A Piece of Work

Julian Schnabel’ ego echoes the excess of the Eighties.


Whether one thinks him truly talented or hopelessly overhyped, painter Julian Schnabel is impossible to ignore. Wild haired and often pajama clad, he was catapulted to stardom by a 1979 solo show at the Mary Boone Gallery. Before long his large-scale works on canvases strewn with broken plates—as well as his tendency to introduce himself as “the most famous painter in America”—made him the king of the Eighties art boom.

Not everyone was impressed. After the art market soured in 1989, the value of his work reportedly dropped by half. Several critics (notably Robert Hughes of Time) accused Schnabel of self-promotion and poor taste. In a 1995 W interview he struck back at those critics: “They have unhappy lives and they’re pissed off…. Who cares?”

As the years passed he toned down his bravado. He also attempted to prove himself in other arenas, releasing a rock album and directing the 1996 biopic Basquiat, about his late friend and fellow artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the 2000 film Before Night Falls, which garnered Javier Bardem an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas. More recently Schnabel helped design the interiors for Ian Schrager’s Gramercy Park Hotel and directed The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which won him the best director prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and will be released in December.

So it seems that being chastened early in his career did no long-term damage to his artistic confidence. “I have no complaints, but I do think that there’s an immense amount of stupidity that we live with, and that I have been the recipient of a lot of it,” he said in the 1995 profile. “Maybe when people are young they also say some silly things that get misconstrued. But I think that the reason why I have any attention…is because of my paintings. That’s all there is to it.”

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