Vassiliki Vayenou


The International Art Exhibition Zeitgeist in 1982 captured art history in the making, as the majority of the works highlighted the dominance of Neo-Expressionism from about 1975 onwards on a global level. Neo-Expressionism was the last international art movement of the 20th century and the heated controversy it caused proved that art had regained its power to stir emotions and provoke intellectual debates among art lovers and experts alike. 

The Martin-Gropius-Bau, standing gloriously on the borderline between East and West Berlin and itself a Gesamtkunstwerk that united the past and the future, tradition and modernism, preservation and renewal, was the host of the legendary exhibition. Its organizers, Christos M. Joachimides and Norman Rosenthal, supported by a dynamic team of collaborators (Secretary Tina Aujesky, Technical Director Jürg Steiner and Exhibition and Editorial Assistant Volker Diehl) materialized successfully their ambitious vision for an exhibition characterized by its bold ideas, proposals and expectations. The participating artists belonged to three different generations whose works were, to the most part, created the very same year of the show, in 1982 (Siegfried Anzinger, Georg Baselitz, Joseph Beuys, Erwin Bohatsch, Jonathan Borofsky, Peter Bömmels, Werner Büttner, James Lee Byars, Pierpaolo Calzolari, Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, Walter Dahn, René Daniels, Jiri Georg Dokoupil, Rainer Fetting, Barry Flanagan, Gerard Garouste, Gilbert&George, Dieter Hacker, Antonius Höckelmann, K.H.Hödicke, Jörg Immendorff, Anselm Kiefer, Per Kirkeby, Bernd Koberling, Jannis Kounellis, Christopher LeBrun, Markus Lüpertz, Bruce McLean, Mario Merz, Helmut Middendorf, Malcolm Morley, Robert Morris, Mimmo Paladino, A.R.Penck, Sigmar Polke, Susan Rothenberg, David Salle, Salomé, Julian Schnabel, Frank Stella, Volker Tannert, Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol). The 300-pages catalogue of the exhibition included contributions by Robert Rosenblum, Hilton Kramer, Walter Bachauer, Karl-Heinz Bohrer, Paul Feyerabend, Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani and Thomas Bernhard. With hindsight, this exhibition is a historic exhibition now as much as it was already historic at the moment of its birth and duration. This is a very rare case in the historiography of art.

On the occasion of the 40 years anniversary of the legendary exhibition of 1982, a celebratory Zeitgeist exhibition in 2022 will remind the international art world of the exciting course that painting entered in the late seventies and early eighties and the ways it influenced consequent generations of artists.  

An initial look at Christos Joachimides’ catalogue text of the exhibition titled Achilles and Hector before the Walls of Troy reveals some concerns/concepts of the 1980s art world, some of which can be revisited and explored through a current and broader perspective.


At the onset of the 80s, the art world was faced with a heated dispute initiated by two opposite camps. Neo-Expressionism’s “uninhibited subjectivity of the pictures, of their sensual immediacy and the suggestive stories they portray” was supported by those who felt enthusiasm for the liberation from the conceptual and minimalist dominance of the previous two decades. On the other side stood those who felt sorrow for the “end of the avant-garde”. Since Neo-Expressionism’s apotheosis of subjectivity and relation to the art market caused a great controversy in the art world, one could re-examine its place then and now with the advantage of the 40 years-hindsight. A direct confrontation between Neo-Expressionism and ‘avant-garde’ in purely art historical terms could be quite revealing.

A broader question that sheds light to the relation between art and history both in the past and the present is raised by the fact that after WWII much of the art production was interpreted under the light of its dialectic relationship to post-war history and the art of the 1980s was no exemption. What is today’s background against which we view art? Do artists create an open dialogue with history and if so, what history?


Christos Joachimides writes that “postwar art is the history of creative recurrences and reactions to the decisive impulses of those movements that arose in the early part of this century - expressionism, abstraction, constructivism, dadaism, and surrealism” and also asks “Shouldn’t we instead look at the history of art as a history of dialectic mutations? And not just within a historical epoch, but also in the development of an artist’s individual work?” This last question about dialectic mutations in the development of the artists’ individual work is very interesting for the artists themselves and the viewers alike. These mutations also highlight the differences in the perception of the Zeitgeist then and the Zeitgeist now on the part of the artists, which makes it essential in the quest for the nature of Zeitgeist in general. One can potentially go from subjective views to more objective ones.


