Postmodern Painting

DOUBLE CODING IN PAINTING

The Return of the Repressed

In the 1980s, painting, once declared “dead,” long, the repressed Other of Conceptual Art, “returned.” The “return” of painting could not have happened without the supposed death of the avant-garde and the Postmodern acceptance of the discourse history. Modernism, as it was pointed out, never looked back, only forward. But with the end of the optimism of Modernism, the past history of art began to make a return in the form of dead languages of dead styles. Artists began to look back at these old and dead styles, picking through the ruins of art history. If art was a language, a semiotic expression, then all languages were theoretically available and could be deployed. Thus, the Postmodern painter was a bricoleur, to borrow a term from Claude Lévi-Strauss, a structuralist philosopher/anthropologist.

It is worth pausing to examine this central concept of Postmodernism, so well-known that bricolage has passed into the popular culture as “mash-ups” found in music, literature and film. The fact that Lévi-Strauss was a structuralist thinker need not deter us here because his idea of the bricoleur seemed uniquely appropriate for Postmodern activities. Lévi-Strauss studied the human mind, not the individual human being, but the epistemology of a culture. His idea for the bricoleur as one who assembles came from his own boyhood experiences working with his father, putting together furniture. According to Patrick Wilcken because when Lévi-Strauss began his intellectual career, anthropology was a new science and because his progression through the discipline was interrupted by exile in New York during the war years, the philosopher drew his ideas about how he would proceed into his profession from a number of diverse sources. In his book on Lévi-Straus, Wilcken explained the concept of the bricoleur as developed in The Savage Mind:

Rummaging around their environment, “savages” observed, experimented, categorized and theorized, using a kind of free-form science. They combined and recombined natural materials into cultural artifacts—myths, rituals, social systems—like artists improvising with the odds and ends lying around their studio. The central image that Lévi-Strauss used to describe this process was that of the bricoleur—a tinkerer, an improviser working with what was at hand, cobbling together solutions to both practical and aesthetic problems. La Pensée sauvage—free-flowing thought—was a kind of cognitive bricolage that strived for both intellectual and aesthetic satisfaction…As intellectual concepts, bricolage and the bricoleur were rich and evocative, and would prove influential in the years to come as a shorthand for an off-the-cuff experimentation used in the visual arts, literature and philosophy.

However, the Modernist idea of “experimentation,” which Lévi-Strauss gleaned from his association with the Surrealist artists in New York, morphed into the Postmodern idea of gathering or assembling that which was, as Jacques Derrida expressed it, “already ready” or the traces of styles or the memory of movements available in the history of art. Neo-Expressionism marked not only the return of “big painting” in the 1980s but unlike the predecessor Expressionist movements of the early Twentieth Century, but also the reemergence of representation and the reappearance of subjectivity and individuality, artistic personality and unique “touch.” What is “neo” about “Neo-Expressionism” is that “expressionism” is recognized as a style and a painting technique from the past, and what is “new” is fact that borrowing old styles and techniques is allowed “now.” What is “new” is the notion of the “return”—of painting, of figuration, of objects.

Neo-Expressionism evokes earlier styles and, unlike Abstract Expressionism, cannot be a new stylistic mode. Expressionism can no longer a mode of personal and unique expression of feelings through personalized art. Neo-Expressionism can only be a borrowed, appropriated by the artist as a code for “strong statement” or merely “big field painting.” Neo-Expressionism, like many Postmodern art forms, is openly nostalgic, betraying a longing for the relative freedom of “expression” enjoyed by artists before Greenberg’s Formalist formulas became hegemonic. Neo-Expressionism celebrated the return of painting to an art market starved for commodity. Neo-Expressionism, as with all Postmodern art, is an accumulation of quotations from a past that no longer exists. Painting, like architecture, became double-coded, a semiotic ensemble of multiple times and various places.

Neo-Expressionism was an international style, manifested in Europe in the works of the German artists, Georg Baszlitz, Anselm Kiefer, Jorg Immendorf, and Sigmar Polke, and Italian artists, Francesco Clemente, Sandro Chia, Carlo Maria Mariana. In America, Neo-Expressionism was mostly a New York phenomenon, including Julian Schanble, Eric Fischl, David Salle and the Puerto Rican-Hatian-American artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat. This is not a movement where there were many women, although one could possibly include Susan Rothenberg. Moreover, the male artists took advantage of the Feminist breakthroughs in the arts: the insistence upon biography, the personal, the expressive, figuration and representation, as well as narration.

