The ’50s! The ’60s! The ’70s! Surveying distant decades can remind us of our better selves. More often, though — like adults looking back at a collective adolescence — we find ourselves laughing at earlier naiveties. We look at the ’50s, for instance, and tend to mock that decade’s powerful drive to conformity, its complacent postwar confidence. We remember the ’60s and snicker at that decade’s astral idealism.
What, then, were the naiveties, the misapprehensions, the idiocies of the ’80s? “This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s” at the Institute of Contemporary Art presents us with a chance to reflect on the question. Organized by ICA curator Helen Molesworth for the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, where it was mounted earlier this year, it’s a tremendously ambitious show — just the kind of gutsy, rambunctious, debate-churning exercise the ICA needs, and for which Molesworth was hired almost three years ago.
The show has plenty to say about a decade many of us mentally cordon off in a bad dream of shoulder pads, Vaseline lens TV dramas, sax-and-synth pop, and hokey, hypocritical “family values” politicians. Bad painting, too.
Molesworth’s show tears away the insulation of (completely valid) embarrassment, and makes us face the art of the ’80s squarely. Hers is not a dispassionate, inclusive overview of the decade. It is, to cite Charles Baudelaire’s call-to-arms for critics, “partial, passionate, and political.” It reveals a miscellany of art that was raw, heartfelt, and politically engaged, even if some of it can be seen, from this distance, to have been collapsing too willingly into the arms of the academy, with its zombie talk of deconstruction, male gazes, appropriation, semiotics, and dominant paradigms.
How much of it was any good? That’s hard to say, and not, on the face of it, Molesworth’s chief concern. She is more interested in what the art she has assembled says about the ’80s, socially and politically, and how that feeds into who we are now, than in uncovering great art that just happens to have been made in that decade.
This strikes me as perfectly legitimate. A 10-year time span is an arbitrary framework if you don’t have some kind of take on it, some position to stake out. It’s a curator’s job to connect art with the wider world, with life, and with politics.
Molesworth reminds us of an earnestness that was central to much of the period’s most ambitious art. It was a sincerity proportionate to the times, despite the prevailing cliché of “ ’80s excess.”
Much of the work in this show attempted to counter a rising tide of political conservatism, seeking justice and an extension of freedoms for women, for African-Americans, for Latin Americans living under dictatorships, for gays and lesbians, and for a whole world living in the shadow of AIDS.
The show is divided into four chapters: “Gender Trouble,” “The End Is Near,” “Democracy,” and “Desire and Longing.” That last section includes work about the search not only for sex and love, but for shiny new commodities, a new politics, a world free of AIDS. It’s an amazingly potent room.
Jeff Koons is represented with his stainless steel “Bunny,” one of the decade’s great and defining works. Sophie Calle is here with “The Shadow,” an elaborate fantasy (she hired a private detective — without his knowing that she had hired him — to follow her around Paris) which takes longing and narcissism to weirdly intricate extremes.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres is represented by two clocks, side by side, almost but not quite in synch, called “Perfect Lovers.” Robert Mapplethorpe is here with three of the neoclassical, sexually charged photographs that kicked off the culture wars of the ’80s; and David Wojnarowicz, whose silent film “A Fire in My Belly” recently revived those culture wars, is here, too, with “Untitled (Buffalo),” a devastatingly poignant work. Those last three artists all died of AIDS-related illnesses.
Elsewhere in the show, caught up in the swirl of half-remembered politics, you can easily forget your own tentative, half-remembered criteria for quality in art. (Didn’t I long ago decide that Jenny Holzer is lame, that Louise Lawler’s appropriated photographs of past art are fatuous, and that Jeff Wall exists only to give theorists of the image intellectual orgasms?)
Still, there is no shortage of truly great work — including a photograph by Cindy Sherman, a video by Christian Marclay, a painting by Jack Goldstein, another by Tim Rollins and K.O.S., wall pieces by Sherrie Levine and Ashley Bickerton, a shifting slide projection by Robert Gober, and a sculpture by Doris Salcedo.
Each of the show’s four categories works well, and all perforce bleed into one another. Smart connections abound. A gallery focused on feminism’s impact on masculine self-image, for instance, includes Mike Kelley’s small sculptures made from balls of yarn yoked together on the wall. Titled “Manly Craft,” they suggest soft, floppy phalluses, homespun failure.
