While Guston was teaching at Boston University, something even more profound was taking place in the art world at large, a development that would add volatile fuel to the embers of Boston’s Expressionist fire and also embrace, justify, and acclaim Guston’s radical late works: Neo-Expressionism.60 This international rejection of Minimalism and formalism, also known as New Image, Primary Images, New Wave, Bad Painting, and New Figuration, arose amongst young artists simultaneously, in the late seventies and early eighties, in Germany, Italy, and the United States. A new roster of art stars burst upon the scene, adding considerable excitement and some stylistic cohesion to an art world drifting in the visual doldrums of reductivist non-objective painting, colorless primary structures, anti-visual Conceptual Art, and post-Minimalist exercises that seemed overwhelmingly conditioned by a Minimalist agenda that would just not go away. Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, Jorg Immendorf, Sigmar Polke, and A. R. Penck in Germany; Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente, and Enzu Cucchi in Italy; and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Sue Coe, Eric Fischl, and Julian Schnabel in America led a broad-based return to the figure in narrative contexts. Their paintings were huge, raw, deliberately awkward, and riotously colored and composed. In her catalogue for the seminal 1978 Bad Painting exhibition at New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art, Marcia Tucker wrote:
It is figurative work that defies, either deliberately or by virtue of disinterest, the classic canons of good taste, draftsmanship, acceptable source material, rendering, or illusionistic representation. In other words, this is work that avoids the conventions of high art, either in terms of traditional art history or very recent taste or fashion. Nevertheless, “bad” painting emerges from a tradition of iconoclasm, and its romantic and expressionist sensibility links it with diverse past periods of culture and art history.61
There was no mistaking that this new tendency represented a massive resurgence of expressionism. In America, these painters used their arsenal of agitated formal distortions to express feelings about a wide range of humanistic concerns and contemporary anxieties: myth, dreams, personal identity, historical tragedy, natural and technological apocalypse, consumerism, the deleterious effects of the mass media, urban violence, pornography, and other cultural vulgarisms. The Neo-Expressionists consciously bore the influences of German Expressionism, Surrealism, and their own immediate precursors, a group of figurative painters active in the sixties and seventies who had been labeled as “eccentrics”: Guston, Charles Garabedian, Joan Brown, Jim Nutt, Roger Brown, Ed Paschke, and H. C. Westermann. But to this expressionist heritage they added some characteristics that helped define the work of their own generation. Among them were the adoption of vernacular art forms like graffiti and comix, wholesale appropriations from art history and the mass media, and a tendency to overload canvases with dense, layered imagery to reflect the information-saturated culture in which they were immersed.
Artists in Boston were well aware of this phenomenon. The international art press made much ado about Neo-Expressionism, and exhibitions of this hot new style were everywhere. Bostonians traveled to New York to see not only the Bad Painting show but also New Image Painting at the Whitney Museum in 1979, and the 1981 and 1983 Whitney Biennials, which were chock-a-block with huge and savage paintings.62 Even at home there was no dearth of contemporary expressionism on display. In addition to the seventies Guston shows at Boston University, in 1980 The Rose Art Museum at Brandeis organized Aspects of the 70s: Mavericks, which included Figurative Expressionist works by Guston, Garabedian, Leon Golub, Red Grooms, Jess, and Lucas Samaras. In 1983, the Hayden Gallery at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology presented Body Language: Figurative Aspects of Recent Art, and The Institute of Contemporary Art’s Currents series, which ran from 1983 through 1985, brought to town works by Penck, Cucchi, Clemente, Golub, and many others associated with Neo-Expressionism. Even the venerable Museum of Fine Arts got in on the act. In 1986, its round-up of area private collections, Boston Collects: Contemporary Painting and Sculpture, included paintings by Baselitz, Penck, Polke, and Guston (as well as contemporary Boston Neo-Expressionists Gerry Bergstein, Alfonse Borysewicz, and Clifton Peacock).
A new generation of painters in Boston began to don the expressionist mantle. Not only did they represent the local arm of an international movement, they also were the direct inheritors of mid-century Boston Expressionism. Pamela Allara noted, “because during the fifties, the principles of Expressionism were so firmly established at Boston’s universities, it permanently conditioned the cultural climate. Subsequent generations could not avoid absorbing its ideas, even if, because of critical neglect, they were unaware of its art.”63 With Bloom, Zerbe, Aronson, et al., the new expressionists in Boston shared a devotion to the figure, a respect for painterly craft and art historical tradition, and a tendency toward allegory. Formally, the two generations were alike in what critic Theodore Wolff identified as their “particular emphasis on somewhat acidic, profoundly subjective themes fervently articulated within a pictorial context that is often gigantic in scale, blatant or exotic in imagery, and opulent or strident in color.”64 The young painters also employed a device central to the work of both Beckmann and the Surrealist artists whom they also admired: the evocative and irrational juxtaposition of disparate objects in shallow fields. They, too, were humanists, but Allara identified an important distinction in attitude between New York and Boston: “Neo-Expressionism uses the central motif of classical art— the figure—to speak to the death of humanism; whereas, Boston art celebrates its legacy.”65
The work of expressionist artists in Boston around 1980 is difficult to lump together as a singular movement, for each artist pursued his or her own muse with a distinctive style. However, a few general themes emerge that unify these artists and set them apart somewhat from concurrent expressionisms practiced elsewhere. Their content was deeply personal rather than overtly political. They also evinced a deep appreciation of a range of Surrealist images and techniques that could plumb the individual and universal depths of the subconscious. They were not averse to humor, or to reflecting the overwhelming impact of popular culture, which distanced their work from the high seriousness of fifties Boston Expressionism. After all, when Bloom and Levine were boys, they took to art as a refuge from a milieu circumscribed by religious dogmatism, cultural isolation, and poverty. The artists who grew up in postwar America were busy watching The Twilight Zone and Bugs Bunny. But in their later works, beginning in the nineties, they moved slowly away from themes of agitation and the bizarre to embrace subjects—and formal approaches—imbued with dignity, lyricism, and a melancholy peace. And they could paint, really paint, with a mastery of craft and technique that far outshined their New York compatriots.