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Neo-Expressionism Collage


Started: Late 1970s

Ended: Early 1990s

Neo-Expressionism Timeline


Georg BaselitzGeorg Baselitz
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Jean-Michel BasquiatJean-Michel Basquiat
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Philip GustonPhilip Guston
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Julian SchnabelJulian Schnabel
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Eric FischlEric Fischl
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Francesco ClementeFrancesco Clemente
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Many artists have practiced and revived aspects of the original Expressionism movement its peak at the beginning of the 20th century, but the most famous return to Expressionism was inaugurated by Georg Baselitz, who led a revival that dominated German art in the 1970s. By the 1980s, this resurgence had become part of an international return to the sensuousness of painting - and away from the stylistically cool, distant sparseness of Minimalism and Conceptualism. Very different artists, especially in the United States, from Julian Schnabel and Francesco Clemente to Jean-Michel Basquiat, turned in expressive directions to create work that affirmed the redemptive power of art in general and painting in particular, drawing upon a variety of themes including the mythological, the cultural, the historical, the nationalist, and the erotic.

Key Ideas

The Neo-Expressionist artists depicted their subjects in an almost raw and brutish manner, newly resurrecting in their frequently large-scale works, the highly textural and expressive brushwork and intense colors that had been rejected by the immediately preceding art movements.
Because the work of the Neo-Expressionist artists was so closely linked to buying, selling, and the commercial system of art with its galleries, critics, and media hype (typical of the Reagan era in the United States), some in the field began to question its authenticity as art that was as purely motivated as was, say, that of the Abstract Expressionists. Thus its popularity was also the seed of its demise.
Because Neo-Expressionism accepted and rejuvenated historical and mythological imagery -- as opposed to the modernists' tendency to reject storytelling (witnessed especially in Clement Greenberg's theories of art) - some scholars believe that Neo-Expressionism played an important role in the transition from modernism to postmodernism.

Most Important Art

Neo-Expressionism Famous Art

Adieu (1982)

Artist: Georg Baselitz
Baselitz, who grew up in post-World War II East Germany, was the earliest and most senior member of the group of Neo-Expressionists. His works were distinctive in that he frequently painted his figures upside down as if to create a modern-day counterpart to the 17th-century paintings of a world "topsy-turvy." Though the artist denied ascribing any particular meanings to his works, he nonetheless contributed meaningful figures that served as visual analogues to the upheavals of recent German history. The figures here seem to have no point of origin and are suspended awkwardly between the top of the picture and the empty space beneath their heads, existing in a sort of horrifying limbo. The title of the picture also suggests a separation, confirmed by one figure moving away from the other. Their bodies are sites of violence as indicated by the ferocious and expressive brushwork, and their organic and vulnerable bodies contrast with the abstract geometry of the background -- a background that reflects the figures' emotional states in its intensity of color and paint handling, but which seems also to function in a way that suggests the indifference of a universal pattern.
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Neo-Expressionism Artworks in Focus:


Origins in Germany

Neo-Expressionism arrived in Germany with great controversy when Georg Baselitz opened an exhibition in West Berlin in 1963. The contents of the show were quickly confiscated by the State Attorney on the grounds of indecency; one painting portrayed a figure masturbating, while another depicted a male figure with an erection. His later exhibitions wouldn't attract such extreme reactions, but the iconography of giant, primitive "heroes," and the use of expressionistic figuration in his early pictures, soon drew notice in an art world that seemed to be moving away from such imagery, and even painting in general, judged by the popularity of Pop art, Fluxus, and Minimalism.

By the late 1970s, Baselitz was at the head of a loose-knit group of German artists known as Neue Wilden (the 'New Fauves'). Associated with the label were artists such as Anselm Kiefer, Markus Lupertz, Eugen Schonebeck, and A.R. Penck. Taking as their inspiration the early Expressionist works of George Grosz, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Edvard Munch, the action paintings of Willem de Kooning, and the late quasi-abstract figurative paintings of Pablo Picasso, they together found a new vitality in figurative painting.

Precursors in USA

This period ushered in a revival of painting in the United States, as well. For many, it was considered liberating to create art in this traditional manner, combining abstract and figurative forms, and drawing on a range of earlier styles. An important precursor in the United States was Philip Guston, originally an Abstract Expressionist, who returned to figurative work in the late 1960s in a bold and raw expressive style. Guston was particularly influential; in the late 1960s, he had become disenchanted with abstract painting and developed a style shaped in part by cartoons, and in part by social realism. Historians have also pointed to the paintings of Leon Golub (e.g. his Vietnam series from 1973) as a precursor to the Neo-Expressionists. Golub addressed the socio-political upheavals in America in a similarly emotional and brutish style.

As the movement expanded globally, a wide range of artists were associated with the stylistic shift. Some older artists such as Francis Bacon were claimed as predecessors, while others associated with American trends of the 1970s, such as "New Image Painting," were also linked to Neo-Expressionism.

Concepts and Styles

Since the advent of Abstract Expressionism, painting had become increasingly less focused on subject matter and more concerned with form. Pop art had re-introduced a concern with subject matter of a particular kind, but Neo-Expressionism inaugurated a return to romantic subjects. Some drew on myth and history, while others on primitivism and natural imagery. The first use of the term Neo-Expressionism is undocumented; however, by 1982 it was being widely used to describe new German and Italian art, also happening to be a testament to the end of United States domination of the postwar art world.

