By Barbara Rowes
December 12, 1983 12:00 PM

First you take a hammer and smash old pieces of dinnerware to bits. Next you glue the shards onto a canvas and apply oil paints and wax. What do you have? Most of us would have a mess, but not artist Julian Schnabel, 32. He would have created another of his “plate paintings.”

Go ahead, snicker, but consider this: Last May, a 90-by-108-inch Schnabel plate painting, titled Notre Dame, sold at auction at Manhattan’s Sotheby Parke Bernet for $93,500. Indeed, private collectors and museums on both sides of the Atlantic practically wait in line to get their hands on an original Schnabel. “For every one of his paintings,” says his trendsetting Manhattan art dealer, Mary Boone, “there are 30 to 50 people who’d like to buy it.”

The Schnabel sale last spring (to Washington-area art consultant Anita Reiner) set no new cash record for contemporary art (Mark Rothko’s 1958 Blacks, Maroon and White sold last month for $1.8 million to a Tokyo art collector). Nevertheless, the five-year ascension of Julian Schnabel from obscurity to the big league has jolted the art world. To some critics, his bold, expressionists style is the most exciting phenomenon since Andy Warhol’s soup cans ushered in Pop Art two decades ago. Others snipe that Schnabel is simply the beneficiary of a massive dose of cultural hype promoted by go-go dealers.

Schnabel himself tries to remain above the fray. “There’s been too much attention on marketing,” he pleads. “Can’t we just talk about the paintings?” His inspiration, he explains, came from a 1978 visit to Barcelona, where he saw the intricate mosaics, incorporating broken crockery, done by Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi. Back at his Manhattan studio, Schnabel began attaching broken china to canvas. “I didn’t know what adhesive to use, so I mixed up a joint compound to glue the thing down. As I was sleeping I could hear the plates fall off the painting. I figured that whatever plates were left on the canvas in the morning were meant to be there. Since then I’ve switched to Bondo cement.”

That crashing start resulted in the first of “about 40” plate paintings to date—typically large, disquieting canvases that are extravagant statements of moods and textures. Schnabel has also experimented with other materials—painted velvets, for example, or antlers and bronze castings of tree trunks. New York critic Hilton Kramer has named Schnabel’s work “Neo-Expressionism.” The artist counters, “It’s not neo anything.”

The Brooklyn-born Schnabel has never been easy to classify. Youngest in a family of three children, Julian says, “Even at age 10, I was thinking about existentialism. When my parents would go out, I was scared they would die and never come back.” He expressed his fears by “drawing all the time. I just found in art a sort of warm spot where I could bathe.”

When his father, a businessman, relocated the family in Brownsville, Texas, Julian, then 15, adjusted easily to fast living in open spaces. “A lot of kids didn’t survive Brownsville back then— the surfing, partying, auto crashes, drug overdoses,” says boyhood chum John W. Harris, now a San Antonio lawyer. “Julian was wilder than James Dean, but also had a singularity of purpose to be a painter.”

Four tempestuous years at the University of Houston (“You want to do it one way, they want you to do it another”) brought him a fine arts degree in 1973. Then it was back to New York as a struggling artist, supporting himself as a short-order cook specializing in cheeseburgers and fried zucchini. Over plates of food, he met Mary Boone, then organizing her SoHo gallery. “I was struck by the power of his work and by the courage it took to make paintings like that,” Boone says. “Julian defied the status quo.”

Very successfully, as it turned out, and with it has come a first-class lifestyle: Manhattan studio and loft apartment, a country house on Long Island, three cars (Mercedes, Cadillac, station wagon). Yet, in person, he’s no artistic enfant terrible. Married in 1980 to Belgian-born Jacqueline Beaurang, he is a doting dad to Lola, 2, and Stella, 8 months. His close friends include Richard Gere, painter Francesco Clemente and Lauren Hutton and her boyfriend, Bob Williamson (godparents to Stella). Most of all, Schnabel, a 205-pound 6-footer, remains a tireless worker whose appetite for shattered tableware could endanger every plate in the house. But worry not; those that he dispatches in the name of art he buys from the Salvation Army.