Summary of Neo-Expressionism
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 & Accomplishments
- 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.
Overview of Neo-Expressionism
"I want to make paintings that look as if they were made by a child," Jean-Michel Basquiat said. His raw, subjective work made him a leading figure of Neo-Expressionism.
Artworks and Artists of Neo-Expressionism
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.
Oil on canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Café Deutschland I
Jörg Immendorf was the Neo-Expressionist artist who most directly sought to reconcile his art with social activism, wrestling with the political divide that was Germany at the time. Though he was often frustrated, his paintings all seem to ask: what can art and the artist do? Café Deutschland is a series of 16 paintings by the German painter, of which this is the first. This work demonstrates the influence of earlier German Expressionism (such as the work of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner) in the distorted perspective and "primitive" characterizations of the dancers and fornicators in the left and right backgrounds. The space is that of a nightmarish underground nightclub, where all the people and objects refer to the divided Germany of the 1970s and 1980s. At the left, the eagle of the German Democratic Republic grasps a swastika in its talons. The two diagonal columns in the foreground seem to be made of wood and ice or stone; the wood represents part of the primeval forest of the German homeland, but here is subverted toward political ends, and the ice or stone is perhaps symbolic of the cold war. In the center of the painting is the artist himself. Behind him is the reflective surface of another column in which we can make out the silhouette of the Brandenberg Gate dividing East and West Berlin. The artist holds his paintbrush in his left hand, while his right hand smashes through the "Berlin Wall," attempting to connect to the other side. Can his gesture as an artist combat the East German political figure gazing threateningly from the top right?
Oil on canvas - Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany
Athanor, the title of this painting, is also the name for the digesting furnace (a kind of oven) that alchemists used to try to transform base metals into gold. The building in the painting is based on Albert Speer's design for Hitler's Chancellery building. Through the suggestion of the two buildings, and using an apocalyptic palette, Kiefer brings together the themes of alchemy and the Holocaust. The alchemists and the Nazis, each in their way, employed fire to effect their transformations. The mottled and darkened surface of Kiefer's work looks as if it has been subjected to fire itself, and indeed it has -- the artist as alchemist seeks to transform, through the act (the "fire") of painting Germany's terrible past. Kiefer also used materials other than paint - such as straw, lead, and sand - and was particularly interested in their innate expressive characteristics, as in what happened to those materials when they burned. In the case of this work, Kiefer utilized straw, which becomes ash when burned. But the sheer scale (5 by 12 feet) and physicality of this work imparts to the viewer at least small hope that the creative can emerge from the destructive. Like other Neo-Expressionist painters, Kiefer summons mythic themes executed with compelling methods and emotions in order to explore what is possible through art.
Oil, acrylic, emulsion, shellac, and straw on photo mounted on canvas - Toledo Museum of Art
Scissors and Butterflies
Clemente, pictured here in his usual variety of self-portraits, was one of the few Italian painters who was a part of the international array of Neo-Expressionist artists. Employing a highly sensual style that he assimilated during his many stays in India, quasi-abstract forms combine with human and animal figures. Clemente mixed elements of erotica (influenced by his exposure to Indian culture) with red-hot anger (influenced by his exposure to the grittiness and violence he witnessed while in New York). As was typical of his work, a metamorphosis takes place. In Scissors and Butterflies, these metamorphoses occur between humans and animals, the feminine and the masculine, and the violent and the sexual/spiritual. This inner conflict of existential expressiveness is often found in Neo-Expressionism, but Clemente makes this the central focus of his art as he engages all pictorial elements in the service of self as a way of experiencing the world.
Oil on linen - The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York
King of the Wood
The subject of this painting has been identified by art historian Gert Schiff as derived from James Frazer's The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. The story conerns a pre-Roman priest-king who is murdered by his successor as part of a fertility rite - in other words, the king is sacrificed for the good of the kingdom - was seen as a more collective myth. According to the story, if someone removed a branch from the sacred tree, that person could challenge the king. In this work, the spruce roots refer to this tree in the sacred grove; the king prepares to defend himself with his sword against his murdering successor, but he dies at harvest time and is reincarnated in the spring. The format of the work is that of a triptych and thus aligns itself with the history of western religious painting. The compelling centrality of the mighty figure as well as the scale of the work (over 20 feet long) contribute to Schnabel’s mythmaking. The underpinning of the plates that Schnabel has made use of in his other works (directly influenced by Antonio Gaudi's expressive use of fragments in his architecture) suggests the potsherds and early bits of civilization excavated by archaeologists, and therefore provide here an appropriate backdrop for what is being depicted. Yet Schnabel's broken bits of crockery added something further to Neo-Expressionism; they also allude to the cheap and mass-produced objects of appropriation-conscious postmodernism. This was accomplished at the same time that the Neo-Expressionist personal touch of the artist is visible in the bravura application of paint into which the figure is, in turn, absorbed; the king seems to be simultaneously ready to die and ready to come back to life.
Oil, plates, Bondo on wood, with spruce roots - Collection of the Artist
Two figures occupy the same room, but exist in separate psychological spaces. The light and shadow pattern of the blind creates a cage for the raw animalism of the female figure. Conventional symbols include the fruit for abundance/fertility and the open purse for a vagina; the adolescent boy steals something from the woman's purse and, simultaneously, a glance - gazing upon the self-absorbed and sexually posed woman (possibly his mother). In turn, the spectator looks at the boy, at the woman, and, of course, at the picture. True to Neo-Expressionism, the artist employs a painterly technique with urgent brushwork combined with the subject matter in order to communicate a feeling of discomfort in the viewer. In a moment of realization, the viewer is caught up short with a feeling of complicity in viewing a crime and being a voyeur, at the same time engaging in the aesthetic act of viewing a painting. Fischl's brand of Neo-Expressionism distinguishes itself by inserting human psychology and suggesting that the Reagan-era's "family values" had somehow gone awry.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection, Zurich
Beginnings of Neo-Expressionism
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.
Neo-Expressionism: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
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.
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 and Street 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 - After Neo-Expressionism
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.
Useful Resources on Neo-Expressionism
- Jean-Michel Basquiat: 1981, The Studio of the StreetBy 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 EarthBy Anselm Kiefer, Michael Auping
- Julian SchnabelBy David Moos, Julian Schnabel, Gian Enzo Sperone, Marco Voena
- Georg Baselitz: A RetrospectiveBy Norman Rosenthal, Richard Shiff, Carla Schulz-Hofman, Georg Baselitz
- Francesco Clemente: Works 1971-1979By Jean-Christophe Ammann, Francesco Clemente
- David SalleBy Arjen Mulder, David Salle, Frederic Tuten, Rudi Fuchs, Dorine Mignot