How to Recognize Neo-expressionism (With Examples)

Neo-expressionism was a broadly defined tendency towards figurative, painterly expressionism during the 1970s and 1980s.

May 8, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

how to recognize neo expressionism art paintings


Neo-expressionism was a widespread, international revival of figurative, expressionistic painting styles that occurred during the 1970s and 1980s. The loosely defined movement arose as an antidote to the prevailing styles of Minimalism and Conceptual Art that had dominated the art world throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Artists also rejected the purity of earlier Abstract Expressionism, bringing in a series of narrative, mythological and real world references. Predominantly a painting movement, leaders who paved the way included Philip Guston, Julian Schnabel, Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, Jean Michel Basquiat, Albert Oehlen, Martin Kippenberger, Steven Campbell, Francesco Clemente and Paula Rego. Dominant centers for the Neo-expressionist movement were Germany, Italy, the UK and the US. We look through some of the key characteristics of Neo-expressionism so you know how to recognize it. 


Neo-expressionism and Expressive Paint

portrait hirshhorn museum georg baselitz
Porträt Elke I (Portrait of Elke I) by Georg Baselitz, 1969, via Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C. (left); with Da. Porträt (Franz Dahlem) (Da. Portrait (Franz Dahlem)) by Georg Baselitz, 1969, via Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C. (right).


Crude, raw, and expressive passages of paint were a hallmark feature of Neo-expressionism. In many ways artists reworked the angst-ridden languages of Abstract Expressionism for a new era, merging elements of figuration, pop culture references and storytelling with their fluid, painterly marks. In the expressive portraits of George Baselitz, for example, we see loose, gestural lines and freely applied areas of bright color describing strange, threatening and even grotesque models, whose bodies are turned upside down or broken apart into a series of panels. 


Unusual Materials

julian schnabel portrait marc francois
Marc François Auboire, by Julian Schnabel, 1988, image courtesy of Christie’s


Many Neo-expressionist artists began incorporating unconventional, non-art materials into their paintings as a way of further extending their visual language, and creating even more crude and haphazard effects. For example, in American artist Julian Schnabel’s vast paintings he often incorporated elements of smashed crockery, antlers, wood and cloth, making heavily-laden canvases that speak of the indulgence and excess that defined the 1980s era. German artist Anselm Kiefer also worked unusual substances into his crude, deeply political studies of German landscape and architecture, including straw, ash, lead, shellac and clay.


The Eclectic Imagery of Neo-expressionism

athanor painting anselm kiefer
Athanor by Anselm Kiefer, 1991, via Christie’s

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Neo-expressionism is often understood as a bridge between the purity of Modernism and the eclecticism of Postmodernism. Art critic Michael Brenson defined Neo-expressionism as a step from “art that could only refer to itself,” to “art that could refer to everything.” What he essentially meant was that the stylistic tendency took the raw primal energy of Abstract Expressionism and merged it with a whole series of references to popular culture, narrative, storytelling, graffiti, myth, legend, politics, and just about anything else. 


Magic and Mythology

paula rego war painting
War by Paula Rego, 2003, via Tate Gallery, London


One popular tendency among Neo-expressionist artists was to introduce elements of magical or mythological storytelling, told with a distinctly modern, fresh and spontaneous language that set it distinctly apart from historical art which explored similar themes. In Portuguese painter Paula Rego’s art, she has often made reference to the dark, macabre side of fairy tales, folklore, children’s books and even Disney cartoons, painting them with a crude, distorted language that emphasizes their undercurrents of violence and threat. 


Social Commentary

Cornered, Philip Guston, 1971, via the Guston Foundation


Many Neo-expressionist painters have used their art as a form of powerful social or political commentary, reflecting on the most pressing issues of the day, which, when coupled with a wild and angry style of painting, could convey a powerful and potent message to viewers. Artists working in this way proved that painting was a valid and important means of artistic expression at a time when Minimalist and Conceptual artists had doubted its validity. A prime example is American painter Philip Guston, who turned his back on a successful career as an Abstract Expressionist in the 1970s, in favor of a new brand of crude figuration that expressed his anger and disdain for the political instabilities that colored the United States at the time.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.