Painting From the 1980s, When Brash Met Flash | Portrait Painting Reviews

In New York at the end of the 1970s, many people thought painting was all washed up. And if not washed up, it had to be abstract — the more austere, unemotional and geometric, the better.

Then came the 1980s and a generation of young painters, like Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Eric Fischl, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, and everything changed. With “Fast Forward: Painting From the 1980s,” an irresistible if flawed exhibition, the Whitney Museum tries to sort out how that happened.

The ’80s artists were initially called Neo-Expressionist, an insufficient term, given their stylistic diversity, but one that signaled their accessibility and flair. They drew from art history, the news, graffiti and pop culture. Their work embraced different forms of narrative, often with psychological or erotic overtones, and new kinds of self-awareness and worldliness. Even those who painted abstractly had it, in the form of humor or outside references. Across the board, many worked in large scale, often physically eccentric ways. Mr. Schnabel’s habit of painting on broken crockery became an emblem of the moment, but was only one variation on the bulked-up or expanded forms of collage devised by these artists.

In a sense, the painting that emerged in the early ’80s was mongrel and illegitimate. In logical art-historical terms, it wasn’t supposed to happen. The much-heralded Pictures Generation, a group of photo-based nonpainters, could trace its pedigree to 1970s Conceptual and performance art, and promised an orderly succession. But this divide is often exaggerated: I can imagine painters like Mr. Schnabel and Mr. Fischl thinking, if the Conceptual and performance artists, and their Pictures Generation progeny, can use figures and tell stories, we can, too.

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The Neo-Expressionists were an instant hit. The phrases “art star” “sellout show” and “waiting list” gained wide usage, sometimes linked to artists you’d barely heard of. Appearances in glossy magazines became routine. And many people were not happy. The Minimalist sculptor Donald Judd wrote that “talent may strike” Mr. Salle and that Mr. Schnabel “may grow up.” Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, a leading art theorist, labeled them “ciphers of regression” — insignificant, backward daubers who would soon disappear.

For a long time, that seemed to be the case. Over the last quarter-century, ’80s painting has tended to be ignored, if not maligned for the macho persona projected by some of its practitioners, and for reheating the art market after the relatively quiet, supposedly pure ’70s.

The Whitney show is the first attempt by a New York museum to survey this period, to feature the art stars of Neo-Expressionism but also to include lesser-knowns and to demonstrate — as with any period — that there was much more going on. Read More

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