Neo Expressionism Art

Neo-Expressionism Art – The Resurgence of Expressive Painting

In their usually large-scale paintings, Neo-Expressionist artists revived the highly textured and expressive brushstrokes and strong colors that had been abandoned by the directly preceding schools. According to the Neo-Expressionism definition, artists represented their themes in an almost primal and brutal manner. Some in the industry started to doubt Neo-Expressionism art’s legitimacy as artwork that was as passionately motivated as, for example, that of the Abstract Expressionists, since it was so intimately connected to the commercial world of production and marketing art in galleries. Thus, contemporary Expressionism’s fame also served as the catalyst for its death.



Exploring the History of Neo-Expressionism Art

Over the years, many artists have developed and recreated elements of the original Expressionism style, which peaked in the early 20th century, but the most prominent revival of Expressionism was initiated by Georg Baselitz, who spearheaded a resurgence that would dominate German art in the 1970s. By the 1980s, this rebirth had become part of a global return to the sensuality of art, away from the aesthetically austere, and detached sparseness of Conceptualism and Minimalism.

Neo ExpressionistAnselm Kiefer installation view (2013); Maryseb14c, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Artists from Francesco Clemente through Julian Schnabel to Jean-Michel Basquiat, all very different in style, started to turn in various expressive directions to produce artworks that affirmed the redeeming power of art as a whole (and painting specifically). They did this by pulling from a range of themes, such as the cultural, the mythological, the nationalist, the historical, and the erotic. Some academics claim that Neo-Expressionism was crucial in the shift from Modernism to Post-Modernism because it revived and embraced historical and mythical imagery in contrast to the modernists’ propensity to eschew storytelling.


The German Origins of Neo-Expressionism Art

When Georg Baselitz launched an exhibition in 1963 in West Berlin, Neo-Expressionism entered Germany amid intense controversy. The State Attorney promptly confiscated the contents of the display on the grounds of immorality; one artwork featured a person masturbating, whereas another portrayed an aroused masculine figure. His later exhibitions wouldn’t elicit such strong responses, but his early paintings’ expressionistic forms and iconography quickly caught the attention of an art world that, judging by the success of Fluxus, Pop art, and Minimalism, appeared to be stepping away from such depictions and even painting in general. Baselitz was at the helm of the New Fauves in the late 1970s, a loosely organized group of German painters. Artists associated with the group included Markus Lupertz, Anselm Kiefer, Eugen Schonebeck, and A.R. Penck.

Taking inspiration from the early German expressionism paintings of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, George Grosz, and Edvard Munch, Willem de Kooning’s action paintings, and Pablo Picasso’s late quasi-abstract figurative works of art, they discovered a new life in figurative painting.


Developments in the United States

This century also saw a renaissance of art in the United States. For many, creating work in this conventional manner, blending abstraction and figurative shapes, and building on a multitude of earlier styles was considered freeing. In the United States, a significant forerunner was Philip Guston, an Abstract Expressionist who reverted to figurative painting in the late 1960s in a powerful and raw expressive manner. Guston was especially important; in the late 1960s, he had grown dissatisfied with abstract art and created a style influenced by social realism and cartoons.

Contemporary ExpressionismEarly Mail Service and Construction of Railroads (1938) by Philip Guston; Philip Guston, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons 

Scholars have also referred to Leon Golub’s works as a forerunner to the Neo-Expressionist artists. Golub reflected America’s sociopolitical developments in a similarly impassioned and brutal manner. As the movement spread throughout the world, a broad spectrum of artists became connected with the artistic change. Some previous artists, like Francis Bacon, were seen as forerunners, while others connected with 1970s American movements, such as “New Image Painting”, were also identified with Neo-Expressionism art.


After Neo-Expressionism

Until the mid-1980s, Neo-Expressionism dominated the art market in the United States and Europe. Yet, there is significant disagreement over how the ensuing phases of Neo-Expressionism played out. Some believe that because of the works of Francesco Clemente, Julian Schnabel, and others, Neo-Expressionism became associated with more conservative themes in 1980s art instead of avant-garde. Regardless of the fact that many of the artists in the movement combined cultural and political elements, few were engaged in the socialist politics connected with the current trend at the time, critical Postmodernism.

They felt no need to praise or alter reality, but rather to work with form and show the world as it appeared, in all its brutality and ugliness.

This prompted heated debates over the purpose and value of painting, with Neo-Expressionism being held up as a representation of everything wrong with the craft. Nonetheless, this condemnation had no effect on the style’s success, and its downfall was caused by the movement’s excess production and the market collapse at the end of the 1980s. Critics, artists, and the art market all combined to hasten its demise, all with the goal of making money or establishing reputations. Historians have not yet determined where Neo-Expressionism belongs in the art view of history. Some consider the trend to be a late expression of Modernism, while others consider it to be the end of Modernism.

