Neo-Geo - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Neo-Geo
Neo-Geo is one of a number of competing terms applied to the works of Peter Halley, Ashley Bickerton, Jeff Koons, and Meyer Vaisman following their 1986 exhibition at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York City, although the artists were loosely associated rather than operating as a coherent movement. Without any formal declaration of aesthetic style, or critical consensus about its development, the story of Neo-Geo is best understood through the interaction of several of the key figures associated with it. The individual activities (and their relationship to each other) provides a narrative to the movement's development which can otherwise seem opaque.
Jeff Koons and Ross Bleckner are two of the most important artists associated with the movement, and the confluences between their work provide a useful shape to its emergence. By the late 1970s Minimalism, which emphasized literal treatments and the pure materiality of the object, had undercut both the viability of painting and the connection of artworks to affect and broaden social and psychological concepts. In 1979 Bleckner's article, "Transcendent Anti-Fetishism" was his counter-reply to this environment, as he advocated for the painting as a "psychologized object" connecting to a "larger psychological, social, and political reality." The essay was an early influence on the artists that would make up the Neo-Geo movement. Bleckner's stripe paintings, referencing both Minimalist works like Frank Stella's stripe paintings and Op Art, were even more influential, playing a leading role in a revival of painting in the early 1980s. As they took previous art movements as referents that could be appropriated and fractured, they also became a model for conceptual work that repurposed art styles, almost as if aesthetic styles too were readymade objects able to be engaged with as such.
More influenced by Pop Art, and Andy Warhol in particular, Jeff Koons played a leading role in establishing the importance of sculpture to the emerging Neo-Geo movement. His work, like Warhol's, reflected, drew upon and implicitly critiqued consumer culture. His 1980 exhibition of The New (A Window Installation), for example, displayed three vacuum cleaners, encased in Plexiglas display cases and illuminated, along with a sign that read "The New," in the storefront window of the New Museum, as if a marketing campaign was being launched. The work brought him to critical attention alongside the group of the then well-established East Village artists, and his early works employing readymade consumer objects framed within geometric vitrine cases and aquarium tanks led to his being dubbed "the golden boy of Neo-Geo" by art critic Robin Peckham.
As the movement developed further around the work of Koons, Bleckner and others, the painter Peter Halley then emerged as not only a leading painter but the theorist of the Neo-Geo movement, publishing a number of articles in leading art journals in the 1980s that established the movement's theoretical foundation. Living in New York in 1980, the city informed his work as he described its "geometricization of space," and as he wrote in his biographical statement he "set out to connect the language of geometric abstraction to the actual space that he saw all around him, transforming the square - borrowed from Malevich, Albers, and others - into architectural icons he called 'prisons' and 'cells,' and connecting them by straight lines called 'conduits.'
Influenced by the French Post-Structuralist philosophers, including Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, and Jean Baudrillard, he argued in "The Crisis in Geometry," published in Arts Magazine in 1984, that where "once geometry provided a sign of stability, order, and proportion, today it offers an array of shifting signifiers and images of confinement and deterrence. The formalist project in geometry is discredited. It no longer seems possible to explore form as form (in the shape of geometry), as it did to the Constructivists and Neo-Plasticists, nor to empty geometric form of its signifying function, as the Minimalists proposed." In the essay, he praised the works of Koons, Levine, and discussed his own work, and saw the philosopher Jean Baudrillard's concepts as those most related to the production of art in the 1980s.
The Importance of Jean Baudrillard
One of Halley's most important theoretical influences was the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. Halley drew on the concepts of simulacra and simulation to frame the artistic production of the Neo-Geo artists, which were central to Baudrillard's philosophy and expressed in his Simulacra and Simulation (1981). The Simulacra is a concept that refers to copies or imitations that have no original but nonetheless constructed perceived reality. Examples of simulacra could be as simple as a brick, as a mass-produced object with no original, or as complex as Sleeping Beauty's Castle, having no original but reproduced at several Disney parks around the world.
As Baudrillard writes, "The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth - it is the truth which conceals that there is none." In his work he defined three types of simulacra, each connected to a historical period, with the relevant version of the concept here corresponding to the postmodern and Late Capitalist era in which Halley and the other artists of Neo-Geo were working. Baudrillard suggested that when the distinction between reality and simulacra disappears, when "the real is confused with the model", originality becomes a meaningless concept. Both simulacra and simulation became the theoretical basis for Halley's ideas and of the Neo-Geo movement.
