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Neo-Expressionism Not Remembered

by Raphael Rubinstein
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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 doesnt
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 Clementes 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 wed 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 NeoExpressionist 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 styleAlbert Oehlen comes immediately to mind. My curiosity arises, rather, from the
extent of this eclipse. You dont 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 embarrassment. 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 artmaking. 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 workfor 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 Yorks 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 seasons 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 Owenss essay Honor, Power and the Love of
Women. A senior editor ofA.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. Owens 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 Freuds 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, Lu?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 bankruptcyspecifically, the
bankruptcy of the modernist tradition. Everywhere we turn today the radical impulse that motivated modernismits
commitment to transgressionis 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 Kuspits objections, Owenss 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 Owenss degree of outrage. A disapproving remark
about Chias extraordinary prosperity, for instance, grates against the artists subsequent decline in reputation (supposedly
spurred by British mega-collector Charles Saatchis 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 institutionsand the criticsthat 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,
Chias 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
Fosters 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 subjecthow 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 discussesCindy
Sherman, Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince, Gretchen Bender and, working as a team, Jenny Holzer and Peter Nadinincludes
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
What a contrast with many of the painters included in Carter Ratcliff s The Short Life of the Sincere Stroke, which comes
just before Fosters 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 dont 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 Kuspits 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 Kippenbergers work in an American art magazine. Its 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 isnt exactly his cup of tea. He finds the artists workslike those of other Berlin and
Hamburg Realists, as a subheading has itto 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 Kuspits 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
While the anti-Expressionist stances of Foster and Owens seem far more prescient than Ratcliff s and Kuspits 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 Fosters and Owenss arguments that I find troubling. Im 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 Im 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. Im 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 longdefunct 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
artists work or of the period; and, when editors and publishers provide the space, ambitious articles like those Ive 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 its 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 modelclosed spheres where clusters of
like-minded partisans never have to con- front opposing views.
And, if I may, one last point. Maybe we shouldnt be so certain about who won the Neo-Ex vs. Pictures Generation bout.
Lately, Ive 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