Neo-Expressionism Not Remembered

The December 1982 and January 1983 issues of Art in America, with cover art by, respectively, Malcolm Morley and Anselm Kiefer.


AF TER ENJOYING AN initial burst of acclaim in the early 1980s, Neo-Expressionism has fared very badly indeed, perhaps worse than any other major 20th-century art movement. While a few of its leading figures still show with prominent galleries and are covered regularly in the art press, most Neo-Expressionist painters have been totally forgotten. It doesn’t help that major museums generally pretend Neo-Expressionism never existed (the last big show by a Neo-Ex star in a New York museum was Francesco Clemente’s Guggenheim retrospective in 1999). Even in a culture that thrives on revivals, and an art world that loves nothing better than a contemporary work that incorporates a clever allusion to some past art, the cohort of Julian Schnabel, David Salle and Robert Longo, the “3 Cs” (Clemente, Enzo Cucchi and Sandro Chia) and the Neue Wilden remains perennially uncool.

Why did Neo-Ex suffer this near total erasure? Why is there such a consensus about its badness? On whose authority, and by what means, was it consigned to the ash heap of art his- tory? One place to begin looking for answers to such questions is in two issues of Art in America (December 1982 and January 1983) devoted to “The Expressionism Question.” Amid their varied contents, which include a symposium with 19 contemporary artists, feature articles on historical Expressionism and several polemical essays about Neo-Expressionism, it is possible to see the intellectual forces massing against this internationally successful style.

Before we start digging down into this largely neglected chapter of recent art history, maybe we’d better ask why such an excavation is worth undertaking. The aim is not to reveal some lost trove of great art. It could be that most Neo- Expressionist painting really is as bad as its detractors would have it, though, to my eye, there is much worth reexamining in the period, from the still underrated Schnabel to lesser figures ripe for rediscovery, such as Swiss painter Martin Disler (1949-1996), to say nothing of the crucial role that Neo- Expressionism played in the development of important artists who are no longer identified with the style—Albert Oehlen comes immediately to mind. My curiosity arises, rather, from the extent of this eclipse. You don’t have to be a psychoanalyst to have your suspicions aroused when so much effort is expended to suppress an episode and its memory. There was something about this movement and style that inspired incredibly strong reactions, many of them negative. Even today Neo-Expressionism is often seen as an art historical embar- rassment. Perhaps it is worthwhile to return to the scene of the original trauma, to understand the grounds on which it was debated and, ultimately, dismissed.

These 30-year-old debates may also have valuable things to tell us about where we are now in terms of art criticism and art-making. Even though many of the angst-ridden, paint-slathered canvases reproduced in the January 1983 issue seem irrelevant to current concerns, the clash of critical positions within its pages helped set the stage for the discourse that dominated discussions of contemporary art for the next quarter century and still hold sway in some quarters. Plus, many of the painters surveyed in the Decem- ber 1982 issue are still very present and producing vital work—for example, Louise Fishman, recently the subject of two widely noted solo gallery shows in New York. Although in her statement she identifies herself as an Expressionist painter, Fishman is dismissive of Neo-Expressionist painting because “most of it has to do with fashion.” Rafael Ferrer, whose 2010 retrospective at New York’s El Museo del Barrio was a revelation to many, is also skeptical, pointing out the profound differences between historical Expres- sionism and its 1980s revival: “The early Expressionists were people with very little patience. They had no time to consider the nuances of style. Now . . . the artist is someone who takes styles out of the closet according to the needs of the season’s spectacle.” Schnabel, however, points out that Neo-Expressionism emerged in opposition to Greenbergian abstraction, offering an “art that was less elitist, less hermetic. Its subject matter was more overtly related to life.” This theme of hermeticism versus accessibility is touched on in an editorial statement by Elizabeth C. Baker, then editor of A.i.A., which proposes a historical parallel: “The last time a popularly accessible art movement succeeded a relatively esoteric one was when, in the early ’60s, Pop art followed ‘difficult’ Abstract Expressionism.”

The harshest attack on Neo-Expressionism in the January 1983 issue is Craig Owens’s essay “Honor, Power and the Love of Women.” A senior editor of A.i.A., Owens, who would die of AIDS in 1990 at the age of 39, was a prominent voice in the emerging discourse of postmodernist theory. Owen’s article (based on a lecture he had delivered in September 1982 at the Art Institute of Chicago) revolves around a reading of a painting by Chia, The Idleness of Sisyphus (1981), which depicts the Greek hero, clad in a business suit and small fedora, rolling his stone up a kind of painterly slag heap. Owens spins his article off Freud’s theory that artists create “phantasies” because their desires cannot be achieved in reality, and that sometimes these phantasies (i.e., their artworks) actually help them to acquire such real-world benefits as “honor, power and the love of women.” For Owens, the work of Chia and most of the other Neo-Expressionists is doubly at fault: first, by seeking to revive the image of the artist as hero; second, by imbuing this revival with self-mockery:

