“It’s sort of guerilla warfare,” said Vito Schnabel, the curator and art dealer.
He was talking about the methods of the anonymous art collective he collaborates with, the Bruce High Quality Foundation, but he could have been describing his own way of organizing exhibitions. Mr. Schnabel—who also works with the artists Dan Colen and Terence Koh, among others—does not have a permanent gallery space. He prefers a nomadic approach. He met the members of Bruce High Quality when he was 17, about a year after putting together his first show, when he was still a junior in high school. He’s 25 now.
Last week, Mr. Schnabel was at Sotheby’s, standing in the auction house’s new second-floor gallery called S2 and overseeing the installation of a show he had given the title “These Days.” Bruce High Quality is the centerpiece of the show, which also includes works by Mr. Colen, Mr. Koh and David Benjamin Sherry. He spoke softly during his interview with The Observer and would frequently back away from the recorder in favor of pacing in small circles and shifting his weight from leg to leg in front of an artwork. We stood in front of The Gate by Bruce High Quality, a silkscreened image of a photograph that appeared on the front page of The New York Times. It was taken in fall 2005, when a public art group had created a floating island on a barge based on sketches made in 1970 by the artist Robert Smithson. They were pulling it around Manhattan with a tugboat. Bruce High Quality replicated one of the artist Christo’s famous orange gates, which had made up a massive installation in Central Park earlier that year, and installed it on a motorboat and attempted to mount it to the floating island. The image shows the smaller boat as it races to catch up with the island.
Asked if he considers himself the Bruce collective’s dealer despite his lack of a gallery, Mr. Schnabel responded quickly: “Yeah, I do.” He waited a beat before adding, “And friend.”
“They wanted their work to be seen,” Mr. Schnabel continued, “but they weren’t really sure of the gallery system, or what their system was. How they were working was outside of anything that had really been done before.”
Mr. Schnabel has appeared in the press quite a lot in the past few years—in Page Six with his arm around Elle Macpherson or Liv Tyler; in The New York Times for his parties, like the one he threw at Art Basel Miami in 2009 that was attended by Naomi Campbell, Stephen Dorff and Peter Brant (one of Mr. Schnabel’s collectors). The first thing journalists like to mention when writing about Vito is that he is the son of Julian Schnabel, the high-profile painter and filmmaker who built his own ivory—well, pink—tower in the West Village, the Palazzo Chupi, where Vito currently resides.
He may live under his father’s nose, but he has stepped out of his shadow, which is evident from looking at the show at Sotheby’s. Not only has he brought a group of young artists whom one wouldn’t expect to find on display at the auction house, but he has helped to cultivate their careers as well. His work with Mr. Koh helped lead to the artist’s first solo exhibition at Mary Boone gallery, a performance piece that garnered him comparisons to Chris Burden and Maurizio Cattelan. Bruce High Quality’s rats exhibit at Venice last summer—10 inflatable rats of the kind you see in front of picket lines in New York (like the one at Sotheby’s right now) reciting love letters to one another—stood guard near the Biennale’s entrance; the same rats recently made an appearance at Dasha Zhukova’s new art space in St. Petersburg, Russia. Outside the glare of the media spotlight, Mr. Schnabel has transformed himself from an ambitious young kid with a lot of promise into a smart curator with a keen eye.
“I met him when he was just the son of Julian Schnabel,” said Aby Rosen, the collector and real estate mogul who has let Mr. Schnabel have his way with some of the buildings he owns (like the W Hotel in Miami Beach). Mr. Rosen has bought works by Mr. Koh, Mr. Colen and Bruce High Quality from Mr. Schnabel. “He started to become himself.”
Mr. Schnabel was born in 1986, when his father was already an art-world superstar thanks to the efforts of dealers Mary Boone and Leo Castelli. He looks, at times, eerily like his father when he was still fresh faced. Even today, the two sport the same greased-back hairdo. He grew up around art but didn’t start paying attention to it until he was a teenager. He was more interested in sports. He is still known for his athletic chops, as anyone who attended a basketball game on a hotel rooftop during last year’s Art Basel Miami Beach will tell you. The players included the artist Rashid Johnson; Mike Homer, director of David Kordansky Gallery and a former college basketball player; Gagosian director Sam Orlofsky; and Mr. Schnabel. For the first game, Mr. Homer and Mr. Schnabel were on the same team, but they had to be separated. It wasn’t fair to the other players.
When he was 16, Mr. Schnabel curated a group show in a 10,000-square-foot warehouse with 25-foot-high ceilings. He included work by more obscure figures, like the artist duo McDermott and McGough, Jorge Galindo and his sister Lola.