Baudrillard's concept of hyperreality, a state of modern consciousness distinguished by the inability to distinguish reality from simulation was similarly important. Halley adapted these views to the production of art, writing that the work could give "us an intensified experience of the simulacrum... not real but 'hyperreal'... totally pristine (divorced from the chance occurrences of reality)...presented serially (without original), where they inhabit a universe 'strangely similar to the original', where 'things are duplicated by their own scenario'." Halley preferred Baudrillard's term "simulationism," to describe the Neo-Geo movement, writing that, "Simulation, the fact of technical mediation replacing the natural thing, is such a big experience in our society. Air conditioning is a simulation of air; movies are a simulation of life; life is simulated by bio-mechanical manipulations.'' Halley's essays and usage of Baudrillard's theories played a notable role in creating the intellectual foundation for critical, curatorial, and public understanding and appreciation of the movement.
Theory Meets Institution
International With Monument Gallery - 1984
In the early 1980s, as the art market expanded to become a global phenomenon, small galleries began to open in the East Village, many of them owned and run by emerging artists, such as Gallery Nature Morte, which was opened by Philip Nagy in 1982. Drawing upon the model developed by Nature Morte, Meyer Vaisman co-founded, with the artists Elizabeth Koury and Kent Klamen, the International With Monument Gallery in 1984. The gallery, named after a sign they found in the building's basement, was meant to be a new venue for artists but also a statement aiming to counter the then-dominant style of Neo-Expressionism, with its emphasis on raw feeling and psychologically driven works. As Vaisman wrote, "during neo-expressionism's peak. What we showed could not be more different than what was shown in the rest of the world," and described the works shown as "very cold-looking work as opposed to the extremely messy expressionistic or graffiti-like art that was the staple...We were strangers, outlaws, and the E.V. establishment made us feel that way." In 1985 the gallery held Halley's first solo exhibition and Jeff Koons' Equilibrium, both breakthrough moments in the artists' careers and central to the increased recognition of Neo-Geo as an alternative direction. Art critic and curator Dan Cameron writes that "not only did Halley and Koons create exhibitions that carried a seismic critical wallop, but their work, packed into a tidy storefront, was also plainly visible to passersby, adding a touch of visual sensationalism for the uninitiated."
Sonnabend - 1986
As a result of International With Monument's success, a group of more established gallerists in Soho, including Mary Boone, Leo Castelli, and Illeana Sonnabend sought out Vaisman and the artists who showed at his gallery. As a result, Vaisman, Koons, Halley, and Bickerton subsequently signed contracts with Sonnabend gallery, leading to the gallery's 1986 exhibition of works by the "Hot Four", as art critic Paul Taylor in New York Magazine dubbed them. The show was also controversial, as art critic Kay Larson critiqued the show under the title of "Masters of Hype," suggesting the new movement was no more than a marketing ploy in the booming art market. As a result of the debate, it was "the most talked-about gallery show of the decade" as art curator and critic Dan Cameron noted. The careers of the artists involved took off however, and their works began to often be sold out even prior to the opening of major exhibits. Although there may be some irony in the incorporation of anti-consumerist critique into the booming art market of the 1980s, this in itself can also be read as a form of critique.
Following the exhibition, various names were suggested for the movement. The art critic Paul Taylor called it both "Neo-Conceptualism" and "Neo-Minimalism", curators Tricia Collins and Richard Milazzo proposed "Post-Conceptualism", and Eugene Schwartz dubbed it "Post-Abstract Abstraction" for an exhibition he subsequently curated. Peter Halley preferred to call it "Simulationism", though he also connected the style to his view of the "geometricisation of modern life." By 1987, the term Neo-Geo had begun to take hold, though still not without some debate, the tentative use of the term exemplified by the the title of art critic Grace Glueck's New York Times article "What Do You Call Art's Newest Trend?: 'Neo-Geo'...Maybe". The movement used geometric form and appropriative strategies, drawing on the already existing aesthetics of abstraction. As art historian Hal Foster notes, this established an "ironic distance from its own tradition of abstract painting. In effect it treated this tradition as a store of readymades to appropriate, and in strategy if not in appearance neo-geo was closer to appropriation art than to abstract painting."
Part of the challenge of finding a name for the movement was due to the diversity of work produced by the artists associated with it, which at the time of Glueck's article included Ross Bleckner, Haim Steinbach, Sherrie Levine, Peter Schuyff, Peter Nagy, Allan McCollum, Julie Wachtel, Laurie Simmons, Gary Stephan, and Philip Taaffe. Glueck attempted to define the movement, writing that "One generalization that can be made about the new work is that it deals - as did some of the work in its predecessor movements, Pop and Conceptual - with images rather than primary sources. It is preoccupied with the barrage of reproductions... It also exhibits a concern with the threats - glamorous in their danger - posed by the technological advances of Western society. And its practitioners mean to address large social and esthetic questions, including the public acceptance of art as beautiful objects created for the elite. Meanwhile, their art has its own commodity status".
