By the late 1970s, art criticism had begun to question the formalist ideals that dominated the era of the New York School, which defined painting as an absolute and universal form of art, and some critics—such as Douglas Crimp (b. 1944), Yves-Alain Bois (b. 1952), Carter Ratcliff (b.1941), and Barbara Rose (b.1938)—even went so far as to raise the question of whether painting was dead as an important art form (See Barbara Rose, “The Politics of Art, Part IV,” Arts Magazine 54 (December 1979): 134; Yves-Alain Bois, “Painting: The Task of Mourning,” in Endgame: Reference and Simulation in Recent Painting and Sculpture, ed. David Joselit (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1986), 29; and Carter Ratcliff, “Modem Life,” Artforum 23 (Summer 1986). Indeed, in a 1981 article “The End of Painting,” October 16 (Spring 1981), Crimp argued that painting in the 1960s had been in a terminal state. To this view, he cited such factors as the style of hard-edged Minimalism and color field painting and the use of new media, such as images appropriated from photography in painting, as evidence of a “definitive rupture with painting’s unavoidable ties to a centuries-old idealism.”
In the late 1960s, Modernism began to give way to Post-Modernism, which brought with it a return to expressive modes of figuration in the form of what was loosely termed “New Image Painting.” Much like Rhino Horn’s work, this new movement relied on the use of non-traditional materials, media, and techniques, including collage, simplification, text, and appropriation. The artists working in this vein, moreover, borrowed heavily from “low art” and popular culture in an attempt to break the “cultural barrier” between “lowbrow” and “highbrow” circles, a goal and an approach that are reminiscent both of the Rhino Horn artists’ multi-media works and of the disregard that the group’s members demonstrated for the views of the critical establishment. Post-Modernism in general, however, was and remains far from a populist movement. It is, in its way, at least as esoteric as the movements once championed by Greenberg. As Hal Foster (b. 1955) put it, Post-Modernist art is “alternately elitist in its allusions and manipulative in its clichés.” In other words, Post-Modernist art separates the artist and art institutions from the general public in many of the same ways that the heavily academic treatment of Modernism had done previously, in that Post-Modernist works can only be understood (as Post-Modernism) by those with artistic and/or critical-theoretical knowledge and training. Contrary to the efforts and approach of the Rhino Horn artists, moreover, socially conscious or politically “liberal” themes are relatively rare in so-called Post-Modernist painting. In Foster’s analysis of Postmodernism there is a progressive and a neoconservative movement. Painting, a la Neo-Expressionism is included in the neoconservative. As Foster notes, Post-Modernist painting is more typically aligned with conservative trends in the art market than with any avant-garde socio-political movements.
Despite the spread of such a politically disengaged, academically elitist movement and its offshoots, the artists of the Rhino Horn group continued, in the 1970s and in some cases thereafter, to create heavily expressionistic figurative artwork. For them, painting was the vessel for their subliminal and humanist expression and an extension of their individual and collective consciousness. The distinctiveness of this attitude and approach, in its contemporary context, begs the question of what, if any, place ought to be given to the work of the Rhino Horn members in art history. Was the work of the Rhino Horn members, for example, merely a sideline, a curious and perhaps somewhat interesting irrelevant movement? Exhibition history might appear to suggest that this was the case. For example, although Rhino Horn had not yet been founded, all seven of the original Rhino Horn artists were well known to so-called experts in contemporary art when Robert Doty (1933-1992) curated an exhibition entitled “Human Concern/Personal Torment” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1969, and yet none were included. The exhibition presented itself as a renewal of Peter Selz’s breakthrough 1959 show entitled “New Images of Man.” Its focus on works that used grotesque imagery to explore the theme of contemporary society’s callousness toward civilization would seem appropriate for the inclusion of any or all of the Rhino Horn artists. June Leaf was the only artist included in the exhibition who would later show with Rhino Horn. The exclusion of the original Rhino Horn artists is all the more striking given that five years later Barry Schwartz discussed all seven of the founding members of Rhino Horn, as well as June Leaf and Leonel Góngora, alongside many of the artists included in Doty’s exhibition in his book, New Humanism: Art in a Time of Change. When Doty still did not include the Rhino Horn artists in his 1973 exhibition, “Extraordinary Realities”, Lawrence Campbell (1914-1998), editor of ARTNews, expressed shock at their exclusion (in an essay included in the back of Rhino Horn’s ‘Black Catalog’). Instead, the exhibition included primarily works by members of the Chicago Imagist movement of the 1960s and by artists associated with the San Francisco Funk Art movement of the 1950s.
