In a recent magazine article, Julian Schnabel's agent, Vincent Fremont, was quoted as saying, "Everyone likes to pick on Julian." True enough. Yet, Schnabel always seems to have the last laugh.
Currently, he is enjoying a tremendous resurgence. First off, he's the subject of a retrospective that just opened at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt. The deluxe art-book publisher Harry N. Abrams has released an impressive oversized monograph that spans his entire career. Schnabel was recently featured on the cover of Art & Auction magazine, and also on the cover of Black Book (along with his friend Benicio del Toro). Both articles are flattering. Each feature discusses Schnabel's respected movie efforts (Basquiat and Before Night Falls), his deluxe lifestyle, his tremendous studio and his attractive wife and kids.
And then there are his paintings. If quizzed about whether he's still a painter, Schnabel makes it quite clear that first and foremost, he's most definitely a painter -- that's where everything in his life springs from.
When you flip through the Abrams book, you quickly conclude that the paintings are maddeningly inconsistent. So are his auction prices, but we'll get to that later. During the fall 2003 season, I stopped by PaceWildenstein in Chelsea to view Schnabel's most recent show. When I walked in, I was bowled over by a roomful of his richly patinated monumental bronze sculptures from the 1980s. Having never seen so many of Schnabel's 3D pieces in one place, the show provided the perfect opportunity to evaluate this largely unknown body of work.
After spending some time with the sculptures, I decided they were incredibly powerful -- some of the best sculpture produced in the last 15 years (and that includes works by Joel Shapiro, Richard Serra and John Chamberlain). If memory serves me correctly, the work was priced in the $200,000-$400,000 range. If you're looking for good value and authenticity in Schnabel's work, it probably lies in his sculpture.
Unfortunately, after being thrilled by the bronzes, I walked into the second gallery, which contained paintings depicting American Indians. Although I gave the work every chance to "open up," there was simply no getting around the fact that these were awkward pictures. When Schnabel imbues a work with the sheer force of his personality, he can get away with poor draughtsmanship. But in this case, where the figures were the central focus of each canvas, Schnabel couldn't hide his clumsy drawing skills. Regardless, I left the gallery impressed by his ambition.
As anyone who has followed his career knows, Schnabel arrived in New York in 1973, eager to make his mark. He was also eager to please. Art & Auction editor Bruce Wolmer tells a great story about meeting Schnabel for the first time and complimenting the red "jelly" glasses that the artist was wearing. Schnabel must have taken note of the conversation because the next time they got together, he produced an extra pair, offering them to Wolmer as an ingratiating gift.
By 1977, Schnabel was showing at Holly Solomon. Two years later, by befriending artists such as Ross Bleckner, he had made the right connections and moved to the Mary Boone Gallery. Within a few years, both artist and dealer were international success stories. The high point of the relationship was the two gallery show, in 1981, that Boone arranged with Leo Castelli.
Apparently, it still wasn't enough for Schnabel. Soon after, he switched allegiances to the uptown blue-chip gallery PaceWildenstein. In retrospect he probably made the right choice. Rather than be seen in the context of Eric Fischl, David Salle and Bleckner, he was shown in a stable that included Chuck Close, Robert Ryman and Claes Oldenburg.
However, as the art market collapsed during the first half of the 1990s, Schnabel's prices suffered along with those of virtually every other artist. Some high-water marks were achieved when Charles Saatchi auctioned off a few of Schnabel's early major pieces. A painting from the "Maria Callas" series brought $321,000 (all auction prices include the auction house premium). As the 1990s came to a close, Schnabel became almost an afterthought in the art world. His movies were more discussed than his paintings.
But with the dawning of the new century, Schnabel was on the comeback trail (if you can call it that) when he opened a show at Gagosian with the "Big Girl" paintings. These were both monstrous in size (up to 162" x 148") and price ($600,000). The series was based on a thrift store painting of a blonde girl that Schnabel proceeded to blow up in scale and paint with a horizontal slash of pigment to obscure her eyes (see the cover of the new Abrams book).
By 2003, Schnabel was very much in vogue again. At Christie's New York in May 2002, a large (14 ft. wide) painting on a circus sideshow banner, Adieu Batista, sold for an auction record $361,500. Yet, when you examine his auction results of the last two years, it's hard to draw any conclusions about his market. As a veteran of analyzing artists' markets, I don't recall ever coming across one that had no rhyme or reason as to which paintings sold and for how much -- Schnabel's is the lone exception.
For instance, during the day sale at Sotheby's New York in November 2003, TT, a decent quality "plate" painting, passed at $150,000-$200,000. However, in the same sale, a rather muddy painting on velvet, Untitled, easily sold at the top of its $70,000-$90,000 estimate. During Sotheby's evening sale, the painterly Albondigas, a colorful oil done on a 10-foot-long drop cloth, brought a respectable $176,000. Over at Christie's, during the same week, both "plate" paintings that came up failed to find buyers.
Back at a Sotheby's day sale in May 2003, three Schnabels came on the auction block: a "Maria Callas" painting was passed at $200,000-$300,000, a Twomblyesque work titled Los Patos went over its $50,000-$60,000 estimate to sell for $96,000, and an unattractive painting on aluminum, Michelle, drew no bids, despite its low estimate of $40,000-$60,000.
Finally, over at Christie's day sale in May 2003, a sculpture, humorously titled Barbara Bush Skipping Down the Champs Elyse, sold over estimate for $125,100. When you tally the above results, there is no consistency.
Then why is Julian Schnabel a "buy?" Probably because I have a sneaky suspicion that he will be viewed by future generations of collectors as a seminal figure in art history. At their best, his works are highly decorative (in a positive sense) and have an undeniable presence. They also can be bought reasonably at auction, which gives dealers a chance to make a market. Finally, he's still relatively young, which means he has plenty of productive years ahead of him. My guess is that as he matures as an artist, he'll release fewer works of questionable quality and start thinking about his place in art history. If that's the case, then the best is yet to come.
RICHARD POLSKY is the author of I Bought Andy Warhol (Abrams). He can be reached for questions or comments at email@example.com.