Knowing what expressionism was all about makes us perplexed by the fact that its revival was never entirely carried out until the late 70’s. It took a half of century for artists to inaugurate neo-expressionism, a style that emerged in response to the predominant influences ruled by conceptual art and minimalism, which were the most favored styles at the time. Neo-expressionists dismissed the intellectualized and refined approach to art, and turned back to expressing raw emotion (which is why some also refer to it as neo-fauvism or the New Fauves, Neue Wilden in German). They were concerned with the translation of genuine ideas and feelings, rather than the appearance of the final outcome. Nonetheless, they bore in mind the narrative counterpart of visual representation as well, which helps clarify the difference between neo expressionism and abstract expressionism, two of which could easily get mixed up otherwise.
Neo Expressionism held the same sentiment as its predecessor, and it was developed within the frontiers of the same country. Germany was the one to give rise to both expressionism and neo-expressionism, however the latter had almost simultaneously emerged in the United States and across other countries as well, such as Italy, whose Transavanguardia became one of the most prominent neo-expressionist groups. Consequently, the visual style is determined by an ideology rather than a recognizable aesthetic guideline. The neo-expressionists didn't try to evade figuration, but they weren't determined to perfect it either. The painting was often characterized by heavy paint and recognizable brushwork, although not exclusively. The works that fall under this category are hence diverse in style, but known for a similar approach to art - bold, intense, audacious and therefore quite controversial. Once you take a look at the list of artists who fall under this category, you will realize the "controversial" part yourself. In a way, the neo-expressionist approach to art was close to that of outsider art, since both styles shared a lack of concern for contemporary aesthetics.
However, it is not the content of these artworks that made Neo-Expressionism slightly "taboo-ish". The thing that is almost instantly linked to Neo-Expressionism is its connection to the art market, and the sudden boom it made in the 1980's, followed by a devastating collapse (which is also what makes it clearly different from outsider art). For some reason, the artworks that became related to the movement were praised and endorsed at first, and then forcefully rejected in the end. The reasons for this art market affair could be explained in several ways. Neo Expressionism certainly came as a refreshment which suggested another perspective when looking at art, even if only for a little while. On the other hand, it reached its peak in a particularly strange moment, when the art market expanded, which was followed by an increasing interest of investment firms. These were the circumstances that made neo-expressionism too easy of a target in terms of dealing and evaluating art. Consequently, a few of the most prominent neo-expressionists became celebrities whose art dominated the art market in a big way, among them Jean Michel Basquiat, whose life tragically ended perhaps even due to this overnight success, since the excessive amount of sudden fame isn't something all of us can handle with ease.
By the late 80's, it seemed like the art market was starting to lose interest in neo-expressionism, turning to "critical" postmodernism and seeking for a more openly avant-garde approach. What was once seen as a quality, which is the non-idealizing, fauvist outlook on art, was later considered regressive and "traditional", with a negative connotation. Given that the style is mostly associated with painting, as the most primitive form of artistic expression, it also became an example used to illustrate the conservative nature of the genre. Since the conspiracy coincided with the emergence of new art media, the semi-traditional neo-expressionism was destined to face fatal consequences. In addition, the antifeminist undertone that the group was sometimes attributed with was of no help either.
Since Neo-Expressionism wasn’t a regular art movement, it didn’t have its own focus, or a statement, or a manifesto. Artists who carried out the idea, both European and American, shared certain similarities in their artistic approach, although their individual expressions differed greatly. However, the significance of the Neo-Expressionism as a movement lies in characteristics all those artists had in common. These shared features included an extreme expressiveness of color, figurative subject matter, and a significant surface texture. Their work had usually been immediate, committed to the topics that the whole society shared and went through without certainty. It was that indecision that actually explained their vitality and their limitations the best way. The closest relations with the Neo-Expressionism group have had New York-based artists at the time, such as Eric Fischl, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Robert Longo, but their fellow artists in Europe, particularly in Germany and Italy, followed through. The whole movement encompassed trends in Italian Transavanguardia and the uprise of German post-war painters, such as Georg Baselitz, and Anselm Kiefer. Now, let’s take a look at what those leading Neo-Expressionists and their work meant for the world of art.