Chia, Cucchi, Clemente, Mariani, Baselitz, LuÌ?pertz, Middendorf, Fetting, Penck, Kiefer, Schnabel . . . these and other artists are engaged not (as is frequently claimed by critics who find mirrored in this art their own frustration with the radical art of the present) in the recovery and reinvestment of tradition, but rather in declaring its bankruptcy—specifically, the bankruptcy of the modernist tradition. Everywhere we turn today the radical impulse that motivated modernism—its commitment to transgression—is treated as the object of parody and insult. What we are witness- ing, then, is the wholesale liquidation of the entire modernist legacy.

As is evident in his parenthetical remark about frus- trated critics, Owens viewed writers as part of the problem. Elsewhere in the article, he scolds fellow A.i.A. contributor Donald Kuspit for proclaiming, apropos of Salle, “acquies- cence to authority” as a “radical act” and worries that critic Peter Schjeldahl “has increasingly been gravitating towards a Neoconservative position.” At the end of the piece, Owens shifts his focus from contemporary painting to larger social issues, in particular “the authoritarian call for a return to traditional values which, we are told, will resolve the crisis of authority in advanced industrial nations.”

A few months later, in the April 1983 issue, Kuspit struck back with a rejoinder titled “Tired Criticism, Tired ‘Radicalism,’” accusing Owens and other contributors to the debate of promoting a “conception of modernism [that] is hackneyed and unenlightened, and hides the real issues in the struggle between the new Expressionists and other kinds of artists.”1 What blinds these critics to the virtues of Neo-Expressionism, Kuspit says, is the widespread belief that content is less important than style in modern art and the equally mistaken expectation that art should achieve some sort of progress.

Despite Kuspit’s objections, Owens’s brilliantly written polemic makes a compelling case against Neo-Expressionism. And yet, 30 years on, even a sympathetic reader might find it difficult to share Owens’s degree of outrage. A disapproving remark about Chia’s “extraordinary prosperity,” for instance, grates against the artist’s subsequent decline in reputation (supposedly spurred by British mega-collector Charles Saatchi’s decision in the late 1980s to sell a number of Chias from his collection). Something similar happens when Owens cites the fact that the Museum of Modern Art “immediately acquired” Idleness of Sisyphus as “not only a measure of his success, but also an indication that the institutions—and the critics—that support this kind of work must be named as its collaborators.” A look at the MoMA website turns up Idleness of Sisyphus (unsurprisingly “not on view”) and five other works by Chia, all from 1980-82: as far as the MoMA collection is concerned, Chia’s career ceased by the time the Neo-Expressionist controversy really got going.

Whatever institutional and critical support Chia et al. once received has long since evaporated.
The reversal of fortune experienced by Neo-Expres- sionist painters becomes even more obvious when we turn to Hal Foster’s contribution to the January 1983 issue, an article titled “The Expressive Fallacy.” After setting the stage with some philosophical analysis of the themes and techniques of Expressionist art, Foster engages his main subject—how “the work of several young artists reflects critically upon the language of Expressionism.” By relying largely on appropriated imagery and treating the self as a social construct, these artists challenge “the official rhetoric of both our old metaphysical tradition and our new con- sumerist society.” Ironically (from an Owens perspective), the roster of figures Foster discusses—Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince, Gretchen Bender and, working as a team, Jenny Holzer and Peter Nadin—includes two (Sherman and Prince) who are among the most celebrated artists of their generation, another who recently enjoyed a retrospective at the Whitney (Levine), and a fourth whose work has long been ubiquitous in museums and public spaces (Holzer).

What a contrast with many of the painters included in Carter Ratcliff ’s “The Short Life of the Sincere Stroke,” which comes just before Foster’s piece. In this wide-ranging medita- tion on how different artists have deployed painterly brush- strokes, Ratcliff pays attention to canonical figures such as Pollock, Mitchell and Warhol (about whom he is particularly good), as well as many painters whom I suspect are unknown to most contemporary viewers, such as Martha Diamond, Philip Wofford, Alan Turner, Richard Bosman and Charles Clough. Reminding his readers that the “return to painting” of the early 1980s was long in coming and that visible brush- strokes don’t always equal sincerity, Ratcliff unexpectedly cites two mavericks who emerged in the 1970s: Neil Jenney, whose “simulacrum of an Expressionist brushstroke permitted him to go straight to irony” and Joe Zucker, whose “material idiosyncrasy read as the outcome of quirky historical analysis, not as the uncensored outpourings of an estranged psyche.”

