After a decade of conceptual and minimal art, the 1981 exhibition A New Spirit in Painting at London’s Royal Academy of Arts, took the art world by storm. Lavishly painted, epically scaled canvases reasserted the centrality of painting – and the hand of the artist. The 38 exhibitors hailed from Europe and America and were exclusively male.
Was this show revolutionary or reactionary? Was it a corrective to the anti-aesthetic art of the 1970s? Or was it, as critic Benjamin Buchloh claimed, a reaffirmation of ‘the politics of a rigid conservatism’?
This seminal show was curated by RA Exhibitions Secretary Norman Rosenthal, Nicholas Serota, then director of the Whitechapel Gallery, and independent curator Christos M. Joachimides. It was to be the fountainhead for a sequence of solo surveys organised by Nicholas Serota at the Whitechapel Gallery of painters including Georg Baselitz, Cy Twombly, Anselm Kiefer, Malcolm Morley and Julian Schnabel. Privileging history, mythology and the sublime, their work came to define the tendencies in painting in the 1980s.
The Return of the Spirit in Painting presents works by artists in the original shows, including Georg Baselitz, Bruce McLean and Julian Schnabel, as well as significant archive material from the Whitechapel Gallery and the Royal Academy of Arts.