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Julian Schnabel--Artist as Bad Boy

November 01, 1987|KRISTINE McKENNA

NEW YORK — " 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.

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