionist paintings captured the imagination of an art public that seemed weary of the cool look of minimalism or just confused by the multitude of trends in the pluralistic 1970’s. Art;painting [kw]Schnabel Emerges as a Celebrity Artist (1980’s) [kw]Celebrity Artist, Schnabel Emerges as a (1980’s) [kw]Artist, Schnabel Emerges as a Celebrity (1980’s) Art;painting [g]North America;1980’s: Schnabel Emerges as a Celebrity Artist[03870] [g]United States;1980’s: Schnabel Emerges as a Celebrity Artist[03870] [c]Arts;1980’s: Schnabel Emerges as a Celebrity Artist[03870] Schnabel, Julian Boone, Mary Castelli, Leo

Schnabel’s paintings were ambitious, inhabited by unusual, mysterious images and figures that evoked a broad range of references, from traditional religious art to popular culture. His picture planes were broken by gouges or jutting panels and heavily built-up surfaces of encaustic (a kind of painting in which, by heating or burning in wax, the colors are rendered permanent) and paint. The artist used materials that ranged from pony hide to velvet, from smashed plates to real antlers, and his works grew in scale over time. Some critics have stated that Schnabel reinvented the art world; others have asserted that his work became fashionable with collectors for reasons the work does not make clear and that he is a symbol of regression. In any event, art critics could not ignore either Schnabel’s personality or his work.

Schnabel’s joint show at the galleries of Mary Boone and Leo Castelli in the spring of 1981 was one of the most talked-about art events of the season. He showed thirteen paintings, dating from 1976 to 1981, that combined materials and objects—including wood, gold leaf, and real antlers—more boldly than ever. They were packed with religious imagery and resonated of sources as disparate as abstract expressionism and motion pictures. They included plate paintings, which one critic referred to as “macho.” Only much later did critics point out the significance of the plate paintings in Schnabel’s view of the relations between the self and history, specifically his view of the fragmentation of a postmodern culture. Schnabel’s work, in fact, was later seen as a mingling of modernism (progress and continuity) and postmodernism (fragmentation and discontinuity). The show also included a series of huge works (up to 150 square feet in size) painted on velvet, one of which, called Death, Death (Schnabel) was termed “quite unforgettable.”

The show grabbed attention in other respects as well. It was completely sold out before it opened, according to Boone, and the labels posted beside the thirteen works gave not only their titles but the names of the collectors who had bought them. This unorthodox display was the target of much criticism. Boone defended the labeling, contending that the paintings were already in private collections and that those collectors were gracious enough to lend them and should receive credit. They were collectors whose names could hardly hurt an artist’s career—they included Morton Neumann of Chicago, Peter Ludwig, and Philip Niarchos. The prices ranged from $9,000 to $35,000, for the massive velvet Understanding Self-Hate. Understanding Self-Hate (Schnabel)

Beginning with that first major show in 1981, Schnabel enjoyed rapid commercial success, engineered in part by a shrewd young dealer, Mary Boone. Then came the patriarch of New York art dealers, Leo Castelli, who took on Schnabel as his first new artist in a decade. Some of the most prestigious American and European collectors of contemporary art bought Schnabel’s paintings.

Although a number of artists of Schnabel’s generation (or slightly older) were also successful—these include Susan Rothenberg, Neil Jenney, Jonathan Borofsky, Judy Pfaff, Bryan Hunt, Robert Longo, and Cindy Sherman—the focus on Schnabel was unusually acute. A tidal wave of publicity attended his emergence and, some say, helped to foster it. A feverish sense of scarcity of Schnabel’s work was created by reports that his shows sold out before they opened and that collectors were waiting in line to purchase his work. His prices skyrocketed: The top price for a painting in 1981 was $40,000, up from $3,000 three years earlier. Schnabel was covered not only by the usual New York critics but by The New Yorker and Newsweek. Even Rolling Stone Rolling Stone (magazine) published an article on him. When the SoHo News ran a story on emerging New York artists, Schnabel’s picture graced the cover, a portrait of an artist of serious demeanor, whose dark eyes met the camera with a direct gaze.

In the early 1980’s, Schnabel rode the crest of popular attention and believed that he could use the recognition as poetic license to do whatever he chose. As the decade wore on, however, he increasingly complained about his celebrity status and the lack of attention paid to his paintings. He began to retreat from the press and attempted to focus on his art rather than on the critical controversies surrounding him.


Julian Schnabel and his work helped to shape the climate and terms in which art was discussed in the 1980’s. Because “success” and attention came early to Schnabel, it is sometimes overlooked that the very paintings that changed the vision of twentieth century art were born of a mood of opposition to established ways of seeing.

In the early 1970’s, the studios of many young painters of Schnabel’s generation were filled with canvases that paid homage to Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt and reflected the examples of Robert Ryman and Brice Marden. Schnabel was innovative in that he sought other models and, although for a short period the surface quality of his paintings owed something to Marden’s use of oil and encaustic, he began to look to Europe rather than to the United States as a grounding for his work.

This distinct shift, many years ahead of the critics and the art market of which he is so often regarded as being merely the product, is one of the main strengths of his art. It continued to distinguish his work from that of other American artists of his generation. Early in his career, Schnabel had been interested in the work of the German expatriate Richard Lindner. Later, in seeking out a European approach, he took a characteristically singular course. Rather than choose the German expressionists, Schnabel decided to follow the example of Cy Twombly in Italy and, slightly later, of Joseph Beuys in Düsseldorf. From the viewpoint of New York in the mid-1970’s, such choices must have seemed eccentric, yet in Europe Schnabel had discovered an art in which allusion could play a significant role.