They hang opposite Rosemary Trockel’s “Untitled,” which also employs traditionally feminine, crafty materials, but this time with more disciplined, pseudo-corporate ends in mind. One panel, with a repeating pattern of Woolmark logos, adjoins another, with a repeating pattern of Playboy bunny logos.
Traditional masculinity, and especially the idea of the male artist genius, is shown up by nearby works as jerry-built, at best. Jimmy Durham’s “Self-portrait,” for instance, is made from cut-out canvas and metal tacks, with pathetic “explanatory” text scrawled on: “useless nipple,” “appendix scar,” “I have 12 hobbies!,” “Indian penises are unusually large and colorful.” (Durham is of Cherokee descent, but has refused to be boxed in by racial or cultural definitions.)
The German artist Albert Oehlen, meanwhile, has a huge painting here called “Self-Portrait With [Expletive] Underpants and Blue Mauritius.” Painting on a heroic scale and in a heroic medium, Oehlen none-theless goes out of his way to puncture inherited forms of the-male-artist-as-hero mythology.
Although artists like Oehlen and his compatriots Martin Kippenberger and Gerhard Richter all painted in the ’80s, one tends to associate them with the following decade. Each tapped into a moment of ironic, wide-awake, cheek-slapping sobriety that was pure early ’90s.
Just as Corinne Day’s grungy, unglamorous photographs of Kate Moss in The Face magazine in 1990 signaled the end of a certain outsize chapter in fashion, Kippenberger, Oehlen, and Richter, in their different ways, exploded the idea of heroic painting. They openly mocked the hype and myth-mongering that saw sloppy paintings transformed overnight into luxury commodities.
Their inclusion is welcome. But where are the artists whose cheeks they were slapping, who truly epitomized ’80s extravagance? David Salle is (quietly) here. So is Jean-Michel Basquiat. But there is very little of the neo-expressionism that dominated the ’80s, and none of the lyrical abstraction (the show dropped some works in the move from Chicago to Boston).
Those strands — epitomized by men such as Julian Schnabel, George Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, Francesco Clemente, and Eric Fischl, but also by such brilliant women as Elizabeth Murray and Susan Rothenberg — don’t fit into Molesworth’s highly politicized narrative.
More than any other single figure, Ronald Reagan acts as a seed crystal for the whole super-saturated solution of art, identity politics, institutional critique, appropriation, and deconstruction that’s at the heart of this show. Not only was Reagan socially conservative, he was a nuclear warhead-wielding, AIDS-ignoring ex-Hollywood star who became president of the most powerful nation on earth. As such, for left-leaning artists and like-minded academics and curators, he was, as Molesworth put it, “the perfect storm.”
We see his face here in an official-looking oil portrait in a gold frame, separated from the viewer by brass stanchions and a velvet rope. The painting is joined by a red carpet to a blown-up photographic image showing protesters on the street in New York in 1982. The installation, by Hans Haacke, begs you to choose one side over the other. It responded to a charged political environment, and particularly to a perception that some in the art world were going soft in the face of reactionary politics.
But of course, politics within the art world is an easy tune to play. Those who want to effect true political change should have the courage to operate in the political arena, not just play to their cheerleaders in the art world. That’s exactly what AIDS activists like Gran Fury and General Idea and daring public artists like Krzysztof Wodiczko, Guerrilla Girls, and Lorraine O’Grady did. They’re all here.
More interesting to me (because more mischievous) than Haacke’s bullying tactics is the work of David Hammons. Hammons’s “How Ya Like Me Now?” is a huge billboard-size portrait of Jesse Jackson in “whiteface” — that is, with blond hair and white skin.
The work is a reminder of the rising visibility — and vulnerability — of public art in the ’80s. It was commissioned by the Washington Project for the Arts as part of an exhibition about black culture and modernism. Just before it was completed, it was attacked with sledgehammers by a group of 10 young black men who read it as racist and inflammatory.
Hammons went on to exhibit it behind a ring of upright sledgehammers connected by wire, and an American flag, which is how we see it here. It’s provocative, subtle, funny, sly. Like all Hammons’s work, it doesn’t play to a preconceived audience. It preserves its autonomy, even as it presses a whole array of hot political buttons.
The difference between Haacke and Hammons is like the difference between listening to a pianola and a real pianist. One is mechanical, has predetermined results. The other is responsive, unpredictable, and runs a mile from the very idea of being “like-minded.” I know which one I prefer.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.