The idea of a new style itself is bankrupt, and the Neo-Expressionist work of art is an assemblage that refuses unity or meaning while coalescing a unity of form. Notice that the term used is not “new” and all its evocations of the avant-garde but “neo” with its evocations of “return,” as with “Neo-Classicism.” For example, both David Salle and Julian Schnable produced a reiteration of the visual vocabulary and ideas of the Modernist period but do so from a position of belatedness, a key condition of postmodernism. Their work is painting about painting, art about the history of art. How then does one read a text or how does one understand a Postmodern object? The difficulties of reading Postmodern art is underlined by the fact that, unlike Modernist art, Postmodern art does not have the pretension of being separated from “life” or “low culture,” and is, therefore, immeshed in the capitalist realm.

It is no accident that the return of painting coincided with a resurgence in the stock market and the proliferation of new collectors on the art scene. Art was transformed from a secret commodity with its market connections denied by indignant Modernists to a frank commodity that was traded in a ruthless laissez-faire market like a stock or a bond. Frederic Jameson provided a trenchant critique of the Postmodern Condition, resulting in a schizophrenic culture–a culture without place or time. As if one were in Jameson’s famous essay on the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, the viewer wanders about inside the mind of a Postmodern painting seeking an entrance and an exit or a central agora of meaning. For this newly active viewer and for artists in the postmodern era, the meaning of art becomes problematic.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Postmodern Painters

The Postmodern Condition and the International Art Market

Neo-Expressionism was an international style and Postmodern painting was big money. Big painting had returned and the buyers had the big money to pay for it. Art collecting in the 1980s was nothing less than a feeding frenzy on long desired objects—paintings—easily acquired, easily placed (in elegant living rooms), easily stored (in collector warehouses) and easily disposed of (as in dumping a stock). Collectors were nouveau riche, coming into auction houses from the booming stock market. These Nouveaus had plenty of money and wanted to demonstrate their “culture” by accumulating works of “art.” They purchased art as they purchased stocks and the inflated value of art rose like a rocket. Buyers wanted something to buy that was big and visible and impressive—-Conceptual Art would not do, but Neo-Expressionist art would serve to show off their ostentatious wealth and new culture. Unfortunately for many of the artists who made it big very quickly, their stars crashed and burned in the late eighties with the stock market crash at the end of the Reagan era. Some artists survived the economic downturn of the late Eighties, but the buyers never regained their faith in art as a stock that one could invest in.

Postmodern art appropriates plurality through the realm of quotation in the new condition favorable to historicism, which gives access to all styles, all of which are of equal validity. Postmodern artists brought back a variety of dead styles to make a point that the glory days of Modernist originality and creativity were gone and could only be vaguely remembered by turning the pages of art history texts. According to Postmodern thinking it was impossible to go back to the days when art was renewing itself through avant-garde movements. Art was now “dead” and could only function as a ghost or a copy or simulacra of itself by collecting pastiches and constructing parodies of the past. The Postmodern situation is one of belatedness, similar to the placement of Mannerism, coming after the High Renaissance, too late to enjoy the glory. Postmodernism was ironic and was uncertain as to its effects, which were, historically, quite brief and superficial. “Found Styles” from history are taken up by Postmodern painters and left intact so as to be recognizable but are sufficiently manipulated to suggest a novel aesthetic attitude that suggested something new if not “neo.”

Neo-Expresssionism was a term that was both hotly contented and empty. For those who disliked this pseudo-movement, its return to representation was an anathema. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh regarded figuration as a return to right wing politics and Thomas Lawson and other writers saw these works as pastiches of the past or simulacra without authenticity or aesthetic importance. That said, different nations “returned” to painting in various ways for various reasons. In America or in New York, “expressionism” meant “Abstract Expressionism” and, therefore, “neo” meant figurative not abstract “expressionism.” In Germany, “expressionism,” meant Die Brücke or Der Blaue Reiter, which were providentially placed before the Great War and thus beyond the Nazi period. Therefore, it would be too confining to place all of the painters of the Eighties in the (American-named) category of “Neo-Expressionism.” Quite a few artists were playing—and “play” was a key Postmodern term—play with what was called the “language of art,” or the history of artistic styles.

In Italy, for example, there was no tradition of Expressionism and the Italian return to painting took the route of Neo-neo-Classicism. Carlo Maria Mariana, an Italian artist, followed Kiefer’s lead in reviving a dead style. In his case, Mariana revived Neo-Classicism, which was based upon an Italian national style, based upon the Greek culture of ancient times. “Classicism” or the Roman approach to Greek art was then taken up by the French and English after the discovery of Herculaneum and Pompeii in the mid-eighteenth century. The paintings by Mariana are slickly rendered in the dead style of David and Ingres from the early nineteenth century and have the air of slight decadence that marked the last phase of Neo-Classicism as evidenced in the work of Girodet. The content favored by Mariani is art historical, that is, he “repaints” older paintings or references Modernists artists, such as Duchamp, quotations easily recognizable by those who are educated in the history of art.