Famous Neo Expressionist ArtistPropellerfrau (1969) by Sigmar Polke; Sigmar Polke, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Others stress Neo-Expressionism’s important function in the shift from modernism to postmodernism, citing the two main artists whose works survived the art bubble of the 1980s: Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke. Both were able to maintain many techniques, incorporating traditional paint application, despite using them in a tongue-in-cheek and hence more philosophically based manner. In any case, excitement for Neo-Expressionism was gradually being supplanted by rising arguments about the need for more female painters, as well as new avenues in appropriation.



The Characteristics of Neo-Expressionism Art

As we have discovered, Neo-Expressionism art drew from a very range of art styles. Therefore, it can often be challenging to try and find a Neo-Expressionism definition that encompasses all the various characteristics shared between such varied artists. Yet, there are a few notable common characteristics that can be observed in many of the works produced by these Neo-Expressionism artists.

Here are a few of the more prominent characteristics shared by popular Neo-Expressionism artworks.

  • A notable focus on individual expression as well as raw emotions: Instead of conforming to an impersonal aesthetic, Neo-Expressionism artists attempted to represent their own particular memories and emotions through their artwork. This focus on genuine emotion and unique expression marked a shift from the preceding art movements’ formality and was viewed as a means of reconnecting art with the human condition.
  • The utilization of impasto, bright colors, and bold brushwork: To convey a sense of vitality and movement in their works, Neo-Expressionism artists used a highly emotional visual language, frequently including brilliant, contrasting colors and thick impasto brushstrokes. This was meant to elicit powerful emotions in the observer while also drawing attention to the artist’s unique technique and style.
  • The return to representational art following Minimalism’s abstraction: Following the popularity of non-representational and minimalistic art, Neo-Expressionists reverted to figurative images and depiction in their works, frequently representing the human figure. Following Minimalism’s abstraction, this turn to figurative art was thought to be a means to reconcile art with realism and the human experience. The emphasis on the human form was also meant to express experiences and emotions in an immediate and dramatic manner.
  • A blend of low and high cultural references, encompassing folk art and popular culture: This blending of cultural allusions was viewed as a means of breaking down barriers between different kinds of art and culture, as well as introducing new ideas and viewpoints into the domain of fine art. The incorporation of pop culture allusions also aided in connecting Neo-Expressionist work to the lives and viewpoints of a larger audience.
  • A fascination for mythological and subconscious themes: Many painters were influenced by the subconscious and mythical ideas, which they often explored in their work in profoundly personal and idiosyncratic ways. The fascination with the subconscious and legendary themes was viewed as a means of delving into the recesses of the human experience and exploring universal ideas and symbols. The emphasis on the subconscious also mirrored a broader societal curiosity about psychology and the mind’s workings.
  • A critical perspective on politics and society: They were frequently socially and politically involved, and many of their compositions were critical of modern politics and society. This critical perspective on politics and society was regarded as a method to connect with and remark on current concerns, as well as to bring a feeling of activism and involvement to the realm of fine art. It was also a means of connecting art with the larger world and drawing attention to significant topics.
  • A repudiation of Minimalism and Conceptual Art’s formality and intellectualism: They eschewed prior art movements’ formality and intellectualism in favor of a more instinctive and emotive attitude to their art. This denial of formalism was thought to be a way to reintroduce a feeling of authenticity and passion back to the realm of fine art. The emphasis on instinct and emotions was also meant to provide a feeling of personal connections and human experience in the world of fine art.



Neo-Expressionism Art Styles and Concepts

Since the emergence of Abstract Expressionism, painting has been primarily preoccupied with form rather than subject content. Pop art had reintroduced a focus on specific subject matter, while Neo-Expressionism signaled a revival of romantic topics. Some were inspired by mythology and history, while others were inspired by naturalistic imagery and primitivism. The earliest usage of the word Neo-Expressionism is unknown; but, by 1982, it was commonly used to characterize modern Italian and German art, indicating the end of the United States’ dominance of the postwar art world.

A Neo Expressionism Definitionon den Verlorenen gerührt, die der Glaube nicht trug, erwachen die Trommeln im Fluss (2004) by Anselm Kiefer; Anselm Kiefer, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons


German Neo-Expressionism Art

In 1956, Baselitz relocated to West Berlin from East Berlin. Despite being a rebellious student in East Germany, Baselitz drew inspiration for his subject material from his East German heritage. According to historian Edward Lucie-Smith, due to the Nazis’ disdain for the original German Expressionists, Expressionism would become the official style of East Germany after WWII. A.R. Penck and Baselitiz, both from East Germany, were regarded as innovators and rogues within the movement. Both looked at the “how” of art instead of the “why,” focusing on technique rather than subject.