Georg Baselitz is a German painter and sculptor who founded the Neo-Expressionist group called Neue Wilden (New Wild, or the New Fauves as some call it). Neo-Expressionism in Germany broke away from the intellectual distance, abstraction, and formalism of the Conceptual art as the predominant movement of the 1970s. Baselitz focused on provocative subject matter and the importance of color in his paintings. He was born on the east side of the Berlin wall but soon moved to West Berlin. There, he embraced abstract art, just to walk away from it soon after. Instead of turning to Conceptual art or Pop Art, as many artists did at the time, Baselitz revived the German Expressionism, previously shut down by the Nazis, and he returned the human figure to a central position in the painting and sculpture. Eventually, he became well-known for expressing his beliefs and concerns through artworks, without any taboos or stereotypes, and often with sexual connotation, or of excessively dark nature.
Jean-Michel Basquiat was a New-York based artist who became famous during the 1980s for his emotionally-charged paintings, and quite unique graffiti art which is still considered to be among the most avant-garde artworks of the second half of the 20th century in America. Basquiat was the first African-American artist who gained international fame, and the one who easily transferred from his downtown origins to fine art galleries. His work boosted the Neo-Expressionist movement in the U.S. and Basquiat eventually became one of the most acclaimed American Neo-Expressionists. His artistic practice successfully merged his Punk counterculture attitude with tradition and African-Caribbean heritage, altogether creating quite specific visual collages, which he mainly presented through street art and graffiti.
American artist Philip Guston experimented with social realism and mural painting, and then with a cartoon realism in his early career, during the 1930s. But, he became renown later on, as an Abstract Expressionist. His paintings represented dreamlike scenes with shadowy abstractions hovering like mist in the foreground. “Painting is an illusion, a piece of magic, so what you see is not what you see", Guston used to say. The artist was initially associated with the New York School of abstract art, but he totally abandoned pure abstraction in the 1950s and turned to figurative art and quasi-abstract cartoon imagery. His later work, for which he became famous worldwide, had an enormous influence on the development of Neo-Expressionism in the U.S.
Anselm Kiefer is a German painter, sculptor, and a mixed-media artist. Topics he covers in his art usually correspond with questions of national identity and German history, especially issues regarding the Holocaust. He interrogated these themes in the era when those subjects were still taboo, but his artworks forced his contemporaries to deal with the German past. Although, as the New York Times wrote back in 1986, there were still questions about whether Anselm Kiefer had been too close to troublesome aspects of the German war history. Besides that, the question was asked in the essay named Anselm Kiefer and the Exodus of the Jews, published in the October-December issue of the Australian art journal Art & Text. In that essay, art critic Peter Schjeldahl made one of the first attempts to systematically deal with the content of Kiefer's paintings. Anselm was highly influenced by his German colleague Georg Baselitz, delving in topics such as the history of the Holocaust, but also the occult, cosmos, and mythology.
Another influential figure of the Neo-Expressionism movement in the United States was Eric Fischl, an American painter, sculptor, and a printmaker. His artistic opus includes colorful portraits, suburban interiors, and beach scenes, and topics that occupied Fischl's attention the most were the issues regarding a human body and sexuality. Other than that, Eric Fischl is interested in exploring the modern American society. Back in the 1980s, he became known as the bad boy of Neo-Expressionism, because of his depictions of American marginalized suburbs, referring to everyday life and human vulnerability without any make-up and masks put upon.
Neo-Expressionism movement in Italy was also known as the Italian Transavanguardia, and one of its leading artists used to be Francesco Clemente. Similar to other Neo-Expressionists, his work also contained much of a relation to sexuality, raw emotions, and even brutality. He depicts a dark side of humanity, usually unspoken and held back. In his paintings, Clemente incorporates some visual elements of Surrealism, as well as the signs and symbols of other cultures, such as Hindu spiritualism in India, or the Candomble religion of Brazil. Art critics throughout the 1980s claimed him to be the most articulate among other Neo-Expressionists at the time. He was the one with the simplest technique, too, and with the most international references. Today, Clemente continues to explore individual identity, constantly questioning the idea of oneself.
