After years of “pure” abstraction, media inflected Pop Art and the rarified conceptualism of the 60s painters found that they needed something different – a different idea of painting and imagery. American artists were looking back to ignored or discarded forms of Modernism – Post Impressionism, DaDa and Surrealism – rather than the prescribed pathways of Impressionism and Cubism. This reexamination of Modernism brought a different conceptual critical approach to both imagery and abstraction. It also allowed narrative structures (both critical and personal) into the processes of painting. Artists like Miro, Picabia, Dali, Beckmann, de Chirico – the experimentation of the Return to Order during the 20s and 30s – Brecht, Artaud and Beckett – Benjamin, Adorno and Arendt – all were rediscovered and valued. For European artists all of this was natural – a continuation of their history. For the entrenched American institutions – this reformulation of painting history, the new influx of European philosophy and the rise of Postmodernism were seen as a rebuke and a betrayal of America’s Exceptionalism.
Painters in the seventies had it tough. There was little interest in painting. In fact – it seemed there was little interest in art. But all through the seventies all kinds of American Artists were looking at European art – Neorealism & the French New Wave in cinema, Surrealism and Expressionism in theatre and painting, critical theory from the Frankfurt school and the French Poststructuralism – all of it heady, unknown, decadent and dark in its way. New ideas and old provocations began to make their way into the American cultural imagination, and we began to reinterpret our histories.
Once the eighties arrived America had chosen a different societal path – away from depression era economics, Cold War diplomacy and Marxist influenced theoretics. And money, big money, global money, began to pour into the art world. This influx of capital would change our relationships to art, theory and culture by reflecting the history of the Modern avant garde through the funhouse mirror of money. Many of us still protest this fact, but in truth we were the ones creating this Neo-Liberal art world. The art world looks as it does today, because we wanted it that way – success changes everything and warps one’s idea of the past. It’s easy to forget the High Times Hard Times and the radical experimentation of the seventies. We tend to see that decade as transitory, ineffectual, and defeated. In truth it wasn’t any of those things. Instead it produced America’s last radical and expansive avant garde of the 20th Century.