Penck developed a visual sign language that harkened back to Picasso and forward to Street and Graffiti artists like Keith Haring.

Baselitz began painting his images upside down in 1967, more to emphasize how the artwork was produced than what it represented. Other Neo-Expressionists examined Germany and its challenges in recent history through their works. The return to Expressionism, for these painters, was part of a larger trend in civilization toward recognizing the country’s problematic contemporary history. Markus Lupertz and Georg Baselitz appeared to be attempting to escape, at least in part, the Nazi heritage by identifying with an aesthetic that preceded World War II. The art of Anselm Kiefer, on the other hand, is a perfect example of elevating beyond the Nazi era. Some German Neo-Expressionism art was explicitly political, such as Jorg Immendorf’s works, which focused on the concerns of a divided Germany.

Neo Expressionism DefinitionCover of the Artists Book (1981) by Francesco Clemente; Francesco Clemente and the CODA Museum, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Italian Neo-Expressionism Art

The Trans-Avantgarde is a phrase coined in 1979 by Achille Bonito Olivia, the Italian critic, to describe the Italian equivalent of Neo-Expressionism. According to Bonito, the objective was to get away from the starkness of the Arte Povera style in Italy. There is a significant component of mockery, as seen in Sandro Chia’s “mock-heroic” works, for instance. Francesco Clemente was initially from Italy, but he left the country to spend time in New York and India, absorbing unique aesthetic inspirations from each locale.

Enzo Cucchi is regarded by many as the most classically Expressionistic of the group, whereas Mimmo Paladino’s art is regarded as more unique and more Italian, with pieces referencing historic Italian origins.


American Neo-Expressionism

American painters had embraced the Neo-Expressionist style by the early 1980s. The artists most commonly identified with American Neo-Expressionism art include a group of New York-based painters led by Julian Schnabel, who used historical iconography to produce intensely personal pieces, and Eric Fischl, who focused on human psychology. The introduction of graffiti in art galleries was sometimes linked with the rise of Neo-Expressionism. This was especially true in New York, where the Street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat became recognized for his bold brush strokes, large splatters of color, and emotional subject matter.

Neo Expressionist ArtistInstallation view of Julian Schnabel: An Artist Has a Past (Puffy Clouds and Strong Cocktails) (2014); Dallas contemporary 16, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In many ways, Basquiat became the poster boy for the 1980s Neo-Expressionist movement: a self-styled wild man who was joyfully accepted by the opulent and upmarket art world. The 1980s were a period of extraordinary luxury and unrestrained materialism when the New York art market expanded dramatically and contemporary Expressionism art prices hit seemingly ridiculous levels. Rather than rejecting this commodified atmosphere or isolating oneself from the art world, as many Abstract Expressionists had done, Schnabel and Basquiat wholeheartedly embraced the glitz and chaos.



Notable Neo-Expressionism Artworks

The Neo-Expressionists reinvigorated painting by using bright colors and themes from Cubism, Mannerism, German Expressionism, Fauvism, Surrealism, and Pop-Art. Historians saw the movement as a reaction to the dominance of Conceptual and Minimalist art in Postmodernist art during the 1970s. It incorporated a wide range of national styles of painting that shared certain features. These characteristics included vibrant color expressiveness, figurative subjects, as well as strong surface textualism. In addition, the style represented a return to the more traditional form of easel painting.

Despite the abovementioned shared characteristics, the range of genres encompassed by the word Neo-expressionism indicates that there is no universal agreement as to what exactly comprises Neo-Expressionism art.


Café Deutschland I (1978) by Jörg Immendorff

ArtistJörg Immendorff (1945 – 2007)
Date Completed1978
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions (cm)29 x 21
LocationMuseum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany

Jörg Immendorf was commonly believed to be the Neo-Expressionist artist who most actively attempted to connect his work with social engagement, grappling with Germany’s political division at the time. Despite his frustrations, his works all seem to ask: what might art and the individual do to make a difference? Café Deutschland I is the first of a series of 16 paintings by the artist on the same subject. The warped perspectives and “primitive” portrayals of the dancers in the right and left backdrop illustrate the influence of older German Expressionism. The setting is that of a hellish underground nightclub, with all of the individuals and items referencing fragmented Germany in the 1970s and 1980s. The German Democratic Republic’s eagle holds a swastika in its claws on the left.

