Egon Schiele, Self-Portrait with Arm Twisted above Head, 1910, watercolor and charcoal.

Viennese Expressionist Egon Schiele was perhaps most exciting and provocative in his portraits, which are the subject of an exhibition opening today at New York's Neue Galerie. Known for portrayals of himself sporting a halo and for depictions of masturbating women, Schiele, with what might be termed a punk rock, rebellious attitude, has become a romantic hero to generations of young people. David Bowie, an occasional painter himself, played Schiele in an uncompleted 1970s biopic. He lived fast and died at 28, in 1918, of Spanish flu. Schiele's wife, pregnant with their first child, had died three days earlier.

The show is organized by Alessandra Comini, a professor of art history at Dallas's Southern Methodist University. As she walked through the exhibition, "Egon Schiele: Portraits" (through Jan. 15, 2015), with A.i.A. this week, Comini talked about how a short prison stay for public immorality changed Schiele, about suggestions of incest in his family and about the artistic and spiritual arc of his career.

TRACY ZWICK
Schiele referred to himself as Hineinseher, or soul seer, and often painted his subjects with a halo. Are these psychological or perhaps spiritual portraits?

ALESSANDRA COMINI
The press criticized them as pathological. Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, his great artistic rival, were the first in their time to do psychological portraits. They're Schiele's attempts to see beyond the body to the soul. The halo was at the time called an "astral glow." It represents an aura emanating from the individual. Franz Marc knew about it. Kandinsky believed it existed, in that if you were sensitive enough, you could perceive it.

ZWICK
Though he lived a short life, Schiele's output is prodigious. How did he produce this quantity of high-quality portraits?

COMINI
He did some of the early sketches from his Academy period in 15 minutes. He absolutely was a wunderkind. For the self-portraits, he used his mother's big standing mirror, which he took the trouble to move around from studio to studio. The self-portraits from prison are so interesting because they are the first and only self-portraits he did without a mirror. We have a scandalous 1911 self-portrait, The Red Host, in which a model is massaging Schiele's erect and gigantic penis. He somehow had the self-possession to draw this while it was happening in front of a mirror.

ZWICK
You suggest in this show that prison transfigured Schiele, although he was confined for only 21 days.

COMINI
Twenty-one days was enough! Prison was a hinge. It freed Schiele from narcissistic absorption in his own pain and allowed him to observe a person as that person really was.

ZWICK
In the exhibition's first room, you've gathered some early Academy sketches and portraits along with a painting of the artist's sister Gerti that demonstrate Schiele's pictorial strategy of floating the sitter in space.

COMINI
Yes, they're catapulting through space. He refused to define his subjects psyche with attributes like objects or clothing. His approach was existential. Even his early studies are made against the void. In 1909, he was still painting detail like Klimt, but he posited Gerti in the middle of the canvas, wrapped up in her own dream, surrounded by negative space.

ZWICK
Is there eroticism implied here in the transparency of his sister's dress, or in her reverie?

COMINI
When I interviewed Gerti, she intimated with a raised eyebrow what we did not talk about—what she and her brother did. She intimated they were indeed very close. One has to speculate.

ZWICK
Schiele is often talked about in the context of rock stars and was peripherally part of Vienna's musical milieu. Is there a corollary in music—someone who was stripped-down and anti-establishment—doing with sound what Schiele did in visual art?

COMINI
Yes, and that is why I chose music by Arnold Schoenberg to play in the gallery housing Schiele's prison work. It echoes what Schiele went through in prison, from shock and horror to incomprehension and then finally to a resolution to endure. Schiele pushed away the environment and Schoenberg pushed away chromaticism, which had been the subject of music since the Gregorian chant. He departed from the laws of musical harmony. Adolf Loos was the corollary in architecture, shunning ornament.

ZWICK
Are there narrative portraits here?

COMINI
Erwin von Graff, a gynecologist, is ironically depicted with a bandaged finger and his hand to his heart. Von Graff performed an abortion on one of Schiele's mistresses, for which this portrait served as payment. Schiele loved to show pulsating veins like von Graff's. He loved dualities like life and death. Von Graff is spectral, almost skeletal, yet full of life. Schiele said he was in love with death and often portrayed himself as a death's head.

ZWICK
Why are audiences transfixed by Schiele's angst-ridden portraits? The palette tends toward muddy beiges and rusty reds when it's not black on cream, and some of it is pornographic. Maybe that last part explains it.

COMINI
It's because Schiele goes to the core. There's no inhibition, and that's rare even today. He says it all and yes, his sexual frankness appeals. It was pornography. But very good, exceptionally well done pornography.