Neo-Geo Art (and its Parody of Consumer Culture)

Peter Halley - Prison (1989) in an exhibition at Maison de l'Economie Créative et de la Culture en Nouvelle Aquitaine, quai de Paludate, Bordeaux, France. Image courtesy of Bernard Blanc via Flickr. Peter Halley - Prison (1989) in an exhibition at Maison de l'Economie Créative et de la Culture en Nouvelle Aquitaine, quai de Paludate, Bordeaux, France. Image courtesy of Bernard Blanc via Flickr.

Passing judgement on consumerism, commercialization, and the regulation of space through abstract aesthetics, Neo-Geo gripped audiences in the late 1980s with abstract forms that critiqued late 20th century Western civilization, increased social isolation, and the worship of consumer goods – but that didn’t stop some of the artists involved from becoming some of the most valuable commodities on the art market. 

Neo-Geo captivated upwardly mobile audiences in the penultimate decade of the 20th century. Propelled by the works of Peter HalleyAshley Bickerton, and Jeff Koons in particular, Neo-Geo’s social conscious narrative used geometry as a metaphor for society and carried with it a powerful message of modern civilization that was shot around the world in a frenzy of popularity. Not everyone was in agreement about ethics, though.

The commercial success of Neo-Geo brought with it plenty of analysis, with some leading critics even suggesting the movement was closer to a well-oiled marketing and hype machine than a genuine tool of social consciousness. And the huge commercial success of the movement brought with it further accusations, but at the heart of Neo-Geo remained a beating of social consciousness and commentary, despite the millions commanded at auction.

Commenting on the issues of the day, Neo-Geo (short for Neo-Geometric Conceptualism) was inspired by European philosophy, as well as lessons learned from earlier forms of modernist artistic practice. Influenced by Minimalism, Pop Art and Op Art, Neo-Geo created its own identity by using this language to criticize “geometricisation of modern life” as Halley referred to it. 

Peter Halley – Brute

Peter Halley – Brute. Sold for $325,000 via Christie’s (December 2020)

And it was Halley’s interpretation of Neo-Geo that helped to (geometrically) shape its success. His brilliantly coloured geometrically abstract paintings were made from a variety of materials, including circuit boards to help mirror the modern urban existence for individual organisms and networks. Depicting social landscapes of isolation and connectivity, or lack of it, Halley’s paintings, which were strongly influenced by the French thinker Jean Baudrillard, reflected the changing society at the time, as a financial boom and a more individualist attitude helped to re-shape the day-to-day lives of so many, including Halley.

It’s the work of Jeff Koons that will be most familiar to those with a passing knowledge of the artistic movement. His cartoonized statues, often depicting animals, have drawn significant commercial attention and commanded millions at auction, with his three-foot silver rabbit figure selling for $91 million at Christie’s in 2019.  

Koons’ statues have been installed across New York at Rockefeller Center and World Trade Center, to name a few; they have become prized as a status symbol and for their investment potential. Despite the fact that the philosophy behind Koons’ art was to parody the consumer culture, Koons has also been lambasted for pandering to the world’s billionaires over the years and his artwork ended up embodying the very consumer culture he had been parodying by presenting real consumer goods as works of timeless beauty. Other artists like Ashley Bickerton interpreted the philosophical approach in a different manner, as his Biofragment series presented a vision of apocalypse. The cuddly and end of the world within one art movement.

The movement itself struggled in its inception with one crucial element – its name. Artists as well as critics disagreed on a suitable title for the group, before finally settling on Neo-Geo. Post-Conceptualism (historically descriptive), Simulationism (vague), and Post-Abstract Abstraction (alliteratively snappy) were all suggested by curators, artists, and writers. And while they were rejected, they share the imperative idea of an art movement devoted to contemporary concerns about consumer culture and wider society through repurposing of already existing aesthetic languages to engage with an audience. 

Just Don’t Call Them Readymades 

Haim Steinbach – Exuberant Relative.

