Born in Brooklyn, New York City to Esta and Jack Schnabel, Schnabel moved with his family to Brownsville, Texas when still young. Although he was Jewish, he attended Saint Joseph Academy, a Marist Brothers Catholic school there. It was in Brownsville that he spent most of his formative years and where he took up surfing and resolved to be an artist.
He received his B.F.A. at the University of Houston. After graduating, he sent an application to the independent study program at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. His application included slides of his work sandwiched between two pieces of bread; he was promptly accepted. Struggling in the art world, Schnabel worked as a short-order cook and frequented Max's Kansas City, a restaurant-nightclub, while he worked on his art. In 1975, Schnabel had his first solo show at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston. Over the next few years he traveled frequently to Europe, where he was enormously impressed by the work of Antoni Gaudi, Cy Twombly and Joseph Beuys.
It was with his first solo show, at the Mary Boone Gallery in 1979, however, that Schnabel would truly come to be regarded as a major new force in the art world. He participated at the Venice Biennale in 1980, and by the mid-1980s had become a major figure in the Neo-expressionism movement. By the time he exhibited his work in a show jointly organized by Boone and Leo Castelli in 1981, he had become firmly established. His now famous "plate paintings"large-scale paintings set on broken ceramic platesreceived a boisterous and critical reception from the art world. A reputation for making brash pronouncements about his importance to the art world ( "I'm the closest thing to Picasso that you'll see in this *#@ life") engendered contempt from both colleagues and the viewing public. What was beyond doubt, however, was the vibrancy that Schnabel brought to the art scene. Using Kabuki theatre sets, velvet and animal hides, Schnabel's bold, somewhat confrontational style recalled the energy and daring of Picasso and Pollock.
Schnabel's signature works contain an underlying edge of brutality, while remained suffused with compositional energy. Schnabel claims that he's "aiming at an emotional state, a state that people can literally walk into and be engulfed."
Schnabel insists he is a painter first and foremost, though he is better known for his films. Painting is like breathing to me. Its what I do all the time. Every day I make art, whether it is painting, writing or making a movie.
 Museum collections
His works are in the collections of various museums throughout the world, among them the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Museum of Modern Art; The Whitney Museum of American Art; The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Reina Sofia and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.