One way to understand This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s—a touring exhibit that opens at the Walker Art Center on June 30—is as the answer to a riddle. The riddle is this: if the story of art ended in the 1960s with the apotheosis of abstract expressionism and the immediately subsequent trip through the post-modern wormhole into a world where everything is art and nothing is art, why is contemporary art still so fun and fascinating today? The answer, implicitly suggests exhibition curator Helen Molesworth, lies in the decade she calls “the end of the 60s.”
Politics and aesthetics are never entirely independent, and they’ve rarely been less so than in the 1980s—so it’s impossible to understand the decade’s increasingly prominent place in art history without considering why the decade has come to seem increasingly pivotal in history generally. A defiant portrait of Ronald Reagan by Hans Haacke is one of the first things you see when you enter the installation of This Will Have Been at the Walker, and indeed, Reagan towered over that decade and has cast the shadow of his revolution—profoundly conservative policies wrapped in the bright cloak of “springtime in America”—over every decade since.
Walking through the exhibit at a press preview on June 29, Molesworth called the show “an opening gambit” for reevaluating art in the 80s, and the best thing about the exhibit is that it opens its story to multiple perspectives and interpretations. Molesworth is alert to the ways in which both art and life were reinvented in the 80s, and neatly balances her exhibit’s four themes—”Democracy,” “Desire and Longing,” “Gender Trouble,” and “The End is Near”—on that fulcrum.
The exhibit is so well-balanced, in fact, that among the many iconic works on display, it’s impossible to choose one as the show’s centerpiece.
One candidate would be Julian Schnabel’s haunting 1982 portrait of Andy Warhol—painted near the end of Warhol’s life, showing scars from his near-fatal shooting by Valerie Solanas. The painting appears in the “Gender Trouble” gallery, where it hangs in context with other works deconstructing the traditional notion of virile masculinity. It also, though, speaks to post-modernism (Schnabel’s beautifully kitshchy medium is oil on black velvet) and to the decentralization of the global art scene: chips of paint almost seem to be flying away from Warhol’s body, dramatizing both Warhol’s own mortality and the art world’s broadening geographic focus. Another way to understand the show, said Molesworth, is as a look back at a New York that no longer exists—a New York that was the uncontested pinnacle of the art world.
Another candidate for the show’s centerpiece would be Jeff Koons’s stainless-steel Rabbit (1986). Molesworth called the sculpture “a deeply vexed object,” saying “it is perfect” again and again in a tone of both admiration and suspicion. Koons is perhaps the definitive 80s artist, climbing on Warhol’s shoulders to ascend to global celebrity and fabulous wealth by selling reproductions of his balloon-animal sculptures and other works. “Perfect” is exactly the right word for Koons’s bunny: it’s both a stunning object in a very traditional sense and an ironic commentary on itself, a heavy and expensive reproduction of a cheap, hollow, mass-produced plastic toy. One way to define a perfect work of art is to say that it’s beyond criticism, and Koons’s bunny is pefect in precisely that sense, encapsulating its own criticism and literally reflecting the viewer’s perception back upon itself.
Yet another candidate for the show’s centerpiece might be the piece that will be the most immediately obvious focus of attention for most museumgoers: David Hammons’s giant 1989 portrait of Jesse Jackson in whiteface, with the piece’s title (“How ya like me now?”) spray-painted across the torso. The work now includes a wire stanchion supported by sledgehammers such as those that were used by black protesters to batter the piece when it was first put on display. Did the protesters know, wondered Molesworth, that the artist who created the piece was black? Would it have mattered? Is one man’s blackness the same as another’s?
The 1980s began with feminism, said Molesworth, and ended with queerness. What that means, she explained, was that the decade saw the deconstruction of ideas of “woman-centered” ideas of feminism; those ideas were replaced by notions of queerness that called into question the entire power structure that forced genders to fight for supremacy. Similar things were happening with race, as evinced by Hammons’s portrait: the question of race in America isn’t just about black and white, it’s about identity and culture and history in all its complex shades, seen from as many perspectives as there are observers.
The protesters’ assualt on Hammons’s portrait also represented another idea about art and culture that has been deconstructed since the 80s, suggested Molesworth: the idea that art has profound power to change society. Molesworth was discussing that view from a fine-arts perspective, but it can also been seen from a mass-culture perspective.
The 80s were the decade of MTV, and widespread complaints about music videos called them misogynist and objectifying—a pernicious influence on impressionable youth. Savvy observers in the 80s, though, understood that MTV wasn’t just about the slick Robert Palmer but also about the boundary-crossing Michael Jackson and the proudly sexual Madonna, and correctly guessed where things were headed. Today, the face of music video looks more like that of Azealia Banks, a rapper whose bisexuality is so omnivorous that she regards it as almost irrelevant to her art. Debates about feminism rage on, but they’re less about the purported brainwashing by the mainstream media than about the ways in which different views of gender are assumed and questioned in exchanges between people in real life and via interactive media. (See, for example, the debate over Tumblr’s decision to censor blogs promoting eating disorders.)
This is the world the 80s have wrought: a topsy-turvy world where economic exploitation and “hope” are somehow not mutually exclusive; where the n-word and the c-word have been turned back upon themselves by the groups they were coined to denigrate; where a sexually-transmitted pandemic (AIDS) has inspired both the queer and straight communities to reinvent their notions of intimacy and community in a manner that is, ironically, in some ways very positive; and where you can make more money selling giant balloon animals than you can painting the world’s finest portraits. As Michael Stipe sang in 1987, it’s the end of the world as we know it. How do you feel about that?