Postmodernism and NeoExpressionism


In the postmodern realm, many artists came to the fore, commenting on society through appropriation, each taking into account a unique perspective. The concept of the physical self became an important political and artistic issue during these times. As the 1960's flowed into the 1970's, many social movements emerged and were mimicked through art.


Postmodernism is a revolt against the normalizing functions of tradition questioning the concepts of objectivity or truth, the mainstream, and the possibility of fixed meaning as in language. Both images and concepts are radically polyvalent. The artist is allowed to reconfigure one’s experience as seen with artists such as Duchamp, Johns, and Cage. Postmodernism contains a lack of historical referents in context of an image, often by removing an object from it’s “normal” place, or the use of advertising without regard to previous intent. This appropriation creates an inclusive aesthetic that cultivates incoherence and was influenced throughout the 60’s by the randomness of TV and media. Niel Postman describes that in this era, "All assumptions of coherence have vanished. And so, perforce, has contradiction. In the context of no context, so to speak, it simply disappears (Fineberg 365)."

Sigmar Polke

Sigmar Polke was a German artist who takes seemingly unrelated images are superimposed where art emanates from personality, which is often considered the core of German art. He founded a style called “Capitalist realism” in response to the realities of capitalist mass culture.

Sigmar Polk Bunnies, 1966

Polke began simulating dot patterns of commercial four color printing. (Raster dots) not long after Lichtenstein did the same with the (Ben-Day dots). In Bunnies, irony of the subject of mass-market sex. The closer one looks, the less one sees.

Sigmar Polk Alice in Wonderland, 1971

Polk's Painting, Alice in Wonderland demonstrates things as they exist in images are the reality, a hallucinatory reality in which Polke plays out that Robert Storr described as enduring dynamic between reason and terror expanded consciousness and derangement. Forms are dead and second-hand and “static”.

Sigmar Polk Mrs. Autumn and Her Two Dwughters, 1991

In Polk's Mrs. Autumn and her Two Daughters A sense of Rauschenberg in his free association of image and design.

Gerhard Richter

Richter demonstrates a conscious attack on ideologies both political and aesthetic and at the same time an expression of the state of postmodern. He states,

I pursue no objectives, no system, no tendency; I have no program, no style, no direction. I have no time for specialized concerns, working themes, or variations that lead to mastery. I steer clear of definitions. I don’t know what I want. I am inconsistent, non-committal, passive; I like the indefinite, the boundless; I like continual uncertainty (Fineberg 371).

Richter took a postmodern posture of trying to remain open to the full complexity of experience and made “reality” itself the main preoccupation in his painting.


Gerhard Richter Betty, 1988

Photography and the amateur snapshot were points of reference. Ricther believed that the photograph reproduces objects in a different way from the painted picture, because the camera does not apprehend objects: it sees them. In freehand drawing the object is apprehended in all its parts, dimensions, proportions, geometric forms. These components are noted down as signs and can be reads a coherent whole. "This is an abstraction that distorts reality and leads to stylization of a specific kind. It is for this reason that a photograph you take never really captures your experience, it is a multiplicity of reality where a painting is an interpreted view." He further stated,

A picture presents itself as the Unmanageable, the Illogical, the Meaningless. It demonstrates the endless multiplicity of aspects; it takes away our certainty, because it deprives a thing of its meaning and its name. It shows us the thing in all the manifold significance and infinite variety that precludes the emergence of any single meaning and view (Fineberg 372).


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Gerhard Richter Ema Nude on a Staircase, 1966 and Marcel Duchamp Nude Decending a Staircase, 1912

Richter, in a piece such as Ema Nude on a Staircase makes reference both to history as with Duchamp's earlier painting and the ghostly persistence of the photographic image. Unlike Duchamp, Richter's work has a mater-of-factness and removed nature.

Gerhard Richter Student Nurse (1 of 8), 1966

Richter's piece, Eight Student Nurses is a reference to the victims of Richard Speck, who entered a random apartment on Chicago’s south side on July 14, 1966 and strangled and stabbed them. It was the first highly publicized mass-murder case in America. The blurring of the images gives a sense of distorted reality where the subject becomes unclear. The viewer is thus left to comprehend. Richter stated,

The only paradoxical thing is that I always set out with the intention of getting a closed picture, with a proper, composed motif, and then go to great lengths to destroy that intention, bit by bit, almost against my will. Until the picture is finished and has nothing left but openness (Finberg 372).

