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Neo-Expressionism

The first use of the term Neo-Expressionism is undocumented, but by 1982 it was being widely used to describe new German and Italian art. An extremely broad label, it is disliked—as are so many media-derived tags—by many of the artists to whose work it has been applied.

Neo-Expressionism (often shortened to Neo-Ex) was a reaction against both Conceptual art and the modernist rejection of imagery culled from art history. Turning their backs on the Conceptual art modes in which they had been trained, the Neo-Expressionists adopted the traditional formats of easel painting and cast and carved sculpture. Turning to modern and premodern art for inspiration, they abandoned Minimalist restraint and Conceptual coolness. Instead their work offered violent feeling expressed through previously taboo means—including gestural paint handling and allegory. Because it was so widespread and so profound a change, Neo-Expressionism represented both a generational changing of the guard and an epochal transition from modernism to postmodernism.

It is difficult to generalize about the appearance or content of Neo-Expressionist art. Its imagery came from a variety of sources, ranging from newspaper headlines and surrealist dreams to classical mythology and the covers of trashy novels. The German artists have invoked early-twentieth-century expressionism to deal with the repression of German cultural history following World War II. Some American painters, such as Julian Schnabel, use eclectic historical images to create highly personal and allusive works. Others, such as Sue Coe, refer to contemporary events to create pointed social commentary.

Neo-Expressionism’s return to brash and emotive artworks in traditional and accessible formats helped fuel the booming art market of the 1980s and marked the end of American dominance of international art.

Extracts from 'Artspeak' by Robert Atkins (copyright (©) 1990, 1997 by Robert Atkins) reproduced by permission of Abbeville Press, Inc.