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Clar Monaco, Julian Schnabel, Sandro Chia and Georg Baselitz, Pictured in Chicago Arts & Books.

Expressionism rides in on '80s' wave of interest

CHICAGO TRIBUNE Arts & Books October 18, 1981           
By Alan G. Artner, Art critic


The resurgence of the expressionist impulse in Europe and America is causing the hottest interest in contemporary painting. Rome, Milan, Berlin, Cologne, New York, Chicago—each of these cities is showing expressionist art to increasingly appreciative audiences. Most signs point to it as the first 1980s trend.


But what is the nature of this art? What does it mean? Why is it is so attractive to artists of different esthetic, social, and political back-grounds?  First, we have to acknowledge the early 20th Century development that gave us the term. This European train-of-thought broke away from traditional artistic, goals by exalting emotion. Old ideas of balance, beauty, and faithful representation were scrapped. Distortion emphasized intensity of feeling. Each element of the artist's vocabulary was used for the direct communication of his Inner life


Quite frequently the artist's expression was linked to spiritual yearning or social concern. Causes were as diverse as the conditions in the countries involved, but much of the important art surrounding World War I was an art of revolt.


The expressionist art being produced today has a similar look. After more than a decade of abstraction that was cool, cerebral, and almost machine made, the new painting usually has figurative elements that- it exalts in a heated display.' Drawing is exaggeratedly crude. Pigment is applied with. abandon. Every mark on the canvas suggests an attempt to reassert the "personal" touch.


It is, then, an art of strong reaction, although its combativeness seems devoid of spiritual or social purpose. We will not be able to tell with certainty until a few more years have passed-and the countries' shared conditions have been determined. But today it appears that the primary thing an American expressionist like Julian Schnabel has in common with the Italian Sandro Chia or the German A. R. Penek or the Bohemian Markus Luepertz is the waging of a largely stylistic battle.


The best illustration of this campaign involves so-called punk or new wave art. We have seen a lot of it here since the Chicago Art Prospective and Chicago and Vicinity Exhibition in 1980. It is a particular kind of expressionism, the one most strongly inspired by popular music.


Punk rock began in England with deep political and social roots. It was music of the poor young working class. But in the American version performers, and audience -were hardly the economically repressed. These were white middle-class kids Involved with punk not for protest but style:   The music led to certain forms Of dress and decoration, some of which persisted after new wave rock had drained the politics, from punk. And just as surely as new wave groups looked back at---earlier music, borrowing and synthesizing, similar appropriations began in the visual realm. Constructivist geometry and 1950s color combinations, cheap materials and campy interior design, childlike drawing and vigorous brushwork—all led to an energetic, nostalgic art tinged with the alienation that is found whenever one style is attempting to gain power over another.


Chicago provided an unusual arena, as the expressionist impulse had never really fallen from favor. June Leaf, for example, could show in New York as a renegade outside the abstract "mainstream"; but here she was firmly a part of one of Chicago's traditions. Whether this long-standing sympathy will help younger expressionists such as Jim Brinsfield, L. J. Douglas, Clar Monaco, Darinka Novito-vic, Michelle Stone. and Michael Zieve is open to question. But it did not take long for Auste Peciura, one of the more eccentric of the new wave set, to move out of the alternative gallery circuit. She now is represented by the Dart and Hamilton galleries, respectively here and in her recently adopted New York. I do not know to what extent these painters have been influenced by contemporary music; none has been as illuminating as the performance artist Vito Acconci who said his work consistently [if unconsciously) mirrored - changes in the lyrics and length of rock songs. The point is rather to emphasize that there is an important relationship between todays music and visual art, one that in its own way is as close as past ties between Symbolist painting and Wagner or Austrian Expressionism and the Second Viennese School.


On a cultural level, the importance lies in the triple-pronged advance of music, art,. and fashion toward a shared esthetic goal. Such unity always gives a trend a better chance of becoming a movement. Declarations, manifestos and statements of principle are no longer required. A movement is noticed as much by the extent of its influence as by anything else. And in Chicago today, the new wave influence, is keenly felt.


No local artist has made as big a splash as Schnabel, who has been occasionally mentioned in connection with a new wave scene, but is really a painter who goes beyond it with several different styles. First tie gouged his surfaces, then he overlaid them with broken crockery, and at last year's exhibition in Chicago, he painted on velvet, as well. The pictures showed are unquestionable attraction to art of the past, and so different was one from another that each could have been painted by somebody else. His work is the most perfect example of how the new expressionism is mainly "about" style.


One of Julian •Schnabers many approaches is to include broken crockery in his paintings, as in the 1980 "St. Francis in Ecstasy."  Beginning of the year. It also had Chia. who along with his countryman Francesco Clemente, already is represented in Chicago private collections. to third prominent Italian. Enzo Cuechi, is sure to follow.)


The triumph of this painting would be its appearance in countries more inclined toward artistic sobriety. such as England or France. It has not yet happened, at least, not to any great extent. But traveling through Europe last summer, Chicago art dealer Richard Gray saw the new expressionism in several sedate places, including Switzerland. A lot of time is needed to catalog the circumstances favorable to transplanting and growth.


“Firelighter" is a 1980 canvas by the Italian Sandro Chia, whose dynamic work already is being privately collected in Chicago.  It is ironic that we have never gotten to know the Germans and Austrians. They have, after all, the strongest expressionist tradition; and long before now it led them to rawer, more troubling forms. Hermann Nitsch used to disembowel animals in his performances and Arnulf Rainer overpainted self-portrait photographs in which he assumed poses observed among patients in a mental institution.' How much more can the new German expressionists tell us about the soul? Even • the mysterious Georg Baselitz [who exhibits all his paintings upside down) is tame - when compared with the other two.


Fundamental tameness is. I think, characteristic of most of the new work. Its stylistic furor provides a surfeit of images, colors, and gestures, but such stimuli literally remain on the surface--every message is only for the eye. Our emotions are as little engaged as our intellect, and the artist's feeling seems primarily a rejoicing in the manipulation of paint. This •accounts for the difficulty of being able to tell just what the new expressionism expresses. We sense it is wrong to say merely fantastic decoration. but despite ourselves, much of the art often proves the verdict right.

© Clar Monaco 1977-2016 / All rights reserved.

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