Richter intentionally undercut charged subject matter with generalizing techniques and neutral titles. Richter maintains this deliberate detachment in his art. He began using painting as a means to photography.


Gerhard Richter Abstract Painting, 1992

Richter also produces many abstract paintings, but approaches them much differently than the expressionists despite their style. To him,

Abstract paintings… visualize a reality which we can neither see nor describe but which we may nevertheless conclude exists. We attach negative names to this reality; the unknown, the ungraspable, the infinite, and for thousands of years we have depicted it in terms of substitute images like heaven and hell, gods and devils. With abstract painting we create a better means of approaching what can be neither seen nor understood because abstract painting illustrates with the greatest clarity, that is to say, with all the means at the disposal of art, ‘nothing’… in abstract paintings we allow ourselves to see the un-seeable, that which has never before been seen and indeed is not visible.

Richter demonstrates a lack of theoretical commitement and his sense of elusiveness of meaning highlights a fundamental state of uncertainty. These abstracts thus maintain a cold detachment.


John Baldessari

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John Baldessari StudioUmbrella, and Fallen Easle

Baldessari is a Southern California artist who's artwork centered on the barrage of information. He sees images at a distance and in the privacy of his imagination and reconstitutes them. He began collaging from small arbitrarily cropped advertisements that had been discarded from his friend’s advertising company. He re-invents the images with symbols from his own thoughts. Baldessari states,

I wanted the work to be so layered and rich that you would have trouble synthesizing it. I wanted all the intellectual things gone, and at the same time I am asking you to believe the airplane has turned into a seagull and the sub into a mermaid during the time the motorboat is crossing. I am constantly playing the game of changing this or that, visually or verbally. As soon as I see a word, I spell it backwards in my mind. I break it up and put the parts back together to make a new word (Fineberg 374).

Essentially, each individual constitutes a separate reality. This is similar to the objective that Christo has relating to his viewers.


New Pluralism

The Seventies seemed lacking in direction with no new movements. Minimalism and Conceptual art dominated the galleries. There was a feeling that painting had died by the mid 70’s. Motherwell claimed that, "his generation had taken the last significant step in abstract art. Painting has reached a point where youngsters can only add a footnote. It depresses me a little to thing that what was once Indian territory is now pretty thoroughly mapped out (Fineberg 376)."

Barbara Rose launched a show entitled “American Painting: The Eighties” in hope of setting new terms for the next decade in order that they would not “go wrong” as well. The pluralism was the new movement. In this time, many women emerged as well as artists in Europe and California rather than simply New York.


Feminism as a formal political movement took hold as female artists sought recognition within the realm of art history. The concepts of personal identity based on physical reality was important to not only women, but people of race as well. Their positions in society had been repressed for centuries, and artists saw this as a time to express such differences and bring light to such issues.

Judy Chicago

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Judy Chicago The Dinner Party, 1979 (Brooklyn Museum Elizabeth a Sacler Center for Feminist Art

Judy Chicago's work highlights feminism. Her famous piece, Dinner Party is a collaboration by more than 400 women completed between 1974 and 1979. It demonstrates a discourse for women in art and the record of history. Symbolic of women’s achievements and struggles with inscriptions of women’s names on the floor and the table runner. The plates are designed with vaginal motifs.

Nancy Spero

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Nancy Spero Atom Bomb, 1966 and Bomb, 1968

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Nancy Spero Artemis, Lowenfrau, Lion, Woman c. 30000 B and Friends, 1992 and The Not to be Seen, 1988

Nancy Spero is considered a humanitarian and social activist. She used historical images to shape her dialogue. The images are read as symbols leading toward a narrative highlighting the similarities and differences between ages.


Photography became an important vehicle for dissemination of an idea and soon became the focus of many painters following in line with Richter. Artists used projectors to create images that seemed technically precise. Photorealism fed on the detachment of 60’s art (Johns, Minimalism, Pop, and Conceptual art).

Richard Estes

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Richard Estes Grants, 1972, Telephone Booths, 1968, and Downtown Near Broadway, 2003

Richard Estes turned to Photorealism in 1967. He claims that he was "an old-fashioned academic painter trying to paint what I see… Nor do I have any verbal theories behind the work (Fineberg )." His work demonstrates a uniformly sharp focus, equalized a variety of textures.

