In painting generally a new directness was strikingly combined with a new simplicity. Beginning at the age of 80, in the five years before his death in 1954, Henri Matisse made a series of large gouaches découpées in which the increasingly abstract images were created solely by the juxtaposition of sharply cut patches of brilliant colour. Their influence was widespread and by no means confined to painters, such as the American Ellsworth Kelly, who developed the vibrant interaction of hard-edge colour areas. Even from other starting points, painters were reaching similar conclusions. The very simple yet resonant colour combinations of the New York painter Mark Rothko or the grand severity of another American, Barnett Newman, furnish examples.
Abstract painting was revealing far wider potentialities than had been apparent between World Wars I and II, but figurative styles showed a new freedom as well. The Swiss Alberto Giacometti, who had worked as a Surrealist, evolved in both sculpture and painting his sensation of the visual impact of figures in space. Francis Bacon in Britain uncovered unexpected and startling connotations in the apparition of a human likeness on canvas.
Painting in the 1960s not only sought originality; it took up a deliberately extreme position that may have seemed almostto pass the bounds of art. Paintings might be extremely large. Alternatively, they might be extreme in some other respect, such as the canvases of the Frenchman Yves Klein, which showed only a plain, arresting blue colour, or the black pictures of the American Ad Reinhardt, with variations so slight as to be hardly perceptible. The element of apparent chance in action painting explained the way the stains of colour in the work of the American painter Morris Louis appeared to flow and soak across the canvas as if of their own accord.
The tradition of Dada and its skepticism regarding what had once been the received definition of art prompted continual experiment with the techniques of assemblage. Robert Rauschenberg in the United States sought to place his subtlycalculated “combine paintings” (collections of contrasting objects joined to make an ensemble) in the gap between reality and art, contrasting the significance of paint with the borrowed imagery and objects juxtaposed with it. Jasper Johns, an associate of Rauschenburg's, worked with preexisting designs such as targets and the U.S. flag, giving them an ironic look when subjected to incorporation in his works. In the borrowed imagery and popular quotations, on which much painting was based in the years that followed, the irony was intensified to the point of ceasing to be irony at all. Roy Lichtenstein took strip cartoons and other banal (even banally artistic) imagery as the motifs for pictures. Another American, Claes Oldenburg, began by reconstructing common things out of the random pictorial substance of Abstract Expressionism; his later reconstructions of the rigid furniture of everyday life are tailored out of limp plastic sheeting.
There is nothing random about the typical art of the 1960s. On the contrary, it was planned exactly and normally carried out by an efficient, almost mechanical-seeming system. Hard-edge painting developed into a wide range of planar styles having in common only their exploitation of optical reactions and the element of shock that is the visual concomitant of sharp contrast. The spread of this idiom was particularly influenced by the Hungarian-born Victor Vasarely, who worked in France; its most personal development was in the largely monochromatic work of Bridget Riley in Britain. Again, the initial tendency was to exclude such sensations from the aesthetic canon, but in theevent a whole region of visual meaning, void for uncertainty since abstraction began, was reclaimed for painting. Optical art, or Op Art, emphasizes movement, whether potential, actual, or relative, and such effects have been ingeniously investigated by the Groupe de Recherche d'Art Visuel (“Group for Visual Research”), founded in Paris in 1960, and the Zero group in Düsseldorf, Ger. In the reliefs of the Venezuelan Jesús Raphael Soto, shifting vision is given a delicate order.
Other developments have proved more fertile. In the hands of the American painters Kenneth Noland and Frank Stella, painting discovered new shapes, both within the rectangular canvas and beyond it. The new value given to the painted plane did not benefit painting only. The British painter Richard Smith deployed it in three dimensions in painted constructions that re-create impressions of commercial packaging in terms of the spatial imagination of the arts.
The extreme in this reduction of means and sophistication of aesthetics was perhaps reached when a group of sculptors in the United States and England turned to investigate the possibilities of minimal and primary forms, normally the simplest geometric solids, alone or arranged in baldly repetitive series. Here, it is the spectator (as perhaps in a sense it always is) who brings the interpretation and supplies the art. The proposition had the apparent preposterousness expected of avant-garde art, yet it seemed likely, in its turn, to shed light on problems that are very much older. It is characteristic of sculpture and painting in the 20th century to deal more and more consciously and directly with the ultimate definition of art. The perennial compulsion to reverse previously accepted definitions has threatened ever more directly the recognizable identity of art. At the end of the 1960s the tendency to emphasize the systems and attitudes of art rather than its product led to a move in several countries to deny the validity of the art object. Instead artists prepared written specifications for ideal, imaginary art, the fulfillment of which was superfluous, or self-sufficient programs for performances paradoxically analogous to some aspect of the more familiar artistic acts. Conceptual art has opened the way to activities notable in their defiance of conventional expectations. The designs of earth art or earthworks are fulfilled by moving large amounts of soil, preferably in inaccessible places, perhaps in token of the potency of traditional art to impose its shape on the world. Activities of this order may appear to belong as much to theory as to artistic creation itself; in the 1970s these distinctions, with other familiar cornerstones of artistic thought, were held to have lost their validity.
Sir Lawrence Gowing
In the 1970s, critical and public interest centred on the reductive constructions of Minimalism and the nihilistic questioning of conceptual art. The late 1970s and early 1980s, however, witnessed a resurgence of excitement in painting and a return to figurative representation. A new movement called Neo-Expressionism arose in New York City and in the art capitals of western Europe, especially in West Germany, combining the heavy paint surfaces and dynamic brushstrokes of Abstract Expressionism with the emotional tone of early 20th-century German Expressionism. The new movement's subject matter ranged from basically literal, though self-consciously primitive, treatments of the human figure to a range of imaginary subjects indicative of modern urban life, particularly its glamour, alienation, and menace. Anotable characteristic of Neo-Expressionism was the newly prominent role played in its commercial acceptance by gallery owners and art dealers who adroitly publicized the movement's artists. Indeed, Neo-Expressionism's sudden success was an indication of the growing commercialization of the avant-garde and its unhesitating acceptance by wealthy, influential collectors and progressive-minded museum curators. Some critics voiced doubts over what they saw as the reflexive pursuit of artistic novelty under the influence of commercial pressures, and some even asserted that critical and public acclaim had to some extent become divorced from the goals of finding and patronizing painters whose works had lasting artistic significance.