Local Sentiments and Archaic Forms

Francesco Clemente Conversion to Her 1983

Neoexpressionist art in effect initiated the first theoretical debate of the 80s, although it was never recognized as such at the time, so muddled was it by considerations of national identities, shifting styles and allegiances, or crude cultural prejudice. Whether expressed in terms of “false spirituality” (Donald Kuspit’s Spenglerian thesis of cultural decline) or as a social symptom negating artistic innovation (Benjamin Buchloh’s Marxist thesis of of prefascist regression), or as a denial of the rhetorical nature of subjective expression (Hal Foster’s decoding of Roland Barthes through Lacanian theory), in each case the message was loud and clear: it was an unconditional refusal of this “newly promoted art of local sentiments and archaic forms… [which] constitutes a disavowal not only of radical art but also of radicality through art” (Hal Foster) – meaning: the New York avant-grarde.
Finally brushing aside all pretense, Kuspit concluded: this new expressionism is nothing but “a European attempt to take the sceptre of advanced art back” – and here is the telling admission – “even to the extent of wanting to produce a spiritually significant not simply aesthetically to stylistically original art.” In other words, even if the new foreign art happened to be significant, it should be blasted anyway because it threatens New York’s cultural supremacy.” [Sylvere Lotringer on the Third Wave: Art and the Commodification of Theory]

“When people say Jean-Michel looks like art, the occult significance of the comment is that it looks like our expectation of art; there is observable history in his work. His touch has spontaneous erudition that comforts one as the expected does. In the first gallery piece I saw by Jean-Michel (as distinct from his Tag Samo) the observable relationship of his drawing to past art alienated me as immediately as it gratified. The superbombers in the same show, with their egregious lack of art history, had the repellent appeal that commands self-analysis in the viewer (me). I didn’t want to miss the boat. When you first see a new picture you are very careful because you may be staring at van Gogh’s ear. Then I stopped caring about what the pictures should (and might later) look like; regardless of what Jean-Michel’s look like now, they are transmitting signals that I can receive, that are useful, and finally the graffiti bomb style looks like what it’s about and what it’s about is packaging.” [Rene Ricard on Jean-Michel Basquiat – The Radiant Child]

“Getting down to cases, one sees repeated and implicit allegiance to children’s drawing as the basis and ideal for art, as in the old Expressionists. Only now such drawing is calculated in its spontaneity, more inventive than improvised, and full of undiscriminating feeling that does less to give direction than to inhibit any search for direction—it is exactly the inhibition of direction that is achieved by the exhibition of energy. All those signs of energy are no longer signs of aim, but a distraction from soul-searching—from the plunge into the depths for a sign of direction, of inner necessity. The painting of the Americans pales beside the work of the German progenitors of the neo-Expressionism, (such as A. R. Penck) and beside the powerful painterly drawing—for that is what it really is, in the best Expressionist spirit—of the younger German artists. Their work may not be indicative—at least not at first glance—of the “fresh young, unknown German spirituality” that Emil Nolde expected to develop out of the “pain” of the Second World War, “out of the deepest depths” disclosed in its aftermath. But it is certainly less of an example, in Ezra Pound’s words, of an art “made to sell and sell quickly” rather than “to endure or to live with” than the painting of Schnabel. (And this is true even when we recognize that the new Expressionism at its best is a European attempt to take the sceptre of advanced art back, even to the extent of wanting to produce a spiritually significant not simply esthetically or stylistically original art.) However, we see this calculatedly childlike drawing in the simplistic handling of Jörg Immendorff as well as in the bullheadedness of Schnabel, in Anselm Kiefer’s rhapsodic landscapes that work like Wagnerian tone poems in their mix of a few visual motifs and even in Penck’s stick figures with their graffiti quirkiness and seeming quickness of execution, and even in the beatific bawdiness of Sandro Chia and Francesco Clemente, with their “spiritualizing” of the body and its functions. There is a slight sense of spiritual direction in their handling and imagery, but it does not seem sufficiently worked at. The spirit does not come for the asking; only suffering, with its dialectical work against the world, can give one a glimmering of it, but cannot guarantee it. There is little true suffering in any of this work (although its presence is not absolutely excluded), unlike in the old Expressionists, where expression itself, with its difficulties, was suffering.” [Donald Kuspit on Neo Expressionism]

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