The sexual connotation was also very strong within the artwork of American painter David Salle. His paintings, installations, and photographs often deal with voyeurism, sex, and the scrutiny. Other than that, Salle’s body of work is inspired by the advertising industry, consumerism, and contemporary events around the artist and around the world. Through his paintings, he manages to make something familiar become odd by using unexpected details or strange compositions. Such work of him is the diptych Comedy from 1995. The left part of it is executed in a historical technique grisaille used for rendering figures, while the right part depicts a home scene derived from a 1950s advertisement, but turned on its side and layered with additional imagery. During the 1990s, Salle involved himself more with the costume design, cinema, and performing arts.
American painter and sculptor, Robert Longo became famous in the 1980s, when he entered the New York art scene with his large-scale series Men in the Cities, which depicted sharply dressed men and women in twitched poses. For this particular series, which he had been creating from 1979 to 1982, Longo photographed his friends leaning forward, lurching backward, or collapsing over the invisible pavement. Afterward, he enlarged the pictures through a projector, and drew them in various sizes, ranging from three-quarter scale to large-scale images. During the process, Longo intentively dramatized poses and standardized the outfit to black-and-white formal clothing. At the time he burst the scene, Neo-Expressionism was at its peak, so Longo smoothly embedded with the movement’s aesthetics. However, his high school fascination with mass media, film and other moving images have led Longo’s career towards making photographs and 3D objects often based on film and television images. Also, the usual topics of Robert Longo’s photo-pieces are the tyranny and potential of mass-media in the world today.
The 90's were followed by a significant technological advancement, which climaxed in the 2000s and the early 2010s. The Internet era was a major turning point in every way, and therefore in art as well, which meant that there was less interest in neo-expressionism in general. Nonetheless, since we are already witnessing the emergence of Post Internet Art, it seems like there is a chance for the traditional genres to rise once again. Painting was proclaimed dead two centuries ago, but it seems like the painting market is doing just fine in 2016 after all. As a matter of fact, the global auction volume for Basquiat's work was over $115m in 2007, which is more than he could've earned back in the 1980's, as the currents seem to be shifting in favor of the 1980's neo-expressionists once again.
Let us try to go back to this article's point of departure. Is expressionism, or neo-expressionism, really a matter of trend or a matter of sensibility? Since the very concept of expressionism is, literally, expressing one's subjective feelings and thoughts with no regard to the external world, there must be some artists who approach art with this tendency today - and there must have been a handful of them who did that in the past, for that matter. Some refer to David Hockney's early works and Francis Bacon's paintings as purely expressionist, however the movement was officially inaugurated a bit later. With that in mind, it's not really clear if detecting expressionism today is only a way of acknowledging expressive painting, or truly finding a trace of influence from the past. In case we do try to form a list of today's neo-expressionists, it would definitely include those who were actually part of the movement back in the 80's and continue to work today, such as Anselm Kiefer or Georg Baselitz, and possibly those who were never officially admitted to the group, but resonated with the style in many ways, such as the South African artist Marlene Dumas. If we try to take a step further, we could end up listing some of the artists of a younger generation. Had Ali Banisadr's indefensibly expressive art emerged a few decades earlier, for example, it might have been placed right next to that of Kiefer and Salle. Perhaps the same thing could be said for Tracey Emin, whose drawings always look like a reflection on the same inner self. But is this really a legitimate way to discern the remains of neo-expressionism? Or is it a term reserved for the decade-or-so long period ruled by the art market? We might have to wait a few more decades to find out.
Featured images: Jean Michel Basquiat - Dustheads, 1982; Anselm Kiefer - Zim Zum, 1990; Francesco Clemente - Alba. All images used for illustrative purposes only.