Art of the 1960s that incorporates found objects, often to pass comment on society. The movement is particularly associated with France, where it is known as Nouveau Réalisme. Exponents included Yves Klein and Jean Tinguely.

César Baldaccini Compression 1966 © SBJ / ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2018.

Origins of New Realism

New Realism emerged in Paris in the late 1950s and 60s. Its artists sought ways of connecting with urban life, particularly through the use of real objects such as trash, advertisements and common household items. French art critic Pierre Restany was the first to use the term ‘Nouveau Realistes’, in a catalogue essay for a group exhibition at the Apollinaire Gallery in Milan in 1960. He encouraged the artists to put their names to his essay, to create their first manifesto. Those who signed Restany’s declaration were Yves Klein, Hains, Arman, Francois Dufrene, Martial Raysse, Jacques de la Villegle, Spoerri and Jean Tinguely.

In the essay Restany defined the style as, ‘a poetic recycling of urban, industrial and recycling reality.’ The declaration united a seemingly diverse group of artists, who were later joined by Cesar, Gerard Deschamps, Mimmo Rotella and Niki de Saint Phalle. In 1961, Restany opened Galerie J in Paris, which became the main space for exhibiting their work.

Key Concepts

New Realism is often presented as a counterpart to America’s Pop Art, but the group had more in common with Dadaism and Neo-Dada. The influence of Duchamp’s readymade sculptures in particular can be seen through their use of real objects in assemblages, performances and events. They also drew inspiration from Surrealism, particularly though their unusual juxtapositions of objects from ordinary life, and from John Cage and Allan Kaprow’s ‘Happenings’ in the United States. In the early 1960s the New Realists took part in a number of exhibitions with American artists including Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, whose ideas often overlapped with their own.

Yves Klein

Yves Klein was closely associated with the group from the outset, but he was more interested in a progressive, forward looking approach than those who drew from Dada and Surrealism. His practice was wide ranging and experimental, including monochrome, blue paintings that features his own branded ‘International Klein Blue’ or IKB, a satirical take on the colour fields by Abstract Expressionists. He famously exhibited an empty gallery space at Iris Clert Gallery in Paris in 1958, selling off his ‘sensibility’ from the space and in the 1960s produced his Anthropometries, with nude women covered in paint pulled across canvases. Towards the end of his career he distanced himself from the New Realist group.

Assemblage, Destruction and Decollage

Found object sculpture was particularly popular with the New Realists. César produced a series of compressions of familiar objects including compacted cars and scrap metal, as in Compression, 1966, addressing social issues about consumption and waste. Jean Tinguely also explored assemblage, often producing kinetic sculptures such as La Jalousie II (Blind Jealousy II) 1961.

Arman made his ‘accumulations’ by cramming objects into transparent boxes, as well as organising ‘happenings’ where he would smash up pianos, cars and even whole rooms, collecting the remains and attaching them to panels or casting them in resin, as in his Colere (Anger) series from 1962. Niki de Saint Phalle was also drawn to destructive performance, particularly in her shooting paintings, in which she would pop hidden bags of paint on the canvas by shooting at them.

Decollage was a popular technique discovered by the New Realists, which involved pirating images from walls and signs and layering images on top of one another, explored by Francois Dufrene, Jacques Villegle and Mimmo Rotella.

Legacy

After a series of exhibitions in the United States and Europe, the New Realists gradually disbanded in the late 1960s. In 1970, a farewell exhibition was organised titled The New Realists 1960/70, including an edible Banquet of artworks by artist Daniel Spoerri. The group’s lasting influence was wide ranging, from American Pop Art and the Neo-Pop of Jeff Koons to Capital Realism in Germany and Neo Expressionism in Europe and the United States.

Artists

César Baldaccini
1921 - 1998
Jean Tinguely
1925 - 1991

Glossary terms

  • An art movement of the 1970s and 80s inspired by German Expressionism. Most popular in Germany and America, the style is characterized by large, figurative works, rapidly painted, often with objects, such as broken plates or straw, incorporated into their surfaces.

  • A radical artistic and literary movement that was a reaction against the cultural climate that supported the First World War. The Dadaists took an anti-establishment attitude, questioning art's status and favouring performance and collage over traditional art techniques. Many Dadaists went on to become involved with Surrealism.

  • A literary and artistic movement that sought to challenge conventions through the exploration of the subconscious mind, invoking the power of dreams and elements of chance. It is now regarded as one of the most radical movements of the 20th century.