The 1960s and 1970s witnessed what has been termed the “dematerialization” of the art object. The prevailing movements of the period favored austere expression; works with an economy of means often focused on the idea or concept rather than the object itself. By contrast, the 1980s were characterized by a return to the traditions of painting and sculpture. Amid this celebration of conservative values, Julian Schnabel played a critical role in the emergence of Neo-Expressionist painting in the U.S. After two decades dominated by the aesthetics of Minimalist and Conceptual art, Schnabel’s heroic scale, gestural brushstrokes, and figurative subject matter marked a radical shift in painting.

Schnabel came to prominence with his signature plate paintings, such as Spain (1986). The surface of this monumental work is strewn with shards of broken crockery and covered with thick layers of pigment. The series, notable for its large scale, flamboyant texture, and distorted subjects, was conceived in the 1970s after Schnabel visited Barcelona, where he saw mosaic benches by Catalan architect Antonio Gaudí. Transforming the traditional surface of the mosaic, the broken plates and cups project from the canvas like jagged, sculptural brushstrokes. The swirling colors of this series often depict legendary figures, and the disembodied head in the center of Spain is an important and recurrent image in the artist’s work. Similar figures recall the work of Picasso, but the artist draws from many sources, including El Greco and cultural artifacts from Mexico. The earthy tones of red and ocher and the elongated black shadows that stretch across the canvas clearly evoke the Spanish landscape.

In 1987 Schnabel began making paintings in which written words and proper names serve as subject matter. The early works in this series marked a change in imagery from one of excess to one of deliberate austerity and from pictorial narrative to oblique, linguistic reference. In this series, Fakires signals a return to a richer palette and a more layered and expressionistic surface than in his earlier word paintings.

In the 1990s, Schnabel began to create full-length feature films, which he considered a natural extension of his simultaneous work in painting. His first film, Basquiat (1996), chronicled the tragically brief career and life of New York-based painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. Schnabel’s next film, Before Night Falls (2000), a biography of Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas, won the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival. His most recent film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), for which Schnabel was awarded the Best Director Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and the Golden Globes, was inspired by the memoirs written by French Elle’s editor in chief Jean-Dominique Bauby after he was diagnosed with Locked-in Syndrome, which resulted from a sudden stroke. Schnabel’s work in both paint and film dialogue in intricate ways: the audacity and power of his technique in both mediums enhances and plays rather cruelly against the vulnerability of his protagonists and his painted subject matter. Indeed, the paintings and films inform one another, particularly in their exploration of the relationship between the past and present.

Schnabel’s work has been the subject of numerous solo exhibitions at Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (1982), Tate Gallery in London (1983), Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris (1987), Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (1988), Museum für Gegenwartkunst in Basel (1989), Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Monterrey in Mexico (1994), and Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt (2004). He was also selected to participate in the Venice Biennale (1980 and 1982) and the Whitney Biennial (1981, 1983, and 1991). The artist currently lives and works in New York City, Long Island, and San Sebastián, Spain.