Haim Steinbach – Exuberant Relative. Sold for $79,000 via Sotheby’s (May 2008).

Jeff Koons – New Hoover Convertibles.

Jeff Koons – New Hoover Convertibles. Sold for $5,280,000 via Sotheby’s (May 2006).

This might sound like the idea behind Marcel Duchamp’s readymades and the concept of submitting found objects as art could be an influence. It even shares a heritage with Duchamp’s concept, but to bastardize the words of the French conceptual painter, ceci n’est ne pas une readymade. Instead, artists were influenced by Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacrum, which is essentially the copy of a copy. This could include popular brand logos or other mass-produced items in reference to the idea that reproductions rule people’s everyday lives.

This playful approach to authenticity allowed Neo-Geo artists to experiment and explore notions of this in relation to art by presenting mass-produced objects as one-of-a-kind art objects. Rather than doing so to shock or call into question the nature of art, this was intended to simply reflect the reality already surrounding the audience.

If this still sounds like readymades then bear with us, as there are subtle differences. Following on from the impact of the Dada and Pop movements it was no longer shocking to artistic audiences to present readymades as art, as the reproduction of these popular items was by now a reflection of their saturation within society. To counter this, Neo-Geo artists cynically suggested through their art that the reproduction of the same objects dominated both the art world and the real world and only by recombining the two were they able to create new meaning. This distinguishes Neo-Geo from those previous artistic movements.

What really distinguished Neo-Geo artists, though, was the commodification of their work. Based largely in the East Village scene of the 1980s, their paintings and objects were easily marketable to a public with an increasing disposable income. Several artists achieved rapid, stratospheric bank-balance-busting fame that remains intact today. Their fame allowed the message of social consciousness and commentary percolate beyond the confines of the East Village and onto the global stage, but it also brought with increased scrutiny. Some critics even suggested that the subversive quality that was so central to their work had been lost in favour of gross commercialization. However, the art that helped to shape Neo-Geo was full of meaning, as demonstrated by Peter Halley. 

Peter Halley – Yellow Prison with Underground Conduit (1985)

Combining bold unmixed Day-Glo colors, an industrial material used in interior decoration called Roll-a-Tex that can be found in Home Depot, and figurative source material that reflects the social construction of architectural forms, Halley’s Yellow Prison with Underground Conduit is one of the works that most typifies Neo-Geo. Throughout his career, Halley used iconography of exact geometric shapes and hard-edged lines to represent modern habitation – or in this case, prison – and emphasize its ubiquity in society as a mode of isolation.

Halley’s dynamic and vivid paintings introduced a bold new abstraction that explored the many aspects of modern city living in the technological age through the use of geometry. “I began to juxtapose and intermix the Day-Glo colors that I had always used with other kinds of traditional colors to see what would happen,” explained Halley. “I wanted to see, if by operating in a non-didactic manner, I could create a space and light that was more intense than that which I had created by sticking to a didactic program.”

Jeff Koons – Three Ball 50/50 Tank (1985)

Jeff Koons - Three Ball 50/50 Tank.

Jeff Koons – Three Ball 50/50 Tank. Sold for $486,400 via Christie’s (November 2005).

Forming part of his Equilibrium (1985) series for his first exhibition, Koons produced three tanks, each holding one, two, and three basketballs submerged in a mix of distilled water and sodium chloride reagent to allow the balls to float. “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,” explained Koons. After about six months the basketballs will sink, so if you see a ball at the bottom of the tank you know how long it’s been there.

Suspended as if geometric shapes, the balls are presented like perfectly preserved artifacts within a glass case. Drawing on the ‘golden proportion’ of Classical art to elevate the status of the basketballs, Koons’ placement of the branded balls promotes the idea that the context of visual consumption drives the value and market status of an object, while also exaggerating the blurred lines between art and commerce.

Sherrie Levine – Broad Stripe #1 (1985)

Sherrie Levine – Broad Stripe #1.

