Early life and education
Schnabel was born in Brooklyn, New York to a Jewish family,the son of Esta (née Greenberg) and Jack Schnabel. He moved with his family to Brownsville, Texas in 1965. He received his B.F.A. at the University of Houston. After graduating, he sent an application to the Independent Study Program (ISP) 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 admitted into the program and studied there from 1973 to 1975.
In 1975, Schnabel visited Galveston and was introduced to the artist Joseph Glasco who had his home and studio in Galveston at that time. Schnabel and Glasco became close friends and shared many similar interests in the arts. Later in their relationship, Schnabel influenced Glasco to set up his studio in New York, and in the late 1980s introduced Glasco to Leslie Waddington of Waddington Galleries, London where he had an exhibition.
Schnabel returned to Houston in 1975 and rented a studio in the Heights neighborhood. Jim Harithas, director of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, agreed to give him a show after Schnabel reportedly badgered him repeatedly.The eponymously titled exhibit ran from February 20 to March 7, 1976, in the parallelogram building's lower gallery.
On seeing the show, ARTnews critic Charlotte Moser wrote, "Though still formative, Schnabel's paintings possess a palpable presence," but found the work "clearly influenced by post-minimalist artists whose intellectual ideas he might share but whose technical expertise and clarity of vision he has yet to acquire."