Moviemaking allowed Schnabel to be reborn, broke him out of the brutal stalemate he had with his critics. Part of it is that his undeniable talent as a filmmaker has allowed him to transcend the category. And ironically, his youthful braggadocio—his compulsive mythmaking, that song of himself that many found grating—has been shown to feed, in another medium, a huge talent.
Undoubtedly, much of Schnabel is submerged in his films. When Bauby’s ex-wife reappears on the scene to supervise his convalescence, one thinks quickly of Schnabel’s ex, Jacqueline. And Bauby’s enormous needs—to be fed, cared for, loved, laboriously understood—and his inability to give back except in one highly specific way, are a flattering metaphor for many a narcissistic artist, Schnabel included. But where many in the eighties could not look at Schnabel’s paintings and not see Schnabel the man, trying to become the heavyweight champion of art, the films strike almost no one as the same kind of aggressive gesture. “I realize that it’s much harder to understand paintings than movies,” says Schnabel, when asked about the heat he’s taken. “And I’ve lived a very privileged life.”
In any event, Schnabel has put distance between himself and the art world. His friends now are actors: Johnny Depp, Christopher Walken, Sean Penn, Dennis Hopper. “We share certain values,” he says. And Schnabel spends a great deal of time with his family. His children from his first marriage, to Jacqueline (with whom he’s still said to be close), Stella, Lola, and Vito, attended Saint Ann’s and are now Schnabel’s glamorous emissaries in young Manhattan society. He has 13-year-old twins with his second wife, Olatz, who is from San Sebastián, Spain, where Schnabel has a house. (He also has a Stanford White house in Montauk.) She has a fine-linen store on Clarkson Street called, in the family tradition, Olatz. (Schnabel courted her by creating a series of canvases on which he painted her name.)
Soon, Schnabel is zigzagging up, deeper into Palazzo Chupi, bounding over stacks of lumber in his enthusiastic Willy Wonka way. “I have something else to show you that I think you’ll like,” he says.
Unwisely taking notes while climbing a railless staircase, I bump my head on some scaffolding. “Watch your head, watch your head,” says Schnabel belatedly. He points out bathrooms with giant claw-footed tubs and steam showers, the custom balustrades, an enormous rough-hewn granite fireplace suspended from a lift.
Then we step onto a vertiginous terrace on the Palazzo Chupi’s south side. Two workmen are having a beer and a smoke, and in a moment, Schnabel has a beer and a smoke, too.
To the southwest are Richard Meier’s towers, transparent and still partly empty. You can see the river through them. Whether they represent an opposing worldview is an interesting question (where does one hang the art?, for one thing). Certainly, Schnabel thinks so. “When I look at the new inventions that are supposed to be progress, it’s disheartening,” he says.
In reality, however, Schnabel seems not a bit disheartened. Up here, on the ramparts of Palazzo Chupi, his eye is free. He can look down on all of New York: on Meier’s towers, on his father’s old haunts, on the greenish-gray river with its rotting piers. “I know why construction workers do this,” he says as we walk to the rail. “I figured it out when I came up here and I started seeing shit from a place no one else had stood before. That’s why they like to build things.”
Schnabel likes to build things, and he likes what he builds, and he hopes that people like them, but if they don’t, he’s learned to live with that, too.
We move back inside. The elevator is still packed with people, as if no one had ever gotten off. Before I go, he asks me if I have everything I came with. “I always leave something up there,” he says, happily lost in his own creation. “I’m like a rat in a maze.”