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NEO-EXPRESSIONISM: Art of the 1980s

Beginning in Germany and spreading to the United States, Neo-Expressionism comprised a varied assemblage of young artists who had returned to portraying the human body and other recognizable objects in reaction to the remote, introverted, highly intellectualized abstract art production of the 1970s.

Published December 15, 2012 in Weekend Edition      0 Comments    Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article


Julian Schnabel (American, b. 1951); A Boy from Naples, 1985, Etching and aquatint; Norton Museum of Art Collection
2012 Julian Schnabel / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The 1960s and 1970s witnessed what has been termed the “dematerialization” of the art object. The prevailing movements of the period favored austere expression; works with an economy of means often focused on the idea or concept rather than the object itself. In contrast, a return to the traditions of painting and sculpture characterized the 1980s. Beginning in Germany and spreading to the United States, Neo-Expressionism comprised a varied assemblage of young artists who had returned to portraying the human body and other recognizable objects in reaction to the remote, introverted, highly intellectualized abstract art production of the 1970s. New and aggressive methods of salesmanship, media promotion, and marketing on the part of art dealers and galleries helped to form the movement; while some criticized Neo-Expressionism for its political detachment and lack of engagement with broader social issues of the decade.


Julian Schnabel, at the 2010 Hamptons International Film Festival

Julian Schnabel played a critical role in the emergence of Neo-Expressionist painting in the U.S. Schnabel’s heroic scale, gestural brushstrokes, and figurative subject matter marked a radical shift in painting that the aesthetics of Minimalist and Conceptual art had dominated for nearly two decades. Schnabel came to prominence with his signature plate paintings. The series, notable for its heroic scale, flamboyant texture, and distorted subjects, transformed the traditional surface of the mosaic, the broken plates and cups project from the canvas like jagged, sculptural brushstrokes. Later in the decade, Schnabel began making paintings that marked a change in imagery from one of excess to one of deliberate austerity and from pictorial narrative to oblique, linguistic, and visual reference.

Perhaps more than any one work, Schnabel’s career as a whole embodies the baroque sensibility of Neo-Expressionism.The audacious scale of the works; decadent combinations of oil painting and collage techniques; classical pictorial elements that historical art and contemporary culture inspired; and the blending of abstraction and figuration announced a sharp departure from the spare and concept-driven paintings of the 1970s.

From the curatorial notes of the Museum of Contemporary Arts Jacksonville for their current exhibit Refocus: Art of the 1980s.







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