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. The movement was linked to and in part generated by new and aggressive methods of salesmanship, media promotion, and marketing on the part of dealers and galleries. It was a diverse art movement that dominated the art market in Europe and the United States during the early and mid-1980s.
Neo-Expressionist paintings are typically large and rapidly executed, sometimes with found objects embedded in their surfaces. They are usually figurative, often with violent or doom-laden subjects, occasionally, the image is nearly lost in the welter of surface activity. It developed in the late 1970s as a reaction against conceptual art and minimalism, and became a dominant force in avant-garde art during the 1980s, especially in the USA, Germany, and Italy.
The German artist Georg Baselitz (his painting "Lenin on the Tribune " is shown left) is regarded as a leading pioneer of the neo-expressionism style of art. Other artists associated with this movement include Jean-Michel Basquiat (painting shown below), Arnold Mesches, Susan Rothenberg, and Julian Schnabel. Schnabel is famous for encrusting his paint surface with broken crockery. The titles of Julian Schnabel's works are often as deliberately crude as their handling, for example his artwork entitled "Circum-Navigating the Sea of Shit ".
Neo-expressionists returned to portraying recognizable objects, such as the human body (although sometimes in a virtually abstract manner), in a rough and violently emotional way using vivid colors and banal color harmonies. Other tenets of the movement included slashing brushstrokes, strong color contrasts, and distorted subject matter.
Neo-Expressionist paintings themselves, though diverse in appearance, presented certain common traits. Among these were: a rejection of traditional standards of composition and design; an ambivalent and often brittle emotional tone that reflected contemporary urban life and values; a general lack of concern for pictorial idealization; the use of vivid but jarringly banal color harmonies; and a simultaneously tense and playful presentation of objects in a primitivism manner that communicates a sense of inner disturbance, tension, alienation, and ambiguity (hence the term Neo-Expressionist to describe this approach).
Neo-Expressionist paintings were more concerned with displaying spontaneous emotion rather than traditional conventions. Overtly inspired by the so-called German Expressionist painters Emil Nolde, Max Beckmann and other emotive artist such as James Ensor and Edvard Munch. Pablo Picasso's late paintings, which are often aggressively sexual in subject and almost frenzied in brushwork, were a major influence, although neo-expressionists also borrowed heavily from a wide range of sources and styles, from newspapers and novel covers to classical mythology.
In Italy neo-expressionism is sometimes known as the savantgarde (‘beyond the avant-garde’), and German neo-expressionists are sometimes called Neue Wilden (‘new wild ones’). Various alternative names have been used in the USA, including new fauvism, punk art, and bad painting (the latter because, in spite of the commercial success enjoyed by several exponents, many critics find the work crude and ugly, flaunting a lack of conventional skills). Neo-Expressionism was controversial both in the quality of its art products and in the highly commercialized aspects of its presentation to the art-buying public.