In grade school, we all learned Isaac Newton's major contribution to the science of physics: "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." We see it whenever a jet plane takes off or a kid releases a blown-up balloon and it zips across the room just short of the speed of sound. Probably long before Newton, but certainly ever since he noted the obvious, the same law has also effected art. Mannerist painting was a reaction to Renaissance greatness, an attempt to outdo the previous generation using enhanced colour, enhanced anatomy, and audacious compositional expositions. Baroque art was a return to classical (if somewhat ostentatious) sanity. Rococo was a light-hearted reaction to the heavy theatricality of the Baroque. Classicism was the pendulum swinging back toward cool, logical, Academicism, followed a generation later by hot-blooded Romanticism and then to the other extreme, Realism, then Impressionism, then Post Impressionism, and so forth. Isaac Newton maybe didn't know much about art, but he knew what he was talking about.
An interesting case in point is the reaction in the 1960s to fifteen years of Abstract Expressionism. Fifteen years is a long time for one art style to dominate. The art world had not seen such a long-running hit since Impressionism almost a hundred years before. It also lasted about fifteen years, by the way. Some art historians predicted that the total degeneration of representational content spelled the end of art. And, if one looks at the step-by-step movement toward non-objective art from Impressionism on, it is easy to see how they might arrive at such a conclusion. I mean, once you eschew all subject matter, you're left only with elemental, art for art's sake...art for artists alone...that is, art understood by artists alone. However, if the art historians could see this denouement, so could artists, and one by one, much as happened with Impressionism, they began to peel off, disillusioned perhaps, or maybe just bored.
What would come next? Everyone waited with bated breath for Newton's equal and opposite reaction. They didn't have to wait long. Although the king pins of Abstract Expressionism continued to roll them out all through the 1960s and 70's, artists such as de Kooning and Kline saw their influence greatly decline and their conviction in their own work waver. The reactionary opposition started slowly about 1960 then built up momentum as "new" art began to hit the streets with bewildering multiplicity. It began with Pop. Then came Op. The floodgates opened wider, Colour field painting flowed in, saturating canvases with a devastating array of hues, followed by Hard Edge, Minimal Art, Postminimal Art, Environment Art, Happening Art, Body Art, Earth Art, Kinetic Art, Conceptual Art, Photo Realism...the list goes on and on...fill in the blanks yourself. The pace of change built to a frenetic, frantic pitch, mixing media, stirring in computers, cinema, video, every conceivable medium of creative expression...even some inconceivable...or some that should be at any rate. Maybe it's time for an equal and opposite reaction again...Isaac Newton, where are you when we really need you?