How should we think about the legacy of neo-expressionism? At its height in the early 1980s it represented a shift in the direction of vanguard art, away from conceptualist deconstructions, feminist politics and anti-aesthetic dematerialisations, which, in the 1970s, had rendered figurative gestural painting as retrograde modernism. Encompassing ‘Neue Wilden’ in Germany and ‘Transavanguardia’ in Italy, neo-expressionism might have absorbed the influence of a prior generation’s experiments in painterly performance art, but the movement’s concurrence with the revitalisation of international art markets in the late ’70s and early ’80s, signalled a conservative turn, towards what the general public would have recognised as age-old artistic interests in authenticity, individuality, intuitive expression and the weight of history.
For its sceptics, neo-expressionism’s challenge to the reign of conceptual practice centred on its coupling of fantasy and commodification; its artists merely supplied a multinational art market’s thirst for stylistic differences, and for romantic sentiments that made no clear political demands. For its champions, the movement symbolised the very human desire to shirk all labels, or at least to defy categorisation, vacillating between expression and scepticism, individuality and pastiche, history and myth, taste and tastelessness, raw punk and neo-romantic new wave. To add to the confusion, painters as diverse as David Salle, Sandro Chia, Julian Schnabel, Markus Lüpertz, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Georg Baselitz were grouped together in spite of their divergent individual and cultural sensibilities, allowing the movement to be repudiated by those opposed to its spiritualism as well as its cynicism.
Neo-expressionism’s inclusion of graffiti artists—and, via the Bronx-based gallery Fashion Moda, its leveraging of the politics of street art more generally—meant that, for some, the movement conveyed marginalisation and ‘street-smarts’. However, many of the artists’ stylisations of the subaltern (verging on Orientalism) had little, if any, critical pretence, becoming an easy target for art writers looking for evident reflexivity (the October theorists), historical progress (Robert Hughes and Hilton Kramer) and hyperreality (Paul Taylor).
Considered by Craig Owens to be peddling a false redemption, the rapid transformation of neo-expressionism into the status of international art zeitgeist—coming to prominence in A New Spirit in Painting (at London’s Royal Academy in 1981), Zeitgeist (at Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau in 1982) and Documenta 7 (1982)—was the result of its bankrupt bourgeois ambitions, marking its ‘wholesale liquidation of the entire modernist legacy’. Owens continues:
The extraordinary speed with which the pseudo-Expressionists have risen to prominence indicates that their work, rather than creating new expectations, merely conforms to existing ones; when ‘the fulfilled expectation becomes the norm of the product’, however, we have entered the territory of kitsch.1
For those who were paying close attention to such things at the time, neo-expressionism’s ascendency instantly indicated a power shift. In the first publicly exhibited version of Louise Lawler’s sublimely witty 1981 sound work Birdcalls—where she intones the names of various male artists in the manner of a parrot—her citations centred on artists associated with minimalism, post-minimalism, conceptual art, and pop art. However, later that year, after curator Rudi Fuchs announced his ‘individuality’ and ‘autonomy’ themed Documenta 7 (heavy with neo-expressionists), Lawler immediately felt compelled to add the names Julian Schnabel, Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi and Anselm Kiefer to her hit-list.2
The original expressionist painters—such as Franz Marc, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and others associated with Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter movements—evinced a pre- and post-World War One Germany in crisis. Expressionism, which included for a time the pre-Neue Sachlichkeit paintings of Max Beckmann, absorbed the influence of both symbolism and fauvism to promote raw spirituality as well as strategic distancing, in the face of a crumbling bourgeoisie, an inchoate proletariat and an ever-increasing emphasis on rationalisation and streamlined industrial production. The expressionist subject after Nietzsche confronted the natural world as an entity of dread and unrest, informing the name ‘Die Brücke’ (the bridge) as an analogy of the life trajectory of Man, whose responsibility is to will himself from animal to superhuman.
On the one hand, neo-expressionism signalled a re-investment in expressionist metaphysics under the emergent banner of postmodernism. On the other, many of the artists’ obsessions with style, marketability and social climbing converted expressionist wilfulness into (to paraphrase Norman Mailer) advertisements for the self, lacking the political and psychological traumas that motivated Marc, Kirchner and their peers.
One of the difficulties of historically situating neo-expressionism is that its artists’ variegated interpretations of ‘expression’ have made the movement incoherent to the point of meaninglessness. While this is true of all art movements to some degree, it is more palpable in neo-expressionism than, say, conceptual art, whose artists shared neo-expressionism’s internationalism yet were at least united by left-leaning political agendas. The ambiguous political stances of neo-expressionist artists were in many ways the key to their successes, underpinning the new distance from modernism, and opening the floodgates for the soon to be ubiquitous ‘neo’ branding of 1980s art.
