press release

Bringing together a selection of works from Tate and The UBS Art Collection, this display looks at the international revival of painting in the 1980s.

Completed in September 1980, AR Penck's West features a number of shapes, symbols and simple figures that animate a white space. Their actions and interactions aren't immediately apparent, but Penck provides us with some clues. A large figure on the left side of the painting holds a cross and a dollar sign, representations of church and capital in western society, while, standing next to it, a figure with an eagle's head can be interpreted as a symbol of government. Underway in the top half of the image is some kind of chase involving a character wielding a hammer and sickle and a smaller figure on the run. This person in flight is a depiction of the artist. West was completed a month after Penck emigrated from East to West Germany and his painting, in part, tells of the artist's journey.

For Penck, like many artists who came to international prominence at the end of the 1970s, figurative painting is a way of expressing autobiographical detail in relation to wider social, political and historical events. The apparently rapid execution of his painting and his use of imagery are typical of what became known as Neo-Expressionist painting. This broad term encompassed smaller national groups such as Germany's Neue Wilden ('new wild ones' or 'new Fauves'), which included Penck, Markus Lüpertz and Georg Baselitz; and the Italian Transavanguardia, who favoured myth and magic over political subject matter and included Mimmo Paladino, Francesco Clemente, Sandro Chia and Enzo Cucchi. Covering a diverse range of styles and attitudes, Neo-Expressionism was also applied to the grandly orchestrated and often irony-inflected paintings of American artists like Julian Schnabel, as well as the more overtly Romantic work of the British artist Christopher Le Brun.

What these artists share, in spite of their age and geographical differences, is their reaction to the art that dominated the preceding decade. Minimalism and Conceptualism, which emphasised abstraction and ideas, gave way to figuration, symbolism and emotion. For the Neo-Expressionists, a return to painting meant that personal, religious, mythological and literary references were no longer off-limits. Evidence of the artist's hand, which had been banished from Minimalism, was now brought to the fore. The exhibition A New Spirit in Painting, held at the Royal Academy in London in 1981, brought Neo-Expressionism to wider public consciousness, providing a spotlight for young or relatively unknown artists such as Baselitz, Penck and Schnabel.

Mimmo Paladino was also included. He has used the word 'nomadism' to describe his eclectic approach to subject matter and the fluidity of his visual language, which weaves together strands of, among other things, Etruscan and Ancient Roman art, secular and religious subject matter. Three Comets 1983 is a typically enigmatic example of his work. Against a blood-red background, three figures are engaged in a mysterious exchange that assumes religious significance. Ritual, sacrifice and renewal are the themes of Paladino's art. However, we are never entirely able to unravel his iconography and remain positioned on the threshold between old and new, allegory and actuality. A decorated sheep's skull has been attached to this canvas, compounding the effect of real and painted worlds colliding, while amplifying a sense of mystery and magic.

In Tobacco vs Red Chief 1981–82, the American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat takes us in a different direction. Using techniques inspired by his background as a graffiti artist, Basquiat comments on stereotypes of black artists and American myth, and asks awkward questions about the cost of economic, political and cultural dominance. Raising his right hand in a traditional gesture of greeting, the Native American Chief reveals a clutch of cigars which, because of the decorative barbed wire framing the image and confining the figure, appear to have been exchanged for land.

With its clean vertical division, one half composed of rows of circles, the other depicting a naked girl kneeling on a chair, the diptych My Subjectivity 1981 by American artist David Salle cannot be said to be expressionist in style or content but it helps us to understand the breadth of work made under the umbrella of Neo-Expressionism. Whereas first generation Expressionists and, later, Abstract Expressionists considered painting to be a way of delving into the unconscious or arriving at essential truths, Salle and many of his contemporaries bring self-awareness, detachment, doubt and a multiplicity of ideas to their work. In Salle's paintings we are often presented with apparently incongruous imagery, combining the banal and provocative but rarely alluding to a specific narrative. Filling his work with fragments, quotations and obliquities which he neither tries to conceal nor explain, Salle explores a discomforting world of alienation and voyeurism. We are, in some respects, light years from Penck's energetic storytelling. However, this intense period of re-evaluation and rejuvenation affirmed painting’'s ability to speak in a multitude of voices and express countless attitudes, temperaments and realities – qualities that account for the medium's continuing vitality.

Text by Martin Coomer

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UBS Openings:
Paintings from the 1980s

Künstler: Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Salle, A. R. Penck, Markus Lüpertz, Georg Baselitz, Mimmo Paladino, Francesco Clemente, Sandro Chia, Enzo Cucchi, Julian Schnabel, Christopher Le Brun ...