Chuck Close

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Chuck Close Big Self Portrait, 1967-68 and Self Portrait, 1997

Chuck Close became famous for his large portraits measuring over 9 feet tall. He used Photographs and enlarged them using commercial art techniques including grids. When he went to color he first created his images by overlying four monochrome versions as in printing. His work is thus extremely calculated and speaks to his exploration of photographic and artistic reproductive processes.

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Duane Hanson

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Duane Hanson Janitor, Museum Guard IV, Supermarket Lady, Queenie II, and Tourists II, 1970-1988

Hanson's work brings photorealism into a three-dimensional realm. He produces life-like sculpture like Madame Tussad’s effigies. These figures produce a realistic presence often highlighting popular culture and stereotypes in America.

Richard Haas

Richard Haas Boston Architectural Center, 1977

Haas painted sides of buildings in the seventies working towards a historical view. He states that his "work often involves bringing back an aspect of a place that was somehow lost (Fineberg )."

Charles Simonds

Charles Simonds Installation 35

Simonds work also incorporates a lost reality. He deals with site appropriation rather than a commissioned space. Simonds would leave his small Dwellings in cracks all around Manhattan, resembling the Native American cultures in their design. They were, in essence, mythical civilizations that moved on, through organic growth and chance encounters, to perpetually evolving self-conceptions. These “little people” would build these little cities and then abandon them, migrating around the neighborhoods.

Romare Bearden

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Romare Bearden Prevalence of Ritual Baptism, 1964, Return of the Prodigal Son, 1967, and Black Manhattan, 1969

Romare Bearden is an African-American contemporary of the Abstract Expressionists. He too began at the Works Progress Administration. Bearden turned to Collages of African-American life in 1964 anticipating the collage aesthetic of postmodernism by his recontextualization of images into a perception of reality on the picture plane.

He brought his own Afro-Caribbean cultural heritage into relation with Artistic traditions for the awakening of a broader multiculturalism. His work describes a variety of street life from his childhood memories of life in the South. The collages take on a formal quility much like Cubist Collages of Picasso, but the images are used with no relation to their source.

Bearden often uses recurrent symbols. For instance he describes his use of the train:

I use the train as a symbol of the other civilization – the white civilization and its encroachment upon the lives of blacks. The train was always something that could take you away and could also bring you to where you were. And in the little towns it’s the black people who live near the trains (Fineberg 396).


His unique color sense involving large, flat areas of contrasting hue. Colors vibrate with the intensity of the imagery. The color and design is influenced by Jazz as well due to his experience as a songwriter. The work thus celebrates complexity rather than reduces the extraneous as in Modern art.

Philip Guston

Philip Guston Zone, 1953-54

Guston states, "In an anit-historical position, each artist is himself (Fineberg 405)." His reassertion of the self as the provocative nucleus of art in the seventies and gave birth to a new introspective painting. His work also contains a political dimension while the depth of its existential struggle made painting feel real again.

Harold Rosenberg describes Gustons imaginative grasp on the epoch. Guston saw himself as perpetually beginning again, risking everything to follow an idea into the unknown. He loved comics and wanted to be a cartoonist. He went to high school with Jackson Pollock and they became life-long friends as Guston even lived with Pollock for a short time when he moved to New York. During the 1950’s, Guston focused on action paintings and the materiality of the gesture, the paint on canvas. Concerns “touch” rather than “emotive gesture”.

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Philip Guston The StudioRiding Around, and Flatlands, 1969-70

In the 1960’s his paintings begin too easily elicit a response with their abstractions. Guston states, "The trouble with recognizable art is that it excludes too much. I want my work to include more. And “more” also comprises one’s doubts about the object, plus the problem, the dilemma, of recognizing it (Fineberg 408)." Guston begins to create a dialogue between the ideas of touch and image with his paintings from 1969-1980, and in 1967-68 he mentions that he "became very disturbed by the war and the demonstrations." He continues:

They became my subject matter and I was flooded by memory. When I was about 17-18, I had done a whole series of paintings about the Ku Klux Klan, which was very powerful in Los Angeles… In fact I had a show of them in a bookshop in Hollywood, where I was working at the time. Some members of the Klan walked in, took the paintings off the wall and slashed them… This was the beginning. They are self-portraits. I perceive myself as being behind a hood (Fineberg 408).