From our contemporary standpoint—where art operates around the globe without a ruling historical principle or guiding metaphor—we perhaps no longer feel the need to overlook such differences in individual and cultural dispositions. To this end, German neo-expressionist treatments of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (overcoming of the past) have little in common with American representations of the historical amnesia of an omnipotent capitalism. We would also do well not to overlook the distinct sensibilities of neo-expressionism found within countries themselves, such as that between its Berlin and Cologne artists. As Isabelle Graw has noted, one can go even further to argue that Cologne itself was split between the Mülheimer Freiheit neo-expressionists, who we might say were sincere in their ‘regressions’, and the loose formation of artists associated with Galerie Max Hetzler, such as Albert Oehlen and Martin Kippenberger, who were much more indebted to Warholian irony.3
So, what of neo-expressionism today? Raphael Rubinstein, writing for Art in America in 2013, is unequivocal:
Neo-Expressionism has fared very badly indeed, perhaps worse than any other major 20th-century art movement. […] 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. […] Whatever institutional and critical support Chia et al. once received has long since evaporated.4
This ‘badness’ is, for Rubinstein, due to the fact that many of the ‘good’ neo-expressionist artists are no longer so closely identified with the movement (such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Albert Oehlen and David Salle). Those who are have suffered from their failure to be implicated within a meaningful socio-political terrain, excessively caught up in brash stylisations at the cost of content.
Above all else, neo-expressionism as a legacy is still unclear to us because many of the debates that were central to its hype and denunciation were so overwrought. The discourse on pluralism and the fragmentation of experience that achieved canonical status in the work of theorists of postmodernity, such as Frederic Jameson, tapped into artistic divides between those intellectuals who knew late capitalism when they saw it and those practitioners who preferred the continuity of personal identity. Given our ‘post-ideological’ ideals of inclusivity, such a search for the ‘correct’ reflexive disposition of the postmodern artist speaks to us as a strategy of deferral. Self-declared theorists of postmodernity masked their disdain for the emergence of emboldened capitalist subjects by turning their aversion into an issue of conservative commodity fetishism, equating cultural producers who choose sentiment over self-consciousness with those who choose myths over the concealed teleologies of critical theory.
By the early 1990s, neo-expressionism resembled an art-historical blip—a will-to-power adopted by an anomalous group of artists whose revival of Pollock-era painterly bravado questioned whether figurative spontaneity and art-as-spiritual-expression still had any bearing after the neoliberal turn. As identity politics and installation art reigned supreme, the movement became a symbol of the resurrection of old myths about (male) genius and the artist’s untutored touch—what Roberta Smith describes as something that, in art-historical terms, ‘wasn’t supposed to happen’.5 By 1993, Jeff Gibson was writing that ‘the museums of Europe are littered with Neo Expressionist monstrosities’, and questioned whether the same fate awaited the then contemporary grunge movement—in many respects their ‘anti-anti-aesthetic’ heirs—that artists such as Sean Landers and the emergent Young British Artists were helping to fuel.6
Instead of neo-expressionism as a coherent movement, today we have neo-expressionism as a lingering set of styles. The 2017 Whitney exhibition Fast Forward: Painting From the 1980s, provided an opportunity to reflect again on the movement’s incongruities, making clear its stylistic influence on a host of high-profile millennial and Xennial painters—anyone from Kerstin Brätsch to Joe Bradley, Dana Schutz to Oscar Murillo, Cecily Brown to Michael Williams.
The impact of neo-expressionism in Australian art is visible in early paintings by artists such as Peter Booth, Susan Norrie, Ken Unsworth and Davida Allen, whose distinct practices underscored the mythopoeic and symbolist sides of the movement, verging on the surreal. The 1984 Australian Visions exhibition at the Guggenheim, New York, which included Norrie and Booth, put forth the idea that neo-expressionism was essential to its artists’ responses to the ‘overwhelming presence of the land.’7 Shamefully, given such a premise, curator Diane Waldman failed to include any Aboriginal Australian artists in the exhibition.
