In world art, US now shares its top spot with Germany, Italy
American dominance of world art has almost certainly ended.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
No longer, at least, do a handful of American painters and sculptors -- such as Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, and Jim Dine -- set the international style as they did, roughly, from 1950 to 1975. And few American dealers, curators, and critics are looked upon any longer by the international art community as the final arbiters of what is relevant, validly up to date, or good in contemporary art.
Instead, ''advanced'' American art is increasingly finding itself forced to share the glamour spotlight with Italy and Germany, and warily to await the very possible elevation to full ''equality'' of Spain, France, England, and Canada -- or any number of other countries.
This change in status should come as no surprise. It was imminent for over a decade, and was, in fact, already assumed to have taken place at the start of the 1970s by the Germans, who felt -- thanks to the world reputation of Joseph Beuys -- that they had moved into that premier spot.
While the German avant-garde attracted a few passionate devotees, however, it did not really catch on -- most probably because of its highly volatile political and social nature, and because most members of the art community saw it as more activist than aesthetic in orientation. As a result, international leadership in art remained unclear, even though the United States, because of its earlier position, was still given the edge.
All this while new things -- or rather old modernist ideas and attitudes demanding reemphasis -- were bubbling away just beneath the surface. These notions weren't limited to the artists of one country, however, but were spread out among a number of particularly restless creative souls throughout Europe and America.
The problem facing these artists was that painting's energy, as well as its historical momentum, seemed spent. Painting, it was claimed, was dead -- or was limited to a dry and muted form of abstraction or representationalism whose identity was more geometric or photographic than painterly. It was also claimed that photography had finally won the battle for visual-art supremacy, that video-art, multimedia events, and complex environmental works had replaced painting as a crucial cultural artistic mode.
To all this, these various creative individuals cried ''Nonsense!'' -- and proceeded to try to prove their point by painting intensely direct representational canvases in which people and things were given painterly life through eruptively ''hot'' colors, blatant and often ''childishly'' distorted drawing, and themes that were, if not downright vulgar and perverse, then certainly close to it.
This ''new'' form of painting popped up quite simultaneously in Germany, Italy, and the US -- although it was in Germany that it seemed the most fully developed and the most carefully thought out. But then, that seems logical enough, considering it had been Germany (together with Austria) that had fathered expressionism in the first place several decades before.
This ''neo-expressionism'' exploded upon the German art scene at the very end of the 1970s, and by 1981 was an international phenomenon. Its descent upon the American art world had to wait a few months, however, while New York braced itself for the invasion of the ''new'' Italian painting. This equally violent, colorful, and often brutally distorted approach differed only slightly from what Germany was producing, and then because of its occasional dependence upon vaguely classical forms and on some of de Chirico's later and more rubbery works.
The artistic pendulum had once again swung dramaticaly from one extreme to the other. This time it had opted for passion and vulgarity over detachment and refinement. This time it was a bit different, however, for it happened simultaneously throughout the Western world -- the result, no doubt, of rapid communication and good publicity, and of the fact that the world art community was by this time much more like a big family than ever before.