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Neo-Expressionism Overview Continues

Neo-Expressionism in Germany

Baselitz moved to West Berlin from East Germany in 1956. Though he had been a rebellious student in East Germany, Baselitz culled his subject matter from his East German roots. The historian and art critic Edward Lucie-Smith notes that Expressionism became the official style of East Germany after WWII because of the hostility shown by the Nazis to the original German Expressionists. Both Baselitiz and A.R. Penck, who also hailed from East Germany, were simultaneously pioneers and rogues within the movement. Both explored the "how" of painting rather than the "why," in method rather than content. Penck created a language of graphic signs that looked back to Picasso and forward to such Graffiti artists as Keith Haring. In 1967, Baselitz started painting his figures upside down, more to point out how the painting was done rather than what it meant (at least in any detailed way). Other members of the Neo-Expressionist group used their work to examine Germany and the problems of its recent history. For these artists, the return to Expressionism was part of a more general shift in society towards addressing the country's troubled modern history. In connecting with a style that pre-dated World War II, Georg Baselitz and Markus Lupertz seemed to be trying to overcome, at least to some extent, the legacy of the Nazis. However, the principle example (and achievement) of transcending the Nazi years would be the work of Anselm Kiefer. Some German Neo-Expressionist art was also openly political as in the work of Jorg Immendorf who turned his attention to the problems of a divided Germany.

Neo-Expressionism in Italy

The Italian version of Neo-Expressionism is often referred to as the Trans-Avantgarde, a term invented in 1979 by the Italian critic Achille Bonito Olivia. The idea, according to Bonito, was to escape the sparseness of the Arte Povera movement in Italy. There is a strong element of parody, which can be seen in the "mock-heroic" work of Sandro Chia, for example. Francesco Clemente, is originally Italian, but left the country to divide his time between India and New York, and absorbing specific stylistic influences from those settings. The most traditionally Expressionistic of the group (and closest to the Germans in style) is Enzo Cucchi. Finally, the work of Mimmo Paladino is described as more individual and more Italian, with works alluding to ancient Italian sources.

Neo-Expressionism in the USA

By the early 1980s, American artists entered the Neo-Expressionist arena. The artists usually associated with American Neo-Expressionism are the group of New York-based artists that includes Eric Fischl, who emphasized human psychology, and Julian Schnabel, who summoned historical imagery to create highly personal works. Sometimes associated with Neo-Expressionism was the arrival of graffiti art in the galleries. This was particularly significant in New York, where Jean-Michel Basquiat became known for his aggressive brush strokes, broad splatters of paint and emotionally-charged subject matter. In many respects, Basquiat - alongside Julian Schnabel - became the poster child for the Neo-Expressionist movement of the 1980s: a self-styled primitive who was eagerly welcomed by the decadent and upscale art world.

The 1980s was a time of great affluence and unabashed consumerism, when the New York art market grew exponentially and the selling prices for contemporary art reached seemingly absurd heights. Rather than reject this environment of commodification, or isolate themselves from the art world, as had many Abstract Expressionists, Basquiat and Schnabel embraced the glitter and the noise fully.

Later Developments

Neo-Expressionism dominated the art market in Europe and the United States until the mid-1980s. However, there is some debate about the ways in which the later developments of Neo-Expressionism played themselves out. Some think that through the artwork of Julian Schnabel, Francesco Clemente, and others, Neo-Expressionism had become synonymous with the more conservative trends in the art of the 1980s rather than with the avant-garde. Even though many of the movement's artists incorporated political and cultural content, few were interested in the leftist politics associated with a contemporary trend, critical Postmodernism. They did not feel obliged to glorify the world or "tamper with reality," as Clemente once put it, but simply to work with form and depict the world as it existed, in all its harshness and ugliness. This led to vibrant discussions on the value and purpose of painting, in which Neo-Expressionism was often held up as an example of all that was wrong with the medium.

Nevertheless, this criticism did little to dampen the style's success, and its decline was a result of the movement's over-production and the collapse of the market at the end of the 1980s. Artists, critics, and the art market -- all intent on making money and/or reputations -- conspired to hasten its end. Scholars have not yet sorted out the exact placement of Neo-Expressionism in the art historical narrative. Some see the movement as a kind of late manifestation of modernism, while others see it as the end of modernism. Theorists Arthur Danto and Frederic Jameson place it within the context of postmodernism with its self-aware, surface-oriented banality and use of pastiche. And there are others who emphasize Neo-Expressionism's role in the transition from modernism to postmodernism, pointing to the two major artists whose work persisted through the collapse of the 1980s art bubble: Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter. Both were able to simultaneously sustain multiple styles, including the traditional application of paint, even if in tongue-in-cheek and thus more conceptually based manner. In any case, enthusiasm for Neo-Expressionism was being steadily subsumed by emerging discussions of, for example, the need for the inclusion of more female artists as well as new directions in appropriation.

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Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

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Useful Resources on Neo-Expressionism





The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: 1981, The Studio of the Street

By Diego Cortez, Glenn O'Brien, Gerard Basquiat, Franklin Sirmans, Arto Lindsay, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jeffrey Deitch, Suzanne Mallouk, Annina Nosei, Michael Holman

Anselm Kiefer: Heaven And Earth

By Anselm Kiefer, Michael Auping

Julian Schnabel

By David Moos, Julian Schnabel, Gian Enzo Sperone, Marco Voena

Georg Baselitz: A Retrospective

By Norman Rosenthal, Richard Shiff, Carla Schulz-Hofman, Georg Baselitz

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Neo-Expressionism Not Remembered Recomended resource

By Raphael Rubinstein
Art in America
February 11, 2013

A German's Path From Neo-Expressionism to Classical Echoes

By Grace Glueck
The New York Times
December 12, 1997

The Meaning of Jean-Michel Basquiat's Life

By William Wilson
The Los Angeles Times
September 4, 1988

Is Neo-Expressionism an Idea Whose Time Has Passed? Recomended resource

By Michael Brenson
The New York Times
January 5, 1986

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