Art: Julian Schnabel's Fabulous Year

When you're an artist as versatile and productive as Julian Schnabel, you can wear what you want to an opening—even purple pajamas, as he did for the recent premiere of his 25-year retrospective in San Sebastián, Spain. The New York-born painter, sculptor and filmmaker is having quite a year: in addition to the Basque exhibit, earlier in 2007 he exhibited at the Palazzo Venezia in Rome, and he is currently the subject of shows in Milan and Holle, Germany. He won best director at the Cannes Film Festival in May for "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," about a man who suffers a stroke and can communicate only by blinking his left eye, and his film about Lou Reed's cult-classic album "Berlin" premieres at the Venice Film Festival next month. Later this fall, he will have exhibitions opening in Hong Kong, China and South Korea. But when you see the bushy-bearded, barrel-chested artist shuffling around in torn red canvas shoes, his sunglasses pushed back on his leonine head, it's hard to imagine success looking more relaxed. "I have other clothes," he says, scanning the crowd of elegantly attired guests who've shown up to see his work. "I just put these on earlier, and I didn't get to go home. I've been a little busy."

No kidding. Just a few weeks ago Schnabel, 55, was applying the final brush strokes to several of the 70 works now on display in "Summer: Paintings and Sculptures 1982-2007," which runs through Oct. 21 and represents the full range of his oeuvre. Ever since he first shocked viewers back in the late 1970s with his violently expressive paintings on broken plates, he has refused to fix on any single style; as he says, his paintings, "like poetry, like a diary, tell my life story." Indeed, the dark and often ironic works in "Summer" jump around from figurative to photographic to abstract. Many of his works fuse language and crude textures with images, and employ a strong sense of balance. Schnabel has built a career on incorporating old materials and objects into his work, including army canvas ("Painting Without Bingo"), jumbo-enlarged postcards ("Flaubert's Letters to His Mother") and pieces of boxing-ring floors ("Edge of Victory"). "The idea is to invent new ways of painting," says Schnabel, whom critics have termed a leading "neo-expressionist," along with Anselm Kiefer, Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi and Miquel Barceló. "I want to change the form of what I'm seeing."

Like the artist himself, some of the canvases in the show seem to be larger than life, stretching more than six meters tall. They seem especially well suited to their exhibition space in San Sebastián's Tabacalera, a defunct 100-year-old tobacco factory, slated to be renovated and turned into the International Center of Contemporary Culture. Its gritty industrial atmosphere of paint-chipped walls, mold-encrusted skylights, vast rooms and humming fluorescent bulbs perfectly complements Schnabel's own rough surfaces and coarse designs. Massive, brooding abstract pieces like the five-canvas series titled "Treatise on Melancholia," or the explosive colors and underwater shapes breaking through a white canvas in "Hat Full of Rain," typify a strength of form that "minimizes the viewer and maximizes the work," says Gustavo Díaz, a Cuban artist who attended the show's opening. "I wanted to make a space where people living across the street can walk in and see something they never expected," says Schnabel, who lives in New York and San Sebastián.

Some of the best works in "Summer" are not Schnabel's trademark abstractions but the haunting, colorfully rich portraits of his family. His wife, Olatz, is painted in the 19th-century style, and the tan-earthed renditions of his son Vito and daughters, Stella and Lola Montes, show a distinct Spanish influence. In "Portrait of Cy Juan Schnabel (age 3)," his youngest son sits on a chair framed desolately against a brown background with a white, cloudlike flame illuminating his anxious eyes. These and other wall-size works have been polished with surfboard resin (Schnabel is also an avid surfer), giving them a smooth, almost porcelain clarity. They provide a welcome contrast to his more "object"-driven pieces like the varnish stains on tattered cloth in "Cortes" or the large chunks of earthenware sticking like soldiers' helmets off the canvas in "The Mud in Mudanza."

Indeed, much of Schnabel's work is not pretty to look at. The sculpture "Nile" is composed of a rotting cloth sail flecked with mold and strips of leather clinging to it like algae. But it is somehow alluring. "There is a battle [in my mind] between the picture and the object, and that space between is what I'm interested in," Schnabel says. His message to viewers: don't spend your time hunting for meaning. "What's important is just to look at the stuff," he says. "Get in the room and let the pictures speak their language to you." The purple pajamas have something interesting to say, too.