The hoods obsessed Guston as he constantly found comic-like ways to portray these beings. Guston continues,

I was really not trying to illustrate, do pictures of the Ku Klux Klan, as I had done earlier. The idea of evil fascinated me, rather like Isaac Babel who had joined the Cossacks, lived with them and written stories about them. I almost tried to imagine that I was living with the Klan. What would it be like to be evil? To plan, to plot (Fineberg 411).

The addition of symbol and image went against the previous expressionism and idea of “pure painting.”


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Philip Guston HeadRoomand Sleeping, 1975-77

Guston later absorbs these symbols into fields of other symbols such as the hand, shoes, boards with nails, brick walls, clocks, and cyclopic heads. He mentions about these paintings, "What you want is an experience of making something that you haven’t seen before. Our whole lives are made up of the most extreme cruelties of holocausts. We are the witnesses of the hell. When I think of the victims it is unbearable (Fineberg 411)."


In 1971 it is said that New York was lamenting the death of painting. That is when a new expressive artistic form emerged returning to image as a method of expressive communication.

Jorg Immendorff

Jorg Immendorff Cafe Deutschland I, 1978

Jorg Immendorff is a Dusseldorf artist who rediscovered painting’s relevance in a series of poignantly soul-searching compositions. At the time the political atmosphere of Germany was ripe for social subjects as well as introspective expressionist painting. Immendorff studied with Beuys reinforcing his dedication to politically engaging works.

Child art stood for beginning again, free of history and convention and was a convention against what the Nazis claimed was the main quality of Modernism. He thus took after Kirchner in his expressive style of paint handling and composition. His simplified style also takes the character of illustration.

Café Deutschland is a Metaphor for the artist’s own psyche looking toward political figures and symbols in a mix that is derived solely from the artist’s imagination. The work is inspired by such artists as KirchnerBenton, and Hannah Hoch. Symbol inhabits the same reality as reality itself resembling the psychotic. In his work, memory, perception, fantasy, and meditated knowledge all interact on the same plane.

Anselm Kiefer

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Anselm Kiefer Quaternity and Zim Zum, 1973

Anselm Kiefer also stems from the irrationality of German existence and the German romantic tradition. His work conveys authorial presence through materials linked to nature which transcends physicality similar to Josef Beuys. Kiefer looked for parallels in world mythology – Nordic, Greek, Egyptian, Christian, Jewish with a mobid preoccupation with death, destruction and renewal seeking personal identity and highlighting cultural origins.

Kiefer would place himself in situations in order to better understand evil with the idea that Satan belongs inextricably to the totality of God. He states, "I think a great deal about religion because science provides no answers (Fineberg 421)." For him painting offers a redemption from the horrors of the dark history and from the spectres of his own unconscious. His work resembles large scale landscapes and density of materials express monumentality. They contain a material presence and symbolism that attract Kiefer to such materials. This focus on materials resembles the work of the American Minimalists.

In Zim Zum, books made of lead for a changing impact of oxidation and weight. Alude to knowledge which contains wisdom and history within itself. Zim Zum refers to underlying creation according to the Zohar, is the act of Zim Zum in which the infinite (Ain Soph) contracted inside Himself to allow for the existence of something other than Himself. This concept comes from ancient Jewish testaments.

Francesco Clemente

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Francesco Clemente AglasPerseverance, and Untitled, 1982-83

Francesco Clemente was an Italian Neo Expressionism who expressed spirituality in the smallest detail of nature. He stated,

My overall strategy or view as an artist is to accept fragmentation, and to see what comes of it – if anything. Technically, this means I do not arrange the mediums and images I work with in any hierarchy of value. One is as good as another for me. I believe in the dignity of each of the different levels and parts of the self. I don’t want to loose any of them. To me they each exist simultaneously, not hierachically… One is not better than the other (Fineberg 426).

To Clemente, the artist is dedicated to the suspension of self yet focuses on the self-portrait as his vehicle. Clemente places himself in changing situations from his own psyche harking back to an idea of surrealism.