Joachimides’ sentence on page 9 of the catalogue text is directly related to the history of Berlin then and now:

“Walls which history may often demolish, but which still encircle our consciousness”. A comparison between Berlin in 1982 and Berlin in 2022 would elucidate the impact of the immense changes that shaped the last 40 years of the metropolis’ history. What kind of (in)visible walls encircle our consciousness now?


On the definition of the title of the exhibition, Joachimides writes that Zeitgeist is a “metaphor for the artistic proposals of today which signal a profound change in the visual arts. People are looking for an immediate, sensual relation to works of art. Subjectivity, the Visionary, Myth, Suffering and Grace have all been rehabilitated, and a basic Dionysian feeling often characterizes the new artistic self-perception”.  Again here reference is made to Neo-Expressionism, but a more general question that arises is What are people looking for when it comes to their relation to works of art today? How do the artists’ proposals relate/respond to the peoples’ aspirations, ideas, even expectations? How has the self-perception and role of the artist changed since 1982? Do the artworks themselves not also create the Zeitgeist as much as they are born out of and shaped by the Zeitgeist?



At the end of his text Joachimides wonders how do the exhibition’s artworks relate to the sum of memories which are present today. Today’s memories are those that have survived the inevitable biological mechanisms of oblivion, personal selective memory processes and the ruthless intervention of time. Isn’t the Zeitgeist also made up of a sum of memories, somewhat hovering between reality, actuality, ghostly sensations and private and collective delusions?  

In his catalogue text titled Signs of Passion, Hilton Kramer raises a most interesting point, that is the fact that the Zeitgeist is NOT always reflected in the art of the times. As examples of this idea, he mentions the paradoxical connection between the ‘cool’, cerebral art of the 60s and the heated sociopolitical situation of that decade, as well as the rise of the passionate Neo-Expressionism in the global arena of the late seventies and early eighties, which was a much ‘cooler’ place in sociopolitical terms. (p.16-17 in the Zeitgeist catalogue)

This paradox is a surprising element for all, as we traditionally consider Zeitgeist an objective, inclusive reflection of our reality and we expect that art reflects in turn also the spirit of that reality. This is one of the reasons why the analysis of art in connection to the general context of its time is an indispensable part of any serious and thorough historical analysis of any given era. An art analysis can reveal a completely different and unexpected picture of a certain period.    

Under this light, it would be enlightening to explore if and to what extend does contemporary art reflect our times with their innumerable and complex new political, cultural, social, economic, environmental, health and security problems and fears. 

Maybe sometimes when history unfolds rather slowly and dispassionately, art responds with an ‘attack’ of passion and vivacity? And vice versa, when the spirit of the times is intense, art retreats to an encoded place for its creation?   

As we are currently living at the threshold between the end of a Zeitgeist and the beginning of a new one that by all accounts appears to be globally challenging on all levels, where does art stand today? If science, currently the last grand hope of humanity, fails to protect human life and assure its future progress despite its efforts, how can art play a renewed, instrumental role for humanity? Under these universally historical circumstances, can now be art’s great -and possibly last- chance to prove itself as the new “opiate of the masses’? 



A characteristic curatorial choice of the Zeitgeist in 1982 was that it included three generations of artists. In accordance to that idea, the participation of three generations of artists would be interesting, with the middle and younger generations of 1982 now being the older generation. The artistic dialogue of the latter with new artists of a now middle and younger generation would be a dynamic element of the show as was the case in the 1982 Zeitgeist exhibition.  


The main exhibition can possibly be combined with smaller sections that address different aspects of the 1982 Zeitgeist exhibition. For example, the legacy of Neo-Expressionism, the contribution of women neo-expressionists both from Germany and the USA to the movement, Berlin in 1982 and Berlin in 2022, the idea that artists are working freely within, outside of, or against the Zeitgeist of their times, the definition/nature of the Zeitgeist throughout time, an archival/documentary photo exhibition of the original show along with an exhibition with drawings/preparatory studies of the works shown in the 1982 Zeitgeist, an idea proposed by Volker Diehl.


In parallel, the legendary 1982 exhibition could be revived before the eyes of the visitors through a virtual reality presentation, an idea proposed by Jürg Steiner.


Nice work! I hope you can do something with it!




But this time if another Zeitgeist exhibition happens, it has to include more women, and even nonbinary people.

I hope you can do something in a near future!


Best wishes