By 1978, when the Whitney Museum of American Art presented its survey exhibition of New Image Painting, Rhino Horn had disbanded. However, the group’s founding and affiliated artists were all still actively producing art, and yet once again they were excluded from a major exhibition whose theme was relevant to their work. To this day, Rhino Horn has only had one major museum retrospective, and none in its native New York City. For a time, the Rhino Horn artists were remarkably successful in promoting and exhibiting their art across the country on their own terms. Moreover, in the aftermath of the breakup of the Rhino Horn group, all of the artists found consistent gallery representation and sustained solo art careers. It would seem, however, that in bypassing the gallery and institutional art scene as a collective, they alienated the institutional establishment in the art world and relegated themselves to the status of a mere footnote in the canon of modern art history.
Their status, however, may be overdue for a reappraisal. Just as the Figurative Expressionism practiced by the Rhino Horn artists was not without antecedents this movement did not fade out or “dead end” with Rhino Horn. The rise of Neo-Expressionism in the late 1970s and 1980s may not have been heralded as a return to the values and imagery espoused and practiced by the Rhino Horn group, but it was a significant enough development in the art world to warrant a three-volume survey in Art in America in the early 1980s (See Art in America (December 1982 and January 1983) devoted to “The Expressionism Question.”). Neo-Expressionism was, an international movement in painting and sculpture. Its antecedents in the United States included the Lyrical Abstractionists of the 1960s and 1970s and the Bay Area Figurative School of the 1950s and 1960s, in addition to Rhino Horn and the two generations of Figurative Expressionists discussed above. Prominent American painters among Neo-Expressionist artists include Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), David Salle (b. 1952), Eric Fischl (b. 1948), Julian Schnabel (b. 1951), Susan Rothenberg (b. 1945), and Chuck Connelly (b. 1955). Other notables include the Germans Georg Baselitz (b. 1938) and Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945), and the Italians (known as the Transavanguardia) Francesco Clemente (b. 1952), Sandro Chia (b. 1946), and Enzo Cucchi (b. 1949).
Like the artists of the Rhino Horn group, the Neo-Expressionists “returned” to portraying recognizable figurations, in contrast (and partly in reaction) to both Pop Art and Minimalism and to the bulk of Post-Modernist art, which was essentially a continuation of these esoteric schools. Whereas in Europe the Neo-Expressionist movement was broadly revered as a revival of European art after decades of American dominance, in the United States it was seen more as a return to traditional forms of art making after the extended hegemony of conceptualism. Similarly to the Expressionists who returned to figurative painting during the post-World War II era, the Neo-Expressionist movement of the 1980s was very broad, and the artists who were associated with this movement were diverse in both their ideologies and their methods. Nonetheless, a core group of key influences and predecessors is commonly cited. These include established artists such as Francis Bacon and Leon Golub, as well as the New Image Painters of the late 1970s. Philip Guston’s use of figuration beginning in the late 1960s, which was shaped by cartoon imagery, social realism, and action painting, also exerted an important influence on Neo-Expressionism.
Of all their influences and analogues, however, the Neo-Expressionist painters’ use of mythic subjects and of a variety of media and painterly styles aligns their work most closely with that of the Rhino Horn artists. This remarkable proximity has not gone unnoticed. In a New York Times review of a solo show of Jay Milder’s paintings in 1988, the critic Vivian Raynor wrote that
Even when figuration began trickling back in the early 1970’s, Mr. Milder, who by that time was part of the ‘Rhino Horn’ group, was still on the wrong side of the fashion fence…. Mr. Milder is an Expressionist—one of several—who has remained visible despite his lack of careerism. It is time that someone looked into his case, if only to prevent the more-driven art scholars from re-launching him as a ‘father’ of Neo-Expressionism.
Moreover, Robert C. Morgan, the well-known art historian, critic, and artist wrote in a 1986 review article that “Basquiat’s style and subject matter are not unrelated to the [work of the] Rhino Horn group from the sixties [sic.]. They are particularly close to the work of Bob Thompson and Jay Milder.”
The social, spiritual, and political Expressionism of the Rhino Horn group is still as relevant to the art of the underground as it was during its heyday. Although they never received the mainstream recognition of many of their contemporaries and successors, the Rhino Horn artists succeeded in having their art interpreted as a fine art form focused on Humanism and collective consciousness. The painting and sculpture of the Rhino Horn group presents a poignant view of contemporary civilization and its self-destructive process. When Figurative Expressionism fell out of fashion in the 1960s, the members of Rhino Horn reinvigorated this style with elements of the grotesque and imagery derived from social engagement, personal and collective identities, and mystical and mythological traditions.
Just as the Figurative Expressionism practiced by the Rhino Horn artists was not without antecedents, the Humanist and expressionistic style of art making carries on. Figurative painting as well as socially engaged work is at a high point in today’s art world. One may consider the work of Aaron Johnson, Chris Ofili, or Swoon and confirm that the aura of Rhino Horn continues.