The Resurrection of Julian Schnabel: Has the Art World Finally Forgiven the World’s Most Famous Painter?

SchnabelFinalOnce compared to Citizen Kane’s Xanadu, Palazzo Chupi, the pink West Village mansion where Julian Schnabel presides over his large family and a cavalry of assistants, is an ornate doily of concrete, a symbol if not of Cupid, then of cupidity. I arrived there on Valentine’s Day. Mr. Schnabel’s studio is on the third floor, a large white space, paint-splashed, with a single sliver of a window letting in light from the sun, which was beginning to set over the Hudson River. Two assistants watched as Olmo Schnabel, Julian’s college-age son, tinkered with a five-foot-tall cardboard sculpture shaped like a missile. The room was hung with Mr. Schnabel’s “Goat” paintings, a recent series of enormous canvases made from a reprinted image taken from 19th-century Dufour wallpaper. They depict a Redcoat army marching through a bucolic valley, a scene onto which the artist has drizzled purple paint and transposed an illustration of a large white goat. A realist portrait of Dennis Hopper, high up on a wall, gazed over the goats like a shepherd.

Mr. Schnabel entered the room quietly, almost sheepishly, and everyone kept going about their business. He is 61 and on the short side, with a slight paunch, a patchy beard and slicked-back hair. He was wearing yellow-tinted glasses and a black jacket with an image printed on the back of one of his “Big Girl” paintings—a blond girl in a blue dress with a sinister smile and a slash of black paint obscuring her eyes. Mr. Schnabel has been known for walking around the city in paint-splattered silk pajamas, a gesture considered by some to be the pinnacle of 1980s hedonism, but that day he was in jeans and work boots. He went over to his son and asked what the cardboard sculpture was for. It was a project for an art class at Bard College.

“I have to spell out my name somewhere on it,” Olmo Schnabel said.

Mr. Schnabel picked up the sculpture.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said, pointing to the square bottom of the piece, “you’ve got an ‘O’ right here.” He gestured to a crease running roughly through its center. “And that’s your L. You can use duct tape to put an M right here.”

Olmo stared blankly. “I’m just worried that there are requirements—”

“Listen,” Mr. Schnabel said. “Screw them. They don’t know what they want.”

He suggested his son style the sculpture so he could do something practical with it later, maybe use it as a lampshade. He placed the sculpture on his head, then held it to his eye and looked through the hole in the bottom.

“You should do what you want,” he said, “but I think that’s what you should do.”

Mr. Schnabel turned to me. “I’ve been making these portraits of the Brant children. Plate paintings. Would you like to see them?”

They were nearly life-sized canvases covered in broken plates and glasses, a slipshod surface over which Mr. Schnabel had painted his portraits. Broken dishware has been his signature since the late ’70s. Two assistants wheeled them around the room one at a time—they weighed enough to require two sets of hands—so they would catch different swaths of the fading light, while Mr. Schnabel directed me where to stand. I was looking at Peter Brant Jr. From farther back and at an angle, it was possible to see the edge of each broken plate and only a suggestion of a visage therein.

“See how it looks if you stand there,” said Mr. Schnabel. He gestured for the assistants to turn the painting so that it faced me. “Now step forward. You see?” Peter Brant Jr. came into focus, pouting the way socialites do in photographs. We spent 20 minutes doing this with each of the Brant children, and then with a separate portrait in the corner of the room of a topless blonde wearing a sailor’s cap. (“That’s my girlfriend, May,” Mr. Schnabel said, adding with no small amount of pride, “She’s upstairs.”)

We went downstairs and pulled two chairs in front of The Patients and the Doctors, Mr. Schnabel’s first plate painting from 1978.

“So it’s interesting,” Mr. Schnabel said. “You’ve never seen it in the flesh before?”

For at least a decade in New York, there have been few opportunities to see Mr. Schnabel’s work in person, a strange fate for one of the most famous and prolific artists in the world. The backlash against him was almost as immediate as his rise to fame. He sold out his first show of plate paintings with Mary Boone Gallery in 1979 before the exhibition opened (there were four paintings priced at around $2,500, which meant he made about $4,000 after taxes). In the early ’80s, his painting Notre Dame took in $93,500 at Sotheby’s. (“No, I’m not particularly pleased with the sale price,” Ms. Boone told a reporter from The Washington Post at the time, thinking it would break $100,000; some of his canvases now sell in the low seven figures.) Ms. Boone jointly represented him with Leo Castelli, the gallery of Warhol and Rauschenberg, and when Mr. Schnabel left both dealers for Pace Gallery in 1984, Mr. Castelli, in the pages of the Times, compared him to King Kong and, so the story goes, told Mr. Schnabel, “You have all my contempt.”

Mr. Schnabel came to epitomize the excesses of the art market boom. By 1987, the year of his first (and last) museum retrospective in New York, at the Whitney, critics dismissed his paintings as “fashionable.” He and Robert Hughes despised each other enough that they had nicknames (“Robert Huge” and “Julian Snorkel”). Critics resented him as much for his “unironic self-approval,” in the words of Paul Richard, as for his work. Mr. Schnabel described his paintings in his 1987 autobiography CVJ as “icons that present life in terms of our death.” Depending on who is talking, they are either heroic—in Homer’s sense of the word, embodying civilization as a whole—or pretentious and tacky. Reviewing the Whitney show in The New York Times, Roberta Smith said many of the works “have not held up particularly well.” At the time, they were only a couple years old.

The press turned Mr. Schnabel into a caricature, the scapegoat for everything wrong with the art world and the archetype of narcissistic artists everywhere. He compared himself to Van Gogh and said to Morley Safer on 60 Minutes, “Would you ask Marlon Brando if he had a big ego? Do you have a big ego? I’m sure you do.” In the late ’90s, he began showing less frequently in America and became a critically acclaimed filmmaker, an industry in which hubris is not only expected but revered. He made Before Night Falls, the film that turned Javier Bardem into a movie star, and the highly stylized The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, for which he won Best Director at Cannes.

“He took to directing like a speed runner does to football,” Peter Brant, who produced Basquiat, Mr. Schnabel’s first feature film, wrote in an email to me.

Mr. Schnabel remained a familiar name, but his paintings became, at best, symbols of the speedball ’80s, and at worst, forgotten images languishing in the pages of an art book. Now, for the first time since 2002, his paintings are reappearing. A 2011 retrospective at the Museo Correr in Venice stole some of the attention away from that year’s Biennale. Mr. Schnabel currently has a show at Oko, a small East Village storefront gallery that can fit exactly one of his paintings at a time. There are four in all, each being shown in two-week cycles, made between the years 1978 and 1981. In April, he’ll be honored at a gala by the public art organization Creative Time, and he’ll have shows at the Brant Foundation Art Study Center and, Mr. Schnabel said, Gagosian Gallery in the fall. After all the grand public statements, all the burned bridges and the famous friends, all the awards and insults, all the thousands of gallons of paint—can we finally forgive Julian Schnabel for his sins?