New Image Painting

The “New Image Painting” show opened at the Whitney Museum in December 1978. The show focused on a genuinely new aspect of painting that was evolving in the 70’s. It singled out painters who used recognizable images in their work but whose execution was principally in dialogue with abstraction, not traditional painting. Other artists included in the exhibition were Nicholas Africano, Jennifer Bartlett, Denise Green, Michael Hurson, Neil Jenney, Lois Lane, Robert Moskowitz, Susan Rothenberg, David True, and Joe Zuker.


The work consciously demonstrates multiple, interacting but independent layers of discourse simultaneously in their works, carrying off this separation of style and imagery without subordinating one to the other. His work contains freely selected ideas from abstract expressionism, minimalism, pop, and conceptual art without feeling constrained by the dogmas of any of them.

Elizabeth Murray

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Elizabeth Murray Can You Hear MeHer Story, and Keyhole, 1982-84

Murray's work was much in line with the New Imageist painting. She paints the encounter of her inner life with the world and renders this dicodemy of internal and external by superimposing several trains of thought over one another in her compositions without for a moment loosing the interdependence or momentum of any of them. Her work becomes an amalgum of Rauschenberg, Stella, Pop Art, and Expressionism. Murray states,

I had an idea of what it ought to feel like to make a painting. It’s a very ‘inner’ experience. When things go well, you stop thinking about what you’re doing. I was in my last year of art school when I finally put it together and discovered how to get my feelings out. It’s not that you learn to paint – anybody can do that – but you learn ho to be expressive with paint (Fineberg 440).


Her work resembles biomorphic abstractions. They consist of cartoon-like outlines and clear intense contrasting color areas. Murray says, "I think cartoon drawing – the simplification, the universality, the diagrammatic quality of the marks, the breakdown of reality, its blatant, symbolic quality – has been an enormous influence on my work (Fineberg 440)." As her career continued, imitations of the figure increase. Murray stats,

The shaped canvases move to composite paintings breaking apart the composition onto several different surfaces working together. Shattering an image and then putting it back together again. This applied to my art and to my life (Fineberg 440).

At this point Murray began constructing more complicated supports that literally overlap one another as they build out toward the viewer.


In Her Story, a blue figure is abstracted into simple angular forms sits on a red chair with a pink book in her left hand and a coffee cup in her right. Under the book is a low table and behind her is the spines of the chair back. Domestic subjects dominate the iconography. Her Paintings later become as dimensional as fully rounded sculpture. The structures were commonly created through sketches and helped to be put together by assistants, but often times she would change the structure during the painting as she was applying paint to the forms.

Murray demonstrates courage in following a train of association wherever it leads whether it be a formal development of surface into three-dimensional space, or subject matter, or expressive handling. She states,

I never finish a painting without hating it first. There is always a point when I want to throw the painting away. But then over time you start to pull it together; you figure out what you’ve been struggling for. It’s thrilling when you feel like you’ve got the painting, when you really get it. And then it’s over. And then all you have… well, maybe this isn’t a good thing to say. But I ‘m glad that my dealer can sell my paintings because I don’t have any use for them (Fineberg 442).

Works Cited

Fineberg, Jonathan. Art Since 1940, Strategies of Being. Second Edition. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. Print. 2000. 
Sayer, Henry M. A World of Art. Seventh Edition. New York: Prentice Hall. Print. 2013.

Further Reading and Viewing

Harris and Zucker. SmArtHistory.org. KhanAcademy. Web. 2014.


Recommended Reading

  • Adams, Brooks, et al. SensationYoung British Artists from the Saatchi Collection. London, 1997.
  • Alberro, Alexander & Blake, Stimson, eds. Conceptual Art. A Critical Anthology. MIT Press, 1999.
  • Crow, Thomas. Modern Art in the Common Culture. Yale University Press. 1999.
  • Danto, Arthur C. Encounters and Reflections: Art in the Historical Present. New York, 1990.
  •                 Beyond the Brillo Box. New York, 1992.
  •                 After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History. Princeton, 1995.
  • Foster, Hal, ed. The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Post-Modern Culture. Bay Press, WA. 1983.
  •                 The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century. Cambridge, MA, 1996.
  • Hall, Doug & Fifer, Sally Jo, eds. Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art.  New York: Aperture in Association with the Bay Area Video Coalition, 1990.
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