The two columns in the foreground appear to be constructed of timber and stone; the wood is a representation of the German homeland’s primeval woodland but is distorted here for political purposes, and the stone is likely indicative of the cold war. The artist is depicted in the painting’s center. Behind him is the mirrored surface of another column, through which the outline of the Brandenburg Gate is visible, which separates West and East Berlin. The artist’s left hand wields a paintbrush, while his right-hand breaks through the Berlin Wall, striving to reach the other side.

Can his artistic gesture counter the intimidating gaze of the East German political figurehead in the upper right?


Bad Boy (1981) by Eric Fischl

ArtistEric Fischl (1948 – Present)
Date Completed1981
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions (cm)168 x 244
LocationPrivate collection, Zurich, Switzerland

Two figures share a room yet live in different psychic realms. The blind’s lighting and shadow pattern provide a kind of visual prison for the female figure’s primal animalism. The fruit represents fertility, and the open pocketbook represents a vagina; the teenage boy grabs something out of the woman’s purse while also casting a gaze at the self-absorbed and seductively poised woman. The observer glances at the boy, the female, and the image in turn.

In keeping with Neo-Expressionism art, the artist uses a painterly method with aggressive brushwork paired with the subject matter to convey a sense of unease to the observer. In a burst of revelation, the observer is struck by a sense of involvement in witnessing a crime and acting as a voyeur while also partaking in the artistic act of examining a painting.

Fischl’s Neo-Expressionism style is distinguished by the incorporation of human psychology and the suggestion that the Reagan-“family era’s values” had gone astray.


Adieu (1982) by Georg Baselitz

ArtistGeorg Baselitz (1938 – Present)
Date Completed1982
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions (cm)250 x 300
LocationCollection of the Tate, London, United Kingdom

Baselitz, who grew up in postwar East Germany, was the first and most experienced member of the Neo-Expressionist artists. His paintings were notable for regularly painting his characters upside down as if to create a modern parallel to 17th-century images of a “topsy-turvy” world. Despite the artist’s denial that his paintings had any special meaning, he still produced important figures that functioned as visual parallels to the challenges of contemporary German history.  limbo.

The individuals in this image appear to have no place of origin and are clumsily poised between the top of the image and the empty space under their heads, dwelling in some kind of The title of the artwork also implies separation, which is verified by one character moving away from the other. Their bodies are “sites of violence”, as demonstrated by the fierce and emotive brushwork, and their organic and defenseless bodies contrast with the abstracted geometries of the background.

This reflects the figures’ emotional responses in the intensity of paint handling and color but also appears to act in a manner that implies the ambivalence of a universal pattern.


Pink Cave (1983) by Louisa Chase

ArtistLouisa Chase (1951 – 2016)
Date Completed1983
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions (cm)213 x 182
LocationThe Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, United States

This Neo-Expressionist artwork comprises several cave entrances rendered in pinks, grays, and black. Louisa Chase was a member of a new generation of painters, a mini-movement known as “New Image Painting” that emerged in the mid-1970s and early 1980s.

Chase’s turbulent, furious, neo-expressionist paintings were acknowledged and celebrated as a repudiation of minimalist and conceptual art. Her paintings are notable for their expressive, abstract depictions of human parts on color fields and inside web-like tangles of markings and lines. Her landscape paintings later took on apocalyptic connotations.

This artwork stands out for its rather mellow tone compared to her other works.


King of the Wood (1984) by Julian Schnabel

ArtistJulian Schnabel (1951 – Present)
Date Completed1984
MediumOil, plates, Bondo on wood, with spruce roots
Dimensions (cm)289 x 594
LocationArtist’s personal collection

According to Gert Schiff, an art historian, the subject of this artwork is based on The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1890) by James Frazer. The narrative revolves around a pre-Roman priest-royal who is killed by his chosen successor as an integral part of a fertility ritual – the king is killed for the sake of the empire. According to the legend, anybody who took a limb from the sacred tree might challenge the ruler. The spruce roots in this artwork connect to this tree in the holy grove; the ruler attempts to defend himself with his blade against his bloodthirsty successor, but he passes at harvest and is reborn in the spring. The artwork’s format is a triptych, which connects it with the history of western religious art.

The work’s size and the powerful significance of the colossal figure both add to Schnabel’s mythmaking. The underpinned plates used by Schnabel in his other creations – clearly inspired by Antonio Gaudi’s expressionistic use of pieces in his architecture – indicates potsherds and early pieces of civilization unearthed by archaeologists, and thus provide a suitable backdrop for what is represented here. However, Schnabel’s chipped crockery contributed to Neo-Expressionism by alluding to the cheaply mass-produced products of appropriation-conscious Postmodern society.