In more recent years, a ‘blokey’ strain has arguably entered into the lineage of neo-expressionist style in Australia, epitomised by the likes of Adam Cullen, Ben Quilty and Anthony Lister. Before he started teaching us how to confront our own mortality, Quilty first came to attention in 2004 with his series Torana, which comprises thick gestural paintings of Torana cars that Germaine Greer explains are not to be seen as representative of a ‘childish obsession’ but as the ‘self-destructive urges that lie at the heart of young men’.8 Although being positioned as Australian art’s moral compass, Rex Butler has argued that Quilty’s impastoed paintings want it both ways, indulging in ‘the same overblown “masculinity”’ that the artist denounces, or at least attempts to keep ‘at arm’s length’.9
Quilty adds a tone of socio-political responsibility to the legacy of neo-expressionism—having absorbed the influence of the School of London artists—but perpetuates its sometimes-insipid coupling of media savviness and self-declared psychological depth. As this thoroughly inflated account by Joseph Allen Shea shows, key to his work’s allure is that it seems at once to be the product of both a diagnostician and a quack. Shea writes:
Quilty uses portraiture as a method of psychoanalysis. Using displacement as a method, Quilty removes all the parts of the psyche before replacing each part to build the whole of his subject. As such, the fragmentation of the human mind is represented in his approach as both investigation and application on the canvas. This system of unpacking is suggestive of a heavy-handed surgeon opening a cranium and rifling through its contents. After pulling and probing, the artist adds his diagnostic impressions before disorderly repacking (as if simply a secondary concern) the elements and placing the ‘lid’ back on. This results in an unbound index that in its exposed state communicates more than the closed specimen. A fertile subject with its working parts visible, it is this dissemination that pollinates the deeper understanding of the subject itself.10
Like Cullen and Lister, Quilty wrestles with the legacy of neo-expressionist bathos not just in relation to Australian machoism but also in relation to the rise of the (less macho) neoliberal creative, for whom impassioned, existentialist-style painting serves as a sideshow for the real commodity: the artist’s ‘complex,’ ‘alternative,’ ‘ethical’ and ‘risk-taking’ self.
The work of Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran similarly adopts some of the codes of neo-expressionism to at once exalt and condemn unruly male energy. Using the phallus as a central motif alongside Tim and Eric-style scatological references and dumb visual puns, Nithiyendran’s garish ceramic sculptures, paintings and graffiti installations are framed by both his ‘bad boy’ persona and his Sri Lankan heritage. Like Schnabel’s slipshod yet occasionally endearing use of ceramic plates, Nithiyendran’s work looks as though chance plays an important part of his boredom-fighting processes, combining the crude primitivism found in East German neo-expressionists such as A.R. Penck with the childlike zaniness of Jonathan Meese, whose own parodies of fascism followed Anselm Kiefer.
The zombie-formalist and post-Internet deficiencies of subtlety in Nithiyendran’s work are clearly indebted to media platforms such as Vice and Adult Swim (as well as, in art-world terms, early-2000s Peres Projects artists such as Dash Snow and Dan Colen). However, his practice appeals because any rebel-cynicism it evokes is countered, or confused, by the artist’s more circumspect self-positioning. Inscribing his ceramics with words such as ‘cunt’, ‘suck’, and ‘penis’, he has nonetheless stated in interviews that ‘clay is powerful as it really traces the humanity of the artist’.11 Likewise, his recurrent portrayals of dicks are sincere attempts to counter the ‘phallus-worshiping domain’ of the Internet by taking just as much from Hindu iconography, such as the Shiva-lingam, the worship of which ‘didn’t seem very patriarchal or misogynistic’.12 While Lydia Bradshaw claims that Nithiyendran explores ‘opportunities for equality in sexual agency across genders’, his ceramic works in particular—a medium that is largely associated with women’s crafts—have more to do with the artist negotiating the codes of male libidinal pleasure in an art context where one must make clear the normative value of one’s inclusive principles.13
Nithiyendran refers to his dick sculptures, in part, in terms of the phallic-looking Shiva-lingam. However, there is, in fact, widespread dispute about the Hindu object’s aniconic (abstract), rather than anthropomorphic, significance. The lingam, which from 600 BCE means something like ‘remnant sign’ in Indian Sanskrit, is a cylindrical votary object that typically rests on a globular base. While some Sanskrit myths explain the sexual inferences of the Shiva-lingam, from the 7th century CE the lingam was widely regarded throughout India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka as an aniconic pillar of light or an abstract symbol of god, with no sexual allusions. This understanding comes from a Shaivite myth—Shaivism is a sect of Hinduism—that establishes the supremacy of Shiva over the Hindu deities Brahma and Vishnu. According to the myth known as ‘the epiphany of the lingam’ (lingodbhava), upon encountering a glorious shining lingam—a fiery pillar analogous to Shiva—Brahma and Vishnu attempt to seek the fire’s source. Vishnu becomes a boar and plunges below the earth while Brahma becomes a white goose journeying upward for a thousand years to seek the pillar’s end. Vishnu does not find the base of the lingam and Brahma never finds its uppermost point, leading each to realize Shiva’s eternally omnipresent power—its perpetual source of creation and regeneration.1
This tale of the Shiva-lingam and Nithiyendran’s treatment of it as an Internet-era icon of sexuality and abject taste is indicative of how idealistic and paradoxical modes of self-positioning have remained integral to the neo-expressionist imaginary. Associated mostly with youthful male egos, the legacy of neo-expressionism can be understood as a struggle over ‘unmediated expression’—a philosophical impossibility according to Paul de Man—in a space of total commodification.15 As an aniconic force and a reified sign, the neo-expressionist gesture is directed to be at once emptied of iconography and yet filled with ritualistic, economic and media values, suggesting the artist’s desire to be located between two poles—between criticality and complicity, humanism and commodification, primordial nature and acculturated political correctness.
