At the close of the 1970s, painting was declared dead. Four decades on however, and it seems just fine, thriving in art collections, auctions and exhibitions. So what saved it? Perhaps it was neo-expressionism - an aesthetic attitude that rose in reaction to the intellectualised, emotionally remote movements of minimalism and conceptual art.
Neo-expressionist paintings dominated the art market in the 1980s. When their popularity subsided, commentators were quick to dismiss the moment as a flash in the pan; again however, this failed to be the case. Jean-Michel Basquiet’s ‘In This Case’ recently earned a staggering $119 million – up by over 100 times more than it sold for in 2002. Expressionism recurrently seems to transfix audiences, no matter how many times it’s eulogised. But why?
What is Neo-Expressionism?
Art movements are typically associated with a milieu or manifesto. They are self-consciously united, even if the individual members produce distinct work. Neo-expressionism is different. Less a community or aesthetic disposition, it is better described as an attitude or individualistic ideology.
Neo-expressionists privilege subjective experience, the artist’s ‘touch’ and narrative. They balk at idealised form and over-intellectualisation, pursuing some form of emotional truth instead. They often construct their own idiosyncratic visual languages that, like slang, bear some happily obscured relation to reality.
Internationally, neo-expressionists include Jean-Michel Basquiet, Anselm Kiefer, Robert Longo and Philip Guston. In Australia, the Roar artists - who included Pasqaule Giardino, David Larwill and Mark Schaller - were at the neo-expressionist vanguard. The term’s flexibility however, means it can also be applied to artists like Auguste Blackman, Adam Cullen, Philippe Le Miere and Deborah Halpern.
What's the Appeal?
The enduring appeal of neo-expressionism may lie with its contrariness. When, in the 1980s, the rest of the art world was preoccupied with ideas, the neo-expressionists presented raw feeling. Their work was bold, intense, audacious and controversial – far closer to the myth of the artist than their cerebral peers.
Its popularity among collectors now may also relate to context. In an image economy increasingly dominated by the ephemeral and digital, the visceral and tangible directness of painting is a kind of salve. What’s more, neo-expressionism - unlike its modernist forebear - eschews divisions between high and low culture. Basquiat sells for a small fortune, but he also graffitied subways. His work reflected a culture that can be alienating, frantic and dynamic; one where boundaries and meaning are ever-shifting.
Contemporary life leaves a lot to be angry about, yet provides few outlets. It’s no wonder then that attacking a canvas, paintbrush as your sword, has appeal. Like the id of art, neo-expressionism seems destined to resurface, striking chords with an audience hungry for fierce vitality, feeling and story. Viva la expression.