Summary of Neo-Geo
Neo-Geo was for a time the "next big thing" in the art world of the late 1980s, a loose group of artists seemingly engaged in a critique of consumerism, commercialization, and the regulation of space through abstract aesthetics. Drawing on lessons learned from earlier forms of modernist artistic practice and influenced by European philosophy, artists deployed abstract forms to critique late 20th century Western civilization. Their work commented on increased levels of social isolation within society, the veneration of consumer goods, and the simulation of experience at the expense of the real. Perhaps ironically though, many of the artists went on to be hugely successful commodities in the art market, leading some critics to suggest that the movement was driven more by marketing and publicity hype than genuine social consciousness.
The movement's name derives from Neo-Geometric Conceptualism, but both critics and artists struggled to agree on a name for the group. "Post-Conceptualism", "Simulationism" and "Post-Abstract Abstraction" were alternatives used by various curators, artists, and writers, but all speak to the idea of an art movement devoted to the repurposing of already existing aesthetic languages to engage (mostly implicitly) with contemporary concerns about consumer culture and wider society.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- Neo-Geo combines the aesthetics of earlier abstract art forms like Pop Art, Op Art and Minimalism with concepts derived from continental philosophy. Most notably this included the work of Jean Baudrillard, whose idea that desires are constructed rather than natural was particularly influential in relation to the critique of consumer culture.
- Artists also drew heavily on Baudrillard's concept of the simulacrum, or the copy of a copy. Referring to the sense that reproductions rule the everyday, from brand logos to mass-produced items, Neo-Geo artists played with notions of authenticity in relation to it by, for example, presenting mass-produced objects as one-of-a-kind art objects. Rather than doing so to shock or trouble the notion of what art is, this was intended to simply reflect the reality already around the audience.
- This distinguishes Neo-Geo from previous artistic movements. After Dada and Pop, the reproduction of these objects was simply exemplary of their ubiquity, as it was no longer shocking to bourgeois sensibilities to use readymades in artistic practice. In an almost cynical manner, it suggested that both the art world and the real world were now predicated on the reproduction of the same objects, only able to be recombined to create new meaning.
- Unlike much of the more formally distinct work from the East Village scene of the 1980s (which many Neo-Geo artists had early ties to) these paintings and objects were able to be taken up as commodities by the art market with relative ease and several artists achieved rapid fame. This led to accusations from some critics that the subversive quality of critique implicit in their work had been lost. Several suggested that the masterful publicity campaign attached to the artists reflected an art world too ready to seize new work as the next major movement.
Overview of Neo-Geo
Jeff Koons, known as "the Warhol of his time", is the best known of the loose collective of artists who invented Neo-Geo. It was his basketballs suspended in a water-filled tank - a work that took scientific precision to produce - that launched his career and the movement.
Important Art and Artists of Neo-Geo
This bright red painting is divided into an upper section by a line of darker color, so thin as to be almost imperceptible, and a lower quarter, divided in half by a horizontal black line. Two black vertical lines, placed symmetrically and framing the center, rise from the horizontal line at 90-degree angles to end sharply at the thin line. Halley wrote, "This space is akin to the simulated space of the videogame, of the microchip, and of the office tower - a space that is not a specific reality but rather a model of the 'cellular space' on which 'cyberneticized social exchange' is based," while noting that it is "executed with a variety of techniques lifted from the Hard-Edge and Color-Field styles... For me, those styles, used as a reference to an idea about abstraction and an ideology of technical advance, replace reference to the real." Its construction demonstrates a clear influence from the color field painting of artists like Mark Rothko or Barnett Newman.
Innovatively the artist used Roll-a-Tex, a material used to texture walls, to create canvases with a tactile texture that as art historian Amy Brandt noted "both seduce and repel viewers with assaults on their senses of sight and touch," and Day-Glo paint, described by art critic Roberta Smith as "powerful fluorescent colors [that] comes from somewhere beyond art." In a move characteristic of Neo-Geo, the artist referenced the philosophy of Jean Baudrillard, by suggesting he aspired to "hyperrealization", saying that each "era becomes a hyperrealization of the preceding era, which in turn is assigned the value of reality." The painting, although simple and formally abstract, is almost painful to look at due to the fluorescent quality of the paint, suggesting a 'hyper' or overcharged version of already established aesthetic strictures.
Halley continues to influence contemporary artists, as art critic Stephen Maine wrote in 2010, "Peter Halley's... cell-and-conduit "sociograms" of the 1980s doused that era's Neo-Expressionism like a cold shower. Critiquing modernism's utopian underpinnings, Halley just said no to liberal humanism, and dutifully staked out the concomitant theoretical territory. Twenty-five years later, his dystopian hybrid of Minimalist landscape and Pop-culture color again commands attention."
This painting with a horizontal axis uses fine vertical lines of color, overlaid with small asymmetrically placed stains of vibrant colors that blur and interrupt the strict geometric lines. A contrast is created between the stains, which are soft, almost cloud-like pulses of color, and the defined verticals that might suggest landscape, atmosphere, and/or a shifting relationship between background and foreground. The result is an emphasis upon the referentiality, rather than the purity, of abstraction.
In the early 1980s Bleckner, drawing upon 1960's Op Art, focused on creating stripe paintings, while also fracturing the hard edges of that movement, emphasizing ambiguity in the relationship between the two goals. As he said at the time, "As you begin to see something clearly, it breaks up. I like to use them as taking the idea of an image to a place where everything gets fractured. The paintings have to do with different states of consciousness, trying to describe that place in our minds where we see and don't see simultaneously.'' In looking at the painting, the eye is confused by the Op Art distortion of closely placed lines, whilst also being aware of the more organic layer of abstraction. This might suggest the natural world beneath the geometric impositions of humans, or a sub-concious fighting against the barriers of society.