“I didn’t really know exactly what I was doing,” Mr. Schnabel said. “But I was connecting the dots. The show opened and all of a sudden a couple things sold. I didn’t know what to do with that. I’d never made an invoice before. And that was kind of cool. I just picked up some change. And it all kicked off from there.”
Today, dealer/collector Alberto Mugrabi, known for his family’s vast Warhol holdings, is among Mr. Schnabel’s collectors. He told The Observer that the young dealer was “instrumental” in introducing him to certain younger artists in his collection. Mr. Schnabel, he added, is “not like a salesperson. He’s more of an artistic mind.”
Not long after the first group show, he organized an exhibition of works by Ron Gorchov in the same space (250 Hudson). Mr. Gorchov had disappeared from public view about 20 years before. The retrospective of paintings from 1972 to 2005 is largely credited with rescuing the artist from potential obscurity; its curator was not yet old enough to drink legally.
It was not until the 2010 Brucennial, coinciding with the Whitney Museum’s Biennial and held at the Aby Rosen-owned 350 West Broadway, that people started to take notice of Mr. Schnabel as something more than the promising son of a famous artist. Press for the show boasted “420 artists from 911 countries working in 666 disciplines.” That should be taken with a grain of salt—the show was organized with the tricksters of Bruce High Quality—but the space was packed with all kinds of art. The show was an alternative to the Whitney’s, which also included work by the Bruces. The Brucennial consisted of a patchwork of contemporary art from the past few decades. Crammed inside were pieces by the likes of George Condo, Mr. Gorchov, James Nares and Julian Schnabel; they filled the space floor to ceiling. Some critics praised the show as more interesting and impressive than what was going on uptown.
“Vito’s decision to forgo a fixed exhibition space is a big part of why we are comfortable working with him,” Bruce High Quality Foundation said in an email message (the foundation does interviews only by email to remain anonymous and “because our public statements are discussed by a group”). “Context is part of the work. Vito is of the same mind on that. We don’t just assume a Chelsea white box is the perfect venue for all the things we’d want to do.” (Regardless, Bruce High Quality has shown at the gallery Susan Inglett in Chelsea.) “We might need a theater. We might need an outdoor garden. We might need a spaceship.”
When asked if it was comfortable showing work at Sotheby’s, whose own inflatable rat out front signifies something much different from their installation in Venice, Bruce High Quality said “an exhibition at Sotheby’s was not a crisis of conscience for us. We agreed to participate because we see much of the work we contributed to ‘These Days’ as ultimately about how artists understand their historical relationship to social change. We hope visitors to the show see that, and that it helps them think more deeply about their own human stake when they walk back on the street.”
For “These Days,” the gallery at Sotheby’s is made over to look like “some combination of my living room and bedroom,” said Mr. Schnabel. The Richard Gluckman-designed space is typically white, with a circular column in the center of the room. Mr. Schnabel has covered it with wood panels like those found in Palazzo Chupi, placed lime-green carpet on the floors and painted the ceiling a dark brown so that it “looks like leather.” Sotheby’s didn’t really give Mr. Schnabel any limitations on what he wanted to do; the installation took eight frenzied days.
Three of the works, early paintings by Mr. Colen that were cordoned off in a separate room, hang on the walls of Mr. Schnabel’s home. Those aren’t for sale. (Alex Rotter, head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s, would not tell The Observer what artworks have already sold, but regarding how many of them have been purchased, he offered, “A lot. There are very few things still available.”)
The opening was a mix of established collectors in suits, Sotheby’s employees in black cocktail dresses, and young artists—like one of the Bruces, whose appearance, out of solidarity, we will not describe further—in torn denim. Mary-Kate Olsen showed up, as did a confused-looking Lou Reed, a longtime neighbor of the Schnabels. Mr. Reed, who was wearing a long black trench coat, leaned against the wall next to The Gate. We asked him if he liked the art.
“I like the pizza,” he said, gesturing with his hand to Pizzatopia, also by Bruce High Quality, which Mr. Schnabel describes as “a good New York City pie with the New York skyline on it.” Asked if he was a fan of the artists on display, Mr. Reed responded flatly: “I don’t know any of the artists here except for Julian.”
The Observer bumped into the older Mr. Schnabel in a side room that held three white paintings by Mr. Koh. The room, naturally, was kept a stark white and seemed to glow in comparison to the rest of the gallery.
“I like that they look like molten lava,” Mr. Schnabel said of the paintings’ white-on-white texture. If they hadn’t been devoid of color, they would, in fact, have looked more than a bit like some of Mr. Schnabel’s own work. “Or mountain ranges. They look like a lot of things. When you make art for a long enough time, you learn.”
As he talked, he backed away, still talking, and, like Vito, shifted his weight back and forth in front of one of the canvases. He paused for a moment and then offered his son some passing praise: “You learn how to make a show.”