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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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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