80s Redux at the Whitney

Julia Wachtel (b. 1956), Membership, 1984. Oil on canvas, 66 × 81 in. (167.6 × 205.7 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

The anomaly of New York’s downtown scene in the 1980s has always presented a complicated puzzle for curators and critics: the disparate factions of artists living and working in New York at that time had multiple challenges with which to contend.

First, the work they produced failed to fit cleanly into a single movement with a simple, catchy name. As "Fast Forward: Painting from the 1980s" shows us, in just focusing on painting (setting aside the even larger statement an all-inclusive show of the 80s would make by covering video art, performance, etc.), we see examples of abstraction, appropriation, text art and more. Next and more importantly, these were artists working post-apocalypse, in a sense: after Minimalism, which spoke of “the death of painting,” and with the ever-present punk rock nihilism emanating from downtown venues like CBGB’s and ABC No Rio, these artists lived and worked in the decayed city that the federal government had effectively abandoned. Motivation was often found, as shown in many works here, in the social and the political. The political climate of the 1980s gave these artists plenty to fight, not the least of which was the demonstrably terrible handling of the AIDS crisis. These were artists living in the shadows of the Savings & Loan crisis, in the Soho and Lower East Side neighborhoods just before gentrification came onto the scene, prompting the ensuing protests and raids on Tompkins Square Park, as well as on many other squats and communal spaces. With no lack of motivating factors, combined with (temporarily) affordable gallery space and a growing national interest in emerging Contemporary artists, the explosion of vibrant, raw art coming out of downtown New York in the 80s was an undeniable force, albeit at times unfocused and quixotic, to say the least.

“Fast Forward” essentially breaks the exhibition into three components across three rooms: figurative, appropriation and abstraction -- though again, it’s not nearly that simple. Many of the works included belie categorization under any of these three umbrellas.

Beginning with the room containing figurative work, two obvious standouts are Eric Fischl’s A Visit To / A Visit From / The Island  from 1983 and Leon Golub’s White Squad I from 1982, which face each other from opposite walls. Fischl hits us over the head with the more-relevant-now-than-ever statement regarding the plight of refugees seeking safe harbor. In his work, we understand the beach as a representation of vacation, of fun – yet our relaxing beachgoers share their sunny getaway with a group of Haitians washed ashore, finally finding sanctuary in death. As stated by Fischl, the work speaks to “the horrible irony of the simultaneity of our world.” For Golub, an undeservedly underrated artist to whom confrontational work was a constant, White Squad I depicts a group of laughing Central American mercenaries, standing atop two corpses. Even posed against Fischl’s work, Golub’s is no less disturbing. The crude figures clutching guns radiate terror, their jovial nature making it all the more disquieting.

In the room designated for appropriation art, things become a little more tricky. The salon-style wall of works was designed to approximate the countless group shows of the era, most notably the Colab Projects 1980 Times Square Show. A selection of works is arranged in a somewhat haphazard fashion, with examples by Carroll Dunham, Joyce Pensato, David Wojnarowicz, Tim Rollins & K.O.S., among others. Yes, it’s difficult to closely study some of the works, and for many shown here, there are not many obvious connections save for the time and location the artists shared. However, the group shows being replicated here weren’t necessarily much different in that regard. The Times Square Show in particular hosted Kiki Smith, Basquiat, Jane Dickson and many others who relished showing their work alongside artists with whom they often shared little in common.

Also of note are Ross Bleckner’s excellent Count No Count from 1989, a sublime work that is one of many the artist used to confront the spectre of AIDS; Martin Wong’s Closed is a fantastic example of his gritty studies of foreboding, rusty storefront gates; and Christopher Wool’s Untitled, in which he reduces the phrase “Run Dog Run” to abstraction by breaking the text apart across a high-gloss white aluminum ground, as he would do to great success throughout much of his career. Being an unabashed fan of the era, I would have loved more – it’s commendable that so many underappreciated artists of the era like Peter Cain and Walter Robinson were included – yet I (like many who’ve attended this exhibition, I’m sure) have a short list of personal favorites like Ronnie Cutrone, Joe Coleman and Peter Halley, who could easily have been added without altering the curatorial intent. This is, of course, nitpicking on my part, and it’s a showbiz staple to leave the crowd wanting more.

Considering the purposefully schizophrenic nature of the exhibition, it’s probably almost appropriate to discuss the beginning of the exhibition last. Upon entering, one is greeted on the left by a massive Kenny Scharf painting and on the right by works by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Front and center, however, is a work by the far lesser-known Julia Wachtel -- Membership from 1984 -- also employed by the Whitney as the lead image for the show on their website. Considering the all-stars included here, like Julian Schnabel, Glenn Ligon, David Salle and others, what does it say that this work is representative of the exhibition as a whole? I would contend that Membership is not only representative of Wachtel’s body of work, but also speaks to the aforementioned chaotic nature of the scene of which she was a part. A canvas in two sections, the left is a pair of African carved figures – painted possibly from a source image seen in National Geographic or another such publication – while on the right is a kitschy '70s greeting card figure, a weeping character holding a drooping oversized flower. There’s a lot to talk about here. First, Wachtel is appropriating imagery like the Pop artists before her, but unlike Lichtenstein or Warhol, there’s no boldness, no machismo. Even the appropriation of the Pictures Generation – represented in this exhibit by Sherrie Levine, with a version of her “Krazy Kat” image – employed painting less (consider Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince), often favoring manipulation of photography. So, in talking about what this painting is not can be revealing. For the reasons mentioned previously, the work is a bit of an anomaly within a peer group of artists who are themselves already difficult to compartmentalize. Going further, breaking the image itself down, we have two seemingly incongruous parts linked together: the African figures are, assumedly, historically significant, and they are an identical pair together. The greeting card character, standing alone, has no grace, its posture is poor and the flower it offers the viewer is already wilting. Are we supposed to relate to this pathetic creature? Are we being asked to confront our own feelings of isolation? Does this sad figure represent us, eager to belong, to be part of a pair like the formal statues to its left? Are they the gatekeepers to whom we must supplicate for entry into adult society? Again, “Fast Forward” is largely made up of misfit artists who were (and maybe still are) young, scared and angry – all looking to find their place in the world. It seems very apt to me that a work entitled Membership could then be a call to action for them, and for us, decades later, to finally come to terms with the importance of their work in the larger context of art history.

Fast Forward: Painting from the 1980s

Culled wholly from the Whitney Museum’s permanent collection, "Fast Forward: Painting from the 1980s" will run until May 14.  For further information, click here


Julia Wachtel (b. 1956), Membership, 1984. Oil on canvas, 66 × 81 in. (167.6 × 205.7 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

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