Sherrie Levine – Broad Stripe #1. Sold for £145,250 via Christie’s (February 2013).

Sherrie Levine’s paintings pay tribute to the abstract styles of Frank Stella and Robert Ryman. Her large paintings are large and feature stripes and a chessboard pattern, with bright and kitschy colors. They express the idea of an unattainable abstraction, as if they are replacing the idea of pure and formal art with inadequacy and failure.

In homage to the abstraction of Frank Stella and Robert Ryman, Sherrie Levine’s large striped and bright chessboard paintings in kitschy hues reflect a concept of unattainable abstraction, as if to replace the idea of pure and formal art with inadequacy and systematic failure. Levine’s art has added significance, as she became an important bridge between the Pictures Generation movement and the Neo-Geo group with her check and stripe paintings.

Also feted for her striking photography, Levine’s work remains popular at auction today, but it’s her reproductions of Duchamp’s Fountain cast in cast in bronze, which honor the original while also asking questions of gender that have proved most popular at auction, with one achieving $962,500 at Christie’s in May 2012.

Ross Bleckner – Untitled (1988)

Ross Bleckner – Untitled.

Ross Bleckner – Untitled. Sold for $277,200 via Christie’s (May 2022).

“As you begin to see something clearly, it breaks up,” said Beckner of his artistic approach. “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.” And when looking at the painting, the eye is drawn to closely placed lines of Op Art distortion, alongside a more organic layer of abstraction. Bleckner drew upon 1960s Op Art in his work to create his stripe paintings in his own style to produce visually magnetic works.

In Untitled, and so much of his art, fine vertical lines of color are overlaid with small vibrant colored stains that blur the strict geometric lines and draw viewers in. Here, the soft billowing pulses of color is are offset by a defined horizontal red line that might symbolize the landscape to explain the relation between language and extralinguistic objects, rather than the purity of abstraction.

You can explore his work for yourself at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Ashley Bickerton – Seascape: Floating Costume to Drift for Eternity II (1992)

Navigating the similarity between well-designed commercial products and sleek art objects, Ashley Bickerton’s beguiling art parodied consumerist impulses in mixed-media pieces that he termed self-portraits, despite the fact they were produced using TV channel logos, car company badges, and cigarette brands. Other work played with product packaging and a host of materials, as exemplified in Seascape: Floating Costume to Drift for Eternity II (pictured, right), which included a cowboy suit, glass, aluminum, wood, caulk, fiberglass, enamel, and canvas webbing.

“There are those who loved what I did in New York in the ’80s and early ’90s, and they think I lost the plot when I ran off to Indonesia,” said Bickerton. A year after he produced this piece, Bickerton left New York for Bali hailing a change in artistic style in a haven away from critics. Bickerton died in December 2022 at the age of 63 after being diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. 

The Weight of Success

Any movement that achieves such stratospheric success will be unable to maintain its rapid trajectory and by the early 1990s, Neo-Geo’s popularity crumpled under the weight of its own success. The artists involved emerged with their reputation intact, although they took different paths as the movement unravelled. Koons and Bickerton adopted a figurative approach, while Bleckner’s cell paintings that reflected the devastating effects of the AIDS crisis became his focus. And as the world changed, Halley’s geometric cells became more complex to reference the emerging digital world. 

It was a moment in time that was evocative of the era, but its impact on contemporary art remains lasting and wide-ranging. As the art market roared back into life following a fallow period in the previous decades, Neo-Geo seemingly co-opted the ballooning market and set contemporary art on a path of mainstream attention.

This march towards commercial success and the resulting financial reward does however called into question its ethos of social consciousness and whether it was critical of or complicit in the advance of capitalism. Meyer Vaisman’s Live the Dream; And a Companion Work (1988) captures this contradiction in a painting of a clock and decorated with a penny where the two hands meet. Straddling the two ideas, the work could be seen as a parody of the adage ‘time is money’ or an artwork ready to exploit the money hungry art market. The difference is down to your interpretation