Apocalypse: Monumental Paintings of the 1980s exhibition includes three rarely-exhibited oversized works from VMFA’s permanent collection—by Robert Longo, Robert Morris, and Julian Schnabel. Together they create a powerful display that addresses many of the concerns of art during a time when painting regained the high ground.

Painting—criticized since the early 20th century as a limited and backward practice—was declared fully dead by the 1960s when Minimalist and Conceptual artists championed sculpture and other less-conventional media as preferred forms of expression. But in the late 1970s and 1980s, a new generation returned to painting with a vengeance, restoring much of what had been jettisoned in previous efforts to shore up its status.

Forming a vigorous but unfixed Postmodernists wave, these young artists reintroduced narrative, metaphor, allegory, symbolism, history, and myth into their work–often using the figure and expressionistic brushwork as vehicles. They arrived under monikers such as Neo-Expressionism, Trans-Avant-Garde, New Image, and Pictures Generation (other examples can be seen in several nearby Lewis galleries). Sometimes socially and politically conscious, at other times introspective and psychological, they embraced pluralism rather than progress and purity. Their work tended to be large, immediate, and committed to subject matter shot through with ambivalence.

Many of these artists emerged in the post-Vietnam and post-Watergate era, a time characterized not only by a loss of faith in leaders and government but also by unsettling economic and political events, including high unemployment, inflation, the oil crisis, an escalating Mid-East conflict, and continued polarization between the United States and the Soviet Union. In this context that included an expanding arms race and threat of nuclear holocaust, the theatrical, even operatic tones that defined much new painting of the time suggests a necessary response to both the attraction and repulsion of apocalyptically scaled fears.

Organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and curated by John B. Ravenal, Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art.

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