The influence of Bleckner's 'stripe paintings' as they have been dubbed by art collectors and critics, continues today. At an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston that featured Bleckner's work, the director David Ross said, ''He's one of the most important painters in the emerging generation of American artists. The early stripe paintings really opened the area of geometric abstraction to a thorough reinterpretation by a new generation. A number of artists in this generation, whether they paint like Ross or not, show an incredible respect for Ross as an influence and a force."
This work shows three Spalding basketballs, suspended in a clear rectangular glass tank filled with water and resting on a black steel stand with pneumatic feet that also seems to float in space. The work composes the objects as if they were geometric shapes, reflecting the calm order of the 'golden ratio' in its proportion and number. Two quantities constituted the 'golden ratio' if the ratio between them was the same as the ratio between their sum and the larger of the two. The principle, known also as the 'golden proportion', was an important tenet of Classical art. As a result, here a consumer object is elevated to an ideal classical realm, the 'total equilibrium' of the ironic title, while undercutting that realm with the dash of humor created by the basketballs and aquarium. In another reference to Baudrillard, Halley notes that, "Koons' pieces have the same effect on the viewer that Baudrillard has described the space program as having on the public. Koons, like NASA, has created a universe 'purged of every threat to the senses, in a state of asepsis and weightlessness,' a universe in which we are "fascinated by the maximization of norms and by the mastery of probability".
Koons made this work as part of his series Equilibrium (1985) for his first exhibition at International With Monuments. He made the tanks in three sizes, each holding one, two, or three basketballs and differentiated by the brand of basketball, filling the tanks with distilled water into which a sodium chloride reagent had been mixed so that the balls would float. The series included his Total Equilibrium Tanks, which were completely filled like this one, and the 50/50 Tanks, half-filled so the basketballs bobbed above the waterline. Consulting scientists to find the right formula, the artist said, "I wanted to keep it a very womb-like situation with water. I like the purity of water. So I arrived at an equilibrium which is not permanent but very pure," as after about six months the basketballs sank and needed to be reset.
The pieces were accompanied by a lifeboat and an aqualung cast in bronze, along with Nike advertising posters that showed celebrity basketball players wearing Nike products and holding basketballs. As art critic Angelika Muthesius wrote, "the tanks were an ultimate state of being ... The Nike posters were the Sirens - the great deceivers, saying Go for it! I have achieved it. You can achieve it too! ...What was paralleling this message was that white middle-class kids have been using art the same way that other ethnic groups have been using basketball - for social mobility."
Useful Resources on Neo-Geo
- 111k viewsJeff Koons mini-documentaryMOCA
- 1k viewsAshley Bickerton l Walls and PaintingsDirimart
- 5k viewsRoss Bleckner: Remember MeCheckerboard Film Foundation
- 1k viewsPeter Halley public talk at Garage Museum, MoscowGary Tatintsian Gallery
- 2k viewsArtist Talk: Peter Halley and Max HolleinSchirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt
- 13k viewsRoss Bleckner
- Jeff Koons: American ImaginationJeff Koons in conversation with Michael Eisner / Aspen Ideas Festival
- 75 Reasons to Live: Stephanie Syjuco on Sherrie Levine's La Fortune (After Man Ray)
- Interplay: Neo-Geo Neoconceptual Art of the 1980sBy Amy L. Brandt
- Selected Essays: 1981-2001By Peter Halley and Richard Milazzo
- Post- to Neo-, The Art World of the 1980sBy Calvin Tomkins
- Interplay: Neo-Geo Neoconceptual Art of the 1980sBy Amy L. Brandt
- Peter Halley: The Complete 1980s PaintingsBy Peter Halley
- Jeff Koons: A RetrospectiveBy Scott Rothkopf, Antonio Damasio, Jeffrey Deitch, et al.
- The Paintings of Ross BlecknerBy Richard Bleckner
- Haim Steinbach: Object and DisplayBy Johanna Burton, Germano Celant, and Tom Eccles, et al.
- WHAT DO YOU CALL ART'S NEWEST TREND: 'NEO-GEO'... MAYBEBy Grace Glueck / New York Times / July 6, 1987
- Where are they now? Tracking the neo-geometric conceptualistsBy Robin Peckham / Leap / March 31, 2016
- Paul Theroux on how artist Ashley Bickerton became an alien in paradiseThe Guardian / March 31, 2017
- Reviews: Peter Halley New York at Mary BooneBy Stephen Maine / Art in America / June 4, 2010
- Jeff Koons is Back!By Ingrid Sischy, Photographs by Annie Leibowitz / Vanity Fair / July 14, 2014
- Interview: Meyer Vaisman Returns to the FoldBy Zo Lescaze / Art in America / June 17, 2014
- The Neo-Geo MovementBy Katharina Knacker / Schirn / May 13, 2016
- An Art-World Lion Finds a Den in a Midcentury LandmarkBy Julia Felsenthal / September 14, 2018
- Art: From Sherrie Levine, a Mini-RetrospectiveBy Roberta Smith / New York Times / September 18, 1987
- Meyer Vaisman: In the Vicinity of HistoryBy Roberta Smith / New York Times / June 27, 2014
- It's Payback TimeBy Jerry Saltz / New York Magazine / November 10, 2011
- Off the Shelf: Haim Steinbach Returns: The Eighties Neo-Geo star is back with a new gallery and, maybe, a new audienceBy Andrew Busseth / The Observer / August 9, 2011
- AN ARTIST'S JOURNEY FROM OBSCURITY TO SUCCESSBy Douglas C. McGill / New York Times / February 19, 1987