The longest article in the January 1983 issue is Kuspit’s “Acts of Transgression: German Painting Today, Part II.” This sprawling survey of the German scene, the first part of which appeared the previous September, is noteworthy for what must be one of the earliest discussions of Martin Kippenberger’s work in an American art magazine. It’s so early that Kuspit (uncorrected by his editors and proofreaders) calls him “Kippenberg.” As a partisan of Neo-Expressionist painting, Kuspit rightly suspects that Kippenberger isn’t exactly his cup of tea. He finds the artist’s works—like those of other “Berlin and Hamburg Realists,” as a subheading has it—to be “not that good, even as satire.” Rather than developing a critical method like the original German Expressionists, these makers of “anti-pictures” are, says Kuspit, “self-defeating” and “undialectical.” The impres- sive scope of the article is offset by Kuspit’s eagerness to subsume the work he discusses into vague categories, using terms borrowed from psychology and philosophy; the art is too often treated as proof or illustration of social and psycho-social conditions. Kippenberger and Oehlen manifest “infantilism,” Sigmar Polke “refuses false consciousness,” Anselm Kiefer “establishes a new sense of the possibilities that might constitute a contemporary German self.”

While the anti-Expressionist stances of Foster and Owens seem far more prescient than Ratcliff ’s and Kuspit’s defenses, identifying early on the artists and themes that would come to dominate the contemporary art scene, there is an underly- ing structural aspect to Foster’s and Owens’s arguments that I find troubling. I’m OK with the assertion that Sherman and Kruger are among the major artists of the 1980s and that Rainer Fetting and Chia are minor figures. But I’m not willing to give up room in the canon for painters such as Joan Snyder or Malcolm Morley or Pat Steir (all of whom are included in the “Expressionism Today” symposium) and many others whose work, I believe, can stand alongside the “radical art” of Sherman and Kruger. In their writings, Owens and Foster filter out all but a few artists because only one medium (photography) and one type of subject (social critique) deserve critical respect; painters are consigned to the wrong side of history. This exclu- sionary approach, which grew out of an ideologically motivated rejection of 1970s pluralism, becomes especially troubling when it is imposed on authoritative art historical accounts. I’m think- ing here of Art Since 1900, the influential two-volume textbook coauthored by five October editors and contributors, including Foster. Although full of brilliant writing, Art Since 1900 offers a dangerously narrow view of recent art history.

There is, however, an excellent corrective to tendentious, cherry-picked accounts. I would encourage anyone curious about retracing the tangled lines of recent art to spend a few hours paging through back issues of art magazines from 10 or 20 or 30 years ago. There you can glimpse the raw footage of art history in all its messy, contentious, inchoate glory. Appearing side by side are ads for shows of forgotten artists at high-profile galleries and ads for debuts of now-famous figures in long-defunct venues; page after page of exhibition reviews written in the moment, before meaning is frozen, and perhaps never read since but preserving within their columns of dense type a sentence or phrase that might forever change your sense of an artist’s work or of the period; and, when editors and publishers provide the space, ambitious articles like those I’ve been discussing here, where critics argue for a particular position, placing their bets, rashly or wisely, on certain artists while doing everything they can to quash the careers of others.

Another thought before I return these issues (though not the issues they raise) to the shelves. Clearly, something was at stake in these early 1980s disputes among critics and artists. Art magazines may no longer be the prime locus where such discourse occurs, but it’s vitally important that we have, someplace, a public forum where we can argue with each other about new art. I often worry that the art world is adopting the MSNBC/Fox News model—closed spheres where clusters of like-minded partisans never have to con- front opposing views.

And, if I may, one last point. Maybe we shouldn’t be so certain about who won the Neo-Ex vs. Pictures Generation bout. Lately, I’ve sensed MFA students responding to the oeuvres of Sherman and Prince with yawns or sneers, but when I bring up Schnabel their curiosity awakens. Could it be that, 30 years on, we are once again ready to take up “The Expressionism Question”?

1. That winter Kuspit was busy defending Neo-Expressionism and the revival of painting on several fronts. In December 1982, Artforum ran his reply to Joseph Kosuth’s anti-painting, anti-Neo-Expressionism rant “Necrophilia Mon Amour,” which the magazine had published in May. Contrasting Kosuth’s brand of Conceptual art with figurative painting by young artists, Kuspit observes: “With Kosuth, self-criticality, and its larger relationship to life, have become overintellectualized, overexposed; art here is no longer subversive, except perhaps to itself. But by exploring a new demonstrativeness, by manipulating symbols both familiar and archaic, the new Expressionism seeks new possibilities.”

RAPHAEL RUBINSTEIN is a New York- based art critic and poet.