This artist’s Neo-Expressionist personal touch is evident in the virtuosic use of paint into which the figure is consumed; the ruler appears to be both prepared to die and ready to arise.


Athanor (1984) by Anselm Kiefer

ArtistAnselm Kiefer (1945 – Present)
Date Completed1984
MediumOil, acrylic, emulsion, shellac, and straw on photo mounted on canvas
Dimensions (cm)380 x 225
LocationToledo Museum of Art, Toledo, United States

The title of this artwork, Athanor, is also the name of the type of furnace employed by alchemists to attempt to convert gold from base metals. The painting’s structure is modeled on Albert Speer’s concept for Hitler’s Chancellery. Kiefer links the ideas of the Holocaust and alchemy with the suggestion of the two structures and the use of an apocalyptic palette. Both the Nazis and the alchemists used fire to achieve their transformations. 

Kiefer’s artwork has a mottled and blackened surface that appears to have been treated with fire, which it has — (the creation of art and fire both have the ability to transform), the painter as an alchemist strives to transform, through the act of creating, Germany’s horrible past. Kiefer also worked with materials other than paint, including lead, straw, and sand, and was fascinated by their inherent expressive qualities, as well as what occurred to those materials when they burnt. Kiefer used straw, which turns to ash when burned, in this piece. However, the sheer enormity and materiality of this piece give the observer some confidence that creativity might arise from the destruction.

Kiefer, like other Neo-Expressionist artists, invokes legendary ideas and executes them with captivating methods and feelings in order to investigate what is possible with art.


Scissors and Butterflies (1999) by Francesco Clemente

ArtistFrancesco Clemente (1952 – Present)
Date Completed1999
MediumOil on linen
Dimensions (cm)233 x 233
LocationThe Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City, United States

Clemente, shown here in one of his regular self-portraits, was one of the few Italian artists who belonged to the international Neo-Expressionist movement. Semi-abstract elements blend with animal and human representations in a profoundly sensuous manner he absorbed from his many trips to India. Clemente combined erotica informed by his experiences with Indian culture with red-hot rage inspired by his experiences with the grit and brutality he experienced in New York. A transformation occurs, as is typical of his art. These metamorphoses occur in this artwork between individuals and animals, the masculine and feminine, and the aggressive and the spiritual. His inner battle of existential expression is common in Neo-Expressionism, but Clemente makes it the core subject of his painting by involving all pictorial aspects in the interest of self as a method of perceiving the world.


That concludes our look at Neo-Expressionism art and its impact on the art world. It was determined to add something human back into something that had become cold and devoid of any human life or feeling. Neo-Expressionists used their art to convey emotions, ideas, and figures in a way that did not abide by the formalism and stark character of the preceding art forms. Neo-Expressionism often dealt with the political and social issues that were experienced in the artists’ daily lives.




Frequently Asked Questions


What Is the Neo-Expressionism Definition?

Because Neo-Expressionism was not a traditional art movement, it lacked a distinct purpose, statement, or manifesto. Although their particular manifestations ranged widely, the artists that took part in the movement, both American and European, shared some parallels in their creative style. The relevance of Neo-Expressionism as a style, however, lay in the features that all of those artists shared. These common characteristics were great color expressiveness, representational subject matter, and considerable surface texture. Their art was typically urgent and dedicated to themes that the entire society experienced and went through without certainties. It was their uncertainty that informed both their vigor and their limitations.


Who Founded the Neo-Expressionism Art Movement?

Georg Baselitz is a German sculptor and painter who created the New Fauves, a Neo-Expressionist group. In Germany, Neo-Expressionism broke free from the psychological detachment, abstractions, and formality of Conceptual art, which was the dominating trend in the 1970s. In his paintings, Baselitz emphasized controversial subject matter and the value of color. He was raised on the eastern edge of the Berlin Wall but migrated to West Berlin shortly after. He embraced abstract painting there, only to abandon it shortly after.


Cite this Article

Nicolene, Burger, “Neo-Expressionism Art – The Resurgence of Expressive Painting.” artfilemagazine – Your Online Art Source. September 29, 2023. URL:

Burger, N. (2023, 29 September). Neo-Expressionism Art – The Resurgence of Expressive Painting. artfilemagazine – Your Online Art Source.

Burger, Nicolene. “Neo-Expressionism Art – The Resurgence of Expressive Painting.” artfilemagazine – Your Online Art Source, September 29, 2023.

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