Helen Molesworth is a product of the 1980s, attending high school and college during the decade and, along the way, developing a love for art galleries and a dislike for the policies of Ronald Reagan.
Flash forward to “This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s,” a sprawling exhibition Molesworth curated at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and which has now gone on display at the ICA. It’s a show that Molesworth insists is not the final word on the decade, just her take.
Molesworth spoke this week while in the ICA galleries.
Q. How did you feel about taking on the decade? I imagine it must have seemed daunting.
A. It was daunting. Part of the struggle was to figure out how to tell a version of the story that is personal and true to my own experience and concerns, intellectual, political, and aesthetic, but to have that story also be a story that has many points of entry for others. So it’s not just my ’80s but it’s a lens through which we all might begin to reassess what happened in that period. To that end I’ve always been very emphatic this is not the definitive show about the ’80s. It’s an opening conversational gambit. We have the ’80s in this embarrassment box and we have to stop being embarrassed about it and start figuring out what parts of it make sense.
Q. Embarrassment box?
A. You know, the big shoulder pads. Julian Schnabel walking around in his pajamas. That kind of excess of ’80s culture. That’s one part of the ’80s. But it conveniently forgets other formations. For instance, the rise of women artists and artists of color to prominence. The ACT UP movement, which really put an end to the AIDS crisis as it had existed in the States in the ’80s and started a conversation about national health care.
Q.You make a point, early in the catalog, that you’re going to avoid art-speak terms like “appropriation” or “neo-expressionism” to describe the work. Why?
A. It was my generation that stopped having those terms. Outside of hip-hop, what cultural formation have we all agreed that there’s a name for? We’re the generation that doesn’t believe in naming.
Q.There was “Generation X.”
A.Yes, but everyone who is “Generation X” is like, “that’s so lame.” That’s something the media invented to talk about us.
Q.We can probably say the same thing about the “painting is dead” maxim from the 1980s. There are some works in this exhibition that show that painting is very much alive.
A. Painting is dead is the kind of statement you say to say that certain ideas about painting are dead. But that’s harder to get in print than painting is dead. The idea that painting is better than photography. Or that painting is the highest form of cultural expression is dead. The idea that the only artist who could be a genius is a painter is dead. But painting itself is not dead.
Q.Speaking of which, there’s a fantastic Lucian Freud in the catalog. I don’t see it here.
A. I wanted it to be in the show and could not get the loan. It’s one of the only things I wanted and could not get because there’s another show of his portraits traveling at the time.
Q.How did you feel including Jeff Koons’s stainless steel bunny. It’s so famous and iconic.
A. I am interested in the canon. I am interested in the objects that we come to group together and associate with certain ideas and aesthetic standards. I’m interested in the kind of values that accrue to certain objects. I always try to have an exhibition of objects that have already accrued that value and put them in rooms that have yet to accrue that kind of value and see what happens. I’m not a top-40 kind of curator but I’m also not an alternative, B-side jazz guy.
Q.What’s a perfect B-side in this show?
A. Those Jimmy De Samma photographs right there [pointing]. He’s an artist who died young of AIDS, he’s not particularly well known, and yet I think those pictures are terrific. They’re bizarre, surrealistic; they imagine a new kind of body.
Q.The Guerrilla Girls were so effective in the 1980s. Recently, they hired a rolling billboard to drive around town and protest the lack of women artists at the Museum of Fine Arts. Instead of getting upset, the MFA’s contemporary curator talked of the need to do better and wanted to meet the billboard on a return visit. Is it just not the same protesting these days?
A. In the 1980s we had a set of strategies designed to embarrass power. The object of embarrassing power was to get power to reconfigure itself on the side of the good and the right. I find in our contemporary moment that power is impervious to being embarrassed. When attacked by the Guerrilla Girls, the MFA can say, ‘Oh, can we bring you back, we like you.’ As opposed to having a strong reckoning of their exhibition record and what story that museum is telling about cultural production. We were very proud not to have been called out by the Guerrilla Girls.
Q.How does working with the MCA Chicago relate to the ICA?
A.The MCA Chicago has a great ’80s exhibition history. As does the ICA Boston. And the biggest difference is the MCA Chicago collected the whole time and they have a great ’80s collection, and the ICA didn’t and we don’t. It’s for me another argument of why the ICA should be a collecting institution.
Q.This show doesn’t exactly have a happy ending. The two clocks moving at different paces to represent the death of one member of a couple, and David Wojnarowicz’s photograph of the buffalos careening to their deaths.
A. You know, in 1992 the death rate from AIDS is enormous. We’re still four years away from the creation of the antiviral medicines that make AIDS not a death sentence. So ’92 is a very tricky moment. On the one hand, there’s a sense of hope around Clinton’s election. The first official with a strong lesbian-and-gay platform. The hardest thing about the exhibition is that on the one hand many of these people are still alive. So how to write the history of those alive and on the other hand, honor those who didn’t make it. That’s a line the exhibition is trying to walk.
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