“The focus of the new painting is “figurative expression” revolving around a set of problems. These include: how is the will to self-expression and self-experience in painting shown in figuration? How can questions about painting be “figuratively” answered in painting? What are the realms of experience that make figurative imagistic innovation possible, and by what tension do they define themselves, as figural realism or as abstraction? One thing seems certain: “figurative expression” refers primarily to an imaginary image reality whose meaning lies between the illustration and the symbol (or the allegory, or emblem), in associations between forms and reality. As open ciphers these associations refer both to themselves (as painting) and to the experiences of art against the background of a general epistemology. That this can lead to thoroughly contrary solutions is revealed in the two extremes of the commissioned works, the paintings of the “young Italians” (Clemente, Cucchi, Paladino) and those of the “young Germans” (Clemente, Middendorf, Salomé). The works by the Germans, who are part of the Berlin “Heftigen” (“the violent ones”), seem at first glance to correspond most clearly to the “Zeitgeist” theme. They are aggressive, challenging, and in some way reckless. The Italians answer the fragmentation and “brutal beauty” of the German artists with a more placid sovereignty. Just these two polarities, the Italians and the Berlin artists, make it clear that the art of the present cannot be grasped under the heading of “neo-expressionism,” as Hilton Kramer attempts to do in an oversimplistic essay in the catalogue.” [Wolfgang Max Faust on the 1980s Zeitgeist]
“Compared to the neat forms of Minimal art or the carefully calculated strategies of Color-field abstraction, painting of this persuasion has the look of something disorderly, eccentric and irrational. Compared to the supercilious ironies of Pop art, it comes on as something vehement and hallucinatory. And while the imagery of Neo-Expressionism is always in some degree representational, it otherwise has nothing in common with contemporary Realism either. Whereas Realist painting generally shows us a world defined by daylight and dailiness and other commonplaces of quotidian experience, Neo-Expressionism leans in the direction of symbol and metaphor.
There are, of course, great differences within the movement itself, for it is in the very nature of the Neo-Expressionist vision to foster a high degree of individual fantasy and idiosyncratic invention. Julian Schnabel’s paintings, with their bizarre figures, mysterious actions and eccentric surfaces – ”Death Takes a Holiday” is painted on a surface of shocking pink velvet, for example, and other pictures are weighted down with images locked into masonry-like surfaces of broken crockery – are quite the gaudiest and most flamboyant pictures of the whole movement. Malcolm Morley is more of a ”mainstream” painter, producing at times the kind of sun-drenched landscape painting we admire in certain 19th-century masters, yet in a wild picture like ”Camels and Goats” he creates an image that seems to exit from the daylight world of nature to enter the world of nightmare.” [Donald Kuspit on Neo Expressionism]
“Expressionism was an attack on convention (this is what characterizes it as a modernist movement), specifically, on those conventions which subject unconscious impulses to the laws of form and thereby rationalize them, transform them into images. (Here, convention plays a role roughly analogous to the censorship which the ego exercises over the unconscious.) Prior to expressionism, human passions might be represented by, but could have no immediate presence or reality within, works of art. The expressionists, however, abandoned the simulation of emotion in favor of its seismographic registration. They were determined to register unconscious affects – trauma, shock – without disguise through the medium of art; with Freud, they fully appreciated the disruptive potential of desire. Whatever we may think of this project today – whether we find its claims to spontaneity and immediacy hopelessly naive or whether we believe that the expressionists actually tapped a prelinguistic reserve of libidinal impulses – we should not overlook its radical ambition.
In “neoexpressionism,” however – but this is why this designation must be rejected – expressionism is reduced to convention, to a standard repertoire of abstract, strictly codified signs for expression. Everything is bracketed in quotation marks; as a result, what was (supposedly) spontaneous congeals into a signifier: “spontaneity,” “immediacy.” (Think of Schnabel’s “violent” brushwork.) The pseudo-expressionists retreat to the pre-expressionist simulation of passion; they create illusions of spontaneity and immediacy, or rather expose the spontaneity and immediacy sought by the expressionists as illusions, as a construct of pre-existing forms.” [Craig Owens Honor Power and the Love of Women]