Concepts and Trends
Critique of Consumerism
A noted element of the Neo-Geo movement was its ironic commentary upon American consumerism, particularly as expressed in the readymades of Jeff Koons and Haim Steinbach. Rather than being explicit though, this was often framed in geometric formal devices, like Steinbach's triangular shelves or Koons' rectangular display cases, which further emphasized the geometric shapes and lines of the objects they contained. Ashley Bickerton similarly used commercial logos as if they were geometric forms, arranging them on plywood or signboards to create 'portraits' made up of a collection of brands, as seen in his Tormented Self- Portrait (Susie at Arles) (1987). Evoking Marcel Duchamp in a similar way, Meyer Vaisman repurposed four toilet lids in The Whole Public Thing (1986), stacked atop four canvases, all printed with his textile designs. The use of geometric framing reposited the consumer items within a distant and abstracted space, emphasizing their desirability but also subverting it, as they were displayed but deprived of functionality.
Meyer Vaisman and Peter Nagy were the artists of the movement who most notably employed photomechanical reproduction, with Nagy using Xeroxed drawings in particular. Theses were often symbols, maps, and other items, used in a way that suggested both the fragmentary ruins of history and contemporary logos. Vaisman used both photographs and mechanical reproductions of textile patterns, sometimes taken from commercial textile pattern books and other times of his own design, as seen in The Blank Portrait (1986) where three empty portrait cameos are placed on a textile printed canvas. Even when not using photomechanical reproduction, Neo-Geo artists would sometimes create works that aspired to the effect, as when Bickerton, in Abstract Painting for People #3 (1986), painted plumbing fixtures in acrylic and metal flake enamel on plywood to resemble cut-outs from a commercial plumbing fixture chart. The use of reproductions reflected the concept the image had replaced reality, in effect creating a world of signifiers disconnected from any signified meaning.
As Grace Glueck, one of the key documenters of the movement, notes "The painters among the Neo-Geo movement consciously recycled "geometric motifs of the 1960's and 70's in their canvases, but put them to new use, regarding their geometry as referential rather than abstract." In paintings with diverse approaches, Peter Halley, Ross Bleckner, Philip Taaffe, and Sherrie Levine ironically evoked the aesthetics of previous movements in service to their project. Halley appropriated Color Field and Hard-Edge Painting, for example, while Bleckner drew upon the Op Art of the 1960s. Levine's paintings drew upon analytic abstraction as well as generic abstract motifs. In this appropriation however they all shared a conceptual approach, reducing "abstraction to design, decoration, even kitsch", as Hal Foster noted. Bleckner, for example, suggests that Op Art was "quintessentially twentieth century: technologically oriented, disruptive, "about visual perception' naïve, superficial, and, by most accounts, a failure." He took an approach that "fractured" the style, as he put it, appropriating it within a conceptual framework that undercut its theoretical underpinnings.
Later Developments - After Neo-Geo
The movement came to an end by the early 1990s, in part due to its success, as the artists gained great critical acclaim and their work became much sought after. The key artists took diverging paths, both in art and in life, and the loose association that had always characterized it unraveled. Koons and Bickerton moved toward figurative work, while Bleckner became known for his cell paintings, using soft biomorphic shapes that evoked human cells and the devastating effects of the AIDS crisis. Halley's geometric cells and conduits became more complex, referencing the structure and technologies of the digital world. Many of the artists also geographically dispersed, as Nagy moved to India in 1992 where he has become a leading curator of Indian art, and Bickerton moved to Bali in 1993. Vaisman moved to Barcelona in 2000 where he turned to abstraction, and, a few years later, Schuyff moved permanently to the Netherlands, where he also developed a musical career.
Though brief, the movement had a noted and lasting impact on contemporary art, perhaps best exemplified by the high profile of Jeff Koons. In a 2018 interview, featuring the reunion of the Neo-Geo artists, art critic M.H. Miller wrote, "their influence...is wide-ranging and, as contemporary art becomes increasingly co-opted by the ever-ballooning market surrounding it, is felt even more today than perhaps it was at the time." Receiving critical attention with contemporary exhibitions, Vaisman, Bleckner, and Halley continue to influence subsequent artists, while Steinbach's work informs the artistic practices of Rachel Harrison, Darren Bader, Josephine Meckseper, Gareth James, Adam McEdwen, and Ricci Albenda. Levine's work has also influenced Bader, as well as Alex Da Corte.