Georg Baselitz, Im Wald (In the forest), 1990. Oil on canvas, 290 x 260cm. Purchased 1992 with funds from the 1991 International Exhibitions Program. Collection Queensland Art Gallery.
Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, In The Beginning, 2016. Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne. Courtesy the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf.
Ben Quilty, Torana no. 5, 2003. Courtesy the artist.
Julian Schnabel, Pomme de Terre, 1980. Images courtesy Julian Schnabel Studio.
1. Craig Owens, ‘Honor, Power and the Love of Women’, Art in America 71, No.1, January 1983, pp.7-13.
2. Rosalyn Deutsche, ‘Louise Lawler’s Rude Museum’, Art and Contemporary Critical Practice: Reinventing Institutional Critique, eds. Gerald Raunig, Gene Ray, Mayfly, London, 2009, p.75.
3. Isabelle Graw, ‘The Mourning After: A Roundtable’, Artforum Vol.41 Issue 7, ed. David Joselit, March, 2003, p.207.
4. Raphael Rubinstein, ‘Neo-Expressionism Not Remembered’, Art in America, 31 January 2013. Accessed 1 October 2017, http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/magazine/neo-expressio....
5. Roberta Smith, ‘Painting From the 1980s, When Brash Met Flash’, New York Times, 9 February 2017. Accessed 1 October 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/09/arts/design/painting-from-the-1980s-w...
6. Jeff Gibson quoted by Andrew Frost, ‘Change the answers: The Art of Adam Cullen’ Andrew Frost.wordpress.com, 4 November 2009. Accessed 1 October 2017. https://andrewfrost.wordpress.com/2009/11/04/change-the-answers-the-art-...
7. Diane Waldman, ‘Impressions of Australia’, Australian Visions, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1984, p.9.
8. Germaine Greer, ‘Schoolboy doodles? Hardly. Ben Quilty’s cars are a glimpse into the male psyche’, Guardian, 26 October 2009. Accessed 1 October 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/oct/26/germaine-greer-ben-...
9. Rex Butler, ‘In a Post-Critical Moment’, 2008 Melbourne Art Fair Catalogue, 2008. Accessed 1 October 2017. https://espace.library.uq.edu.au/data/UQ_159422/PostCritical_Moment.pdf =1509405344
10. Joseph Allen Shea, ‘Ben Quilty: Alien’, Galerie Allen, Paris, press release, 2014. Accessed 1 October 2017. https://www.artforum.com/uploads/guide.002/id29194/press_release.pdf
11. Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, ‘Inside the Studio of Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran’, Interview with Vicki Grima, Journal of Australian Ceramics, April 2015. p.75. 12. Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran quoted by Bianca Soldani, ‘Culture, religion and phallus-worship: Meet the Sri Lankan-Australian artist bringing it all together’, sbs.com.au, 21 December 2016. Accessed 1 October 2017. http://www.sbs.com.au/topics/life/culture/article/2016/11/29/culture-rel...
13. Lydia Bradshaw, ‘Profile: Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran’, Framework, Issue 2, 2013, pp.6-7.
14. Wendy Doniger, ‘God’s Body, or, The Lingam Made Flesh: Conflicts over the Representation of the Sexual Body of the Hindu God Shiva’, Social Research, Vol.78, No.2, Summer, 2011, pp.485-508.
15. See Paul de Man, ‘Criticism and Crisis’, in Blindness and Insight, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1983.
Wes Hill teaches art history and visual culture in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Southern Cross University, Northern New South Wales. His recent book Art after the Hipster is published by Palgrave Macmillan.