THE CONTROVERSY OF THE RISE of American Neo-Expressionism in the very late 1970s, informed by Philip Guston’s controversial 1969 show, rooted in the earliest salad days of Julian Schnabel and John Salle has been presented quite charmingly in the book I am currently reading—Art of the Post-Modern Era (From the Late 1960s to the Early 1990s). Of course, there was a controversy. Change is always controversial. But what made this ideological controversy a bit different was that the movement’s predecessors had declared painting itself completely exhaused, with nothing left to teach, ultimately worthless to the post-modernist sensibility, in fact, dead.
Guston, a first generation abstract expressionist of considerable reputation, helped rescue figurative art from the dustbins of history after coming to consider abstraction as “an escape from the true feelings we have, from the ‘raw’ primitive feelings about the world—and us in it.”
As he put it, “the Vietnam War was what was happening in America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a fury about everything—and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue. I thought there must be some way I could do something about it. I knew ahead of me a road was laying. A very crude, inchoate road. I wanted to be complete again, as I was when I was a kid.”
The Canadian-born painter concluded that there was “nothing to do now but to paint my life—my dreams, surroundings, predicament, desperation, Musa (his wife), love, need. Keep destroying any attempt to paint pictures, or think about art. If someone bursts out laughing in front of my painting, that is exactly what I want and expect.”
Elsewhere he commented that abstract painting was hiding in mystery. He was bored with all that non-sense, and just wanted to tell stories.
We already know the sensation of Guston’s new work. It shocked and disgusted the old guard and its devoted followers but inspired and redeemed the younger breed of new image painters following in his wake, new painters who also rejected the apparent vacuousness of the Warholian pop world then dominating the scene after its own rebellion against the stagnation of abstract expressionism.
What immediately followed were the “Bad” Painting and New Image Painting movements. The breaking down of the social order was reflected in the art world by identifying with “kitsch” and “low” art—considered reactions against the photo-realism and other post-minimalist work of the era.
…an essay in progress, and as the photograph above plainly shows, Gabriel’s new studio does meet certain abstract expressionist criteria while he pauses to genuflect to mark the transition from feeling cramped like a passenger class hostage to keying up as an adeptly organized visionary ready to prosper within the framework of the semi-public posture, quite unlike those heady days of the 1980s when I first began to organize myself as an artist, but hardly in earnest…