The art market’s adulation of Schnabel and the critics’ frequent hostility toward him can be viewed as two sides of the same coin. Schnabel has been received as a champion of the resurgence of modernism, highly regarded by the art market, and implicitly as a destroyer of postmodernism, highly regarded by many art critics.

Modernism experienced a resurgence in 1980. In the art world, this resurgence centered on so-called neoexpressionist painting, which was received as the polar opposite of postmodern art. Schnabel in particular received attention as a neoexpressionist. The extreme intensity of feeling about him as an individual, or rather about his conspicuously successful career, derived from an exaggerated sense that his status as a celebrity actually endangered history, or that it was an expression of a real danger to history, by reestablishing the notion of artistic heroism from which the art world had so recently escaped. This feeling is encapsulated in the common critical comparison of Schnabel with Jackson Pollock, Pollock, Jackson an artist who, along with Pablo Picasso, Schnabel acknowledged as an important influence on his work. Most of the journalistic treatment of this relationship has focused not on the artwork but on the person of the artist. It has been implied that Schnabel has, as a marketing posture, falsely aspired to the “world historical” role of Pollock. The critical use of Schnabel’s connection with Pollock thus has focused not on art’s historical elements but on the idea, antithetical to a postmodern attitude, of the artist as Romantic visionary hero.

In the brief age of the ascendancy of conceptual art, the death of painting was widely proclaimed. Painting brought with it the burden of modernism and its failure. To paint was to be regressive, yet the culture showed a profound and intense need for painting, perhaps in part because the upheavals of American culture had articulated themselves visually through painting for at least five centuries. The function of painting changed, however. Postmodern painting evolved types of works with a conceptual deconstructive force that revealed itself in various ways, including the prominent incorporation of verbal elements and, less frequently, elements of performance and the inclusion of a variety of contents that signified social involvement and a critical stance toward classical modernist myths such as the heroic self.

Schnabel’s work demonstrates something like an old-style enthusiasm for painting. His first New York show in 1979 was perceived as instrumental in what was called, apocalyptically, “the Return of Painting”—that is, of painting that wished to continue the modernist line instead of deconstructing it. As modernism resurged, Schnabel was seen as the enemy of female artists, of conceptual artists in whatever form, and of critical rather than visionary art. Art;modernism He was tossed about by the waves of the moment.

Some saw the resurgence of modernism as brought about not by artistic forces but rather by market forces. The market success of Schnabel and others suggested to some that these artists were childishly complicit—that is, they were being used and were going along with it. To this way of thinking, the neoexpressionists of the 1980’s, hopelessly corrupted by money and the media, feigned the products of a totally direct, unmediated apprehension of things.

Despite the controversies that have surrounded him, Schnabel’s work speaks for itself. Vibrant and often violent, Schnabel’s work is both narrative and emotive. Bold, expressionistic, narrative, and melodramatic, his works often have religious overtones and a sense of destruction. By leaving his imagery unclear, he mystifies and opens up the possibility of many interpretations. He has stated that his paintings are about a state of mind, a state of what he has called “mindedness”; for him, “painting is a synonym for truth, where all the mistakes are visible.”

Schnabel’s rapid and controversial rise to critical focus—if not acclaim—has sometimes been regarded as a symptom of the art world’s constant search for new form givers, the equal of those who arose in earlier decades. Schnabel’s self-conscious attempt to present both his art and his persona as mythic may be symptomatic of the unstable nature of avant-gardist visual culture, a culture subject to media exploitation and itself quite willing to manipulate its image for the purposes of commerce under the guise of promulgation of an authentic aesthetic discovery. Art;painting

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kramer, Hilton. “The New Expressionism: Signs of Passion.” New Criterion (November, 1982): 40-45. Well-written article discusses Schnabel’s work in the context of neoexpressionism and its reawakening of the emotions in art.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kuspit, Donald. The New Subjectivism: Art in the 1980’s. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1988. Comprehensive survey of European and American art in the decade of the 1980’s focuses on three primary topics: “European self-assertion,” the subjectivity of American artists, and subjectivist criticism. Argues that the significant art of the 1980’s placed a new or renewed emphasis on subject and identity. Contains numerous reproductions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lucie-Smith, Edward. Movements in Art Since 1945. Rev. ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 2001. Classic account of the history of the visual arts since World War II, substantially revised and updated to include trends to the end of the twentieth century. Provides a clear, general survey for the nonspecialist, with numerous illustrations. Includes discussion of Schnabel’s work in its historical context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McGuigan, Cathleen. “Julian Schnabel.” Artnews 81 (Summer, 1982): 88-94. Provides an insightful view of Schnabel’s personal and professional life. Discusses the artist’s meteoric rise to fame and commercial success, his collaboration with Mary Boone and Leo Castelli, and his views on his own work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pincus-Witten, Robert. Postminimalism into Maximalism: American Art, 1966-1986. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1987. An art critic’s history of two decades of avant-garde American art, with numerous illustrations. Concentrates on major figures such as Richard Serra, Eva Hesse, and Mel Bochner and includes several significant essays on Schnabel.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schnabel, Julian. C.V.J.: Nicknames of Maître d’s and Other Excerpts from Life. New York: Random House, 1987. Schnabel’s own inside view of his life, work, and influences, as well as his travels. Comments on his philosophy of art and the growth and development of his life as well as his work from the early days to the mid-1980’s. Includes numerous color reproductions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Julian Schnabel. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003. Presents more than three hundred of the artist’s works, including paintings, film stills, sculptures, and photographs, many never previously exhibited. Also features text from the artist’s essays as well as interviews conducted over the course of his career. Includes bibliography and index.

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