The problem that faced German artists after the war was to recreate something called “German” art. In order to do be a German artist, Anselm Kiefer, and the other German artists, returned to the last style in existence in Germany before Hitler came into power, Expressionism. German Expressionism was expressive and full of feelings and, above all, spiritual. There had been a disruption in art in Germany, during the Nazi period when avant-garde had been forbidden, putting Expressionism onto the list of “Degenerate Art.” Kiefer brought back the concepts of the original Expressionism but could not return to the source. Expressionism was a style that stood for feeling, but no longer was a brush stroke the equivalent of a feeling. Feeling and expression could only be conveyed to the viewer through codes and symbols. Kiefer combined the scale of Abstract Expressionism’s mural and field paintings with a post-war nihilistic spirituality. Kiefer became famous or infamous for evoking memories of the Holocaust, by producing huge paintings that seemed to have Jewish themes. Understood in America as “big paintings,” his paintings, large multi-media projects, to be understood, had to be decoded by a viewer well-versed in Hebrew learning and in German history.

In America, artists took note of what was going on in Europe during the late Seventies and early Eighties and returned to painting, following trends set by Gerhard Richter. Although these Americans, mostly working in SoHo in New York City, were also called “Neo-Expressionists,” the phrase was a catch-all. Neo-Expressionism in New York would be very different from the same brand name in Europe. In America, male artists took advantage of the Feminist breakthroughs in the arts: the insistence upon biography, the personal, the expressive, figuration and representation, as well as narration and psychological content and used these breakthroughs to become instant successes. But New York had become a more diverse society since the New York School and the art world had begun to grudgingly admit to the presence of women.

One of the best examples of a male artist who was trained during the early years of feminism was Eric Fischl. Trained at Cal Arts, the home of the Feminist Art Workshop, Fischl began as a sculptor and started painting only when he went back home to New York to begin his art career. Fischl’s paintings transgress Greenberg’s recipe for formalism by being representational and by delving into unexplored corners of the sexual psychology of the adolescent white male and his fantasies. The paintings were figurative and narrative and full of Freudian symbols and personal content. A decade earlier, Feminist artists had been criticized for their biographical and psychological subject matter, but representation and figuration had become accepted and Fischl’s stories of adolescent male sexual awakenings made him rich and famous.

Another graduate of a Los Angeles art school who returned to New York, Mark Tansey brought back the “history painting” of the nineteenth century by (re)painting the history of modernism in the style of the 1950s artist, Norman Rockwell. Tansey, a student of art history, “plays” with the audience by bringing back salon style history paintings that were full of erudite references to historical events in art history and postmodern theory. Like the earlier paintings of the previous century, the works of Mark Tansey require a livery or a catalogue guide to the embedded erudite meanings. The inside insider’s joke of Tansey’s method of painting was the fact that he used, borrowed, and appropriated the instantly recognizable illustrative style of Norman Rockwell, a merchant of “kitsch.” According to the thinking of the arch defender of Modernism, Clement Greenberg, Rockwell would be the polar opposite of Pollock, the hero of the avant-garde. Rockwell was the hero of the regular people who loved his weekly covers on The Saturday Evening Post. Using a monochrome palette and painting in reverse, that is taking pigment away or off the canvas, Tansey took his viewer back in time to great events in the history of Modernism. He combined a famous photograph of the first airplane flight by Orville and Wilber Wright with Cubism, by making the airplane a Cubist collage and the inventors of the “first flight” were Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Like much of Postmodernism, his paintings were accessible only to an elite few who had an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of art and of the contemporary culture.

The Postmodern tendency towards bricolage can result in a deliberate aesthetic disunity can be seen in the art of David Salle who assembles a painted object composed of various visual languages. Salle combined languages from high art, low art and decorative art into an over-all style of layered art forms. Postmodern art is understood to be “art as language,” conditioned, mediated, and coded. In contrast to the Modernist effort to stabilize and sterilize art through a limited vocabulary, David Salle’s paintings can be compared to an archaeological site to be excavated. His borrowed images are found in variety of cultural digs or sites and are superimposed, one over the other, in strata that the viewer sees through. Each layer is recognizable and readable but none of the layers interact with each other. Each stratum exists in its own right and any attempt to knit the strata together into a narrative or into a meaning that can be unified is thwarted. Salle presents the viewer with an array of dead languages, a dis-array of found styles that have multiple meanings, all of whom are equal.

in the work of Julian Schnable, the artist assembles surfaces without relying upon traditional art materials. He mocks and makes fun of Modernism’s worship of “surface’ or facture and marks his huge canvases adorned or decorated with black velvet and broken crockery and animal horns and fur. The idea of style itself is bankrupt, and the work of art is an assemblage that refuses unity. Both Salle and Schnable produce a reiteration of the vocabulary and ideas of Modernism but do so from a position of making painting about painting, art about the history of art. Postmodern art is always referential, always referring to other or to past traditions, long dead, but possessing a lingering potency. These “dead” languages still exist but are no longer in active use and yet these codes can still be disinterred and activated by the artist.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]