Tag Archives: art of the 1980s

1989: Robert Mapplethorpe

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Robert Mapplethorpe was the subject of two retrospectives in the last year of his life, Robert Mapplethorpe, at the Whitney Museum of American Art (26 July – 23 October 1988) and Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, which traveled to five other museums in 1989-90.

The religious right successfully pressured the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington to cancel the The Perfect Moment before it opened in 1989 and caused the Cincinnati district attorney to bring criminal obscenity charges against curators of the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center in 1990. Right wing politicians made Mapplethorpe and the exhibition the centerpiece of their campaign to discredit and do away with the National Endowment for the Arts, which ultimately failed.

I want everything to be perfect, and of course it isn’t. And that’s a tough place to be because you’re never satisfied.
–Robert Mapplethorpe, 1987

In the starkly-lit, static, black and white photos he produced in the last years of his life, which were heavily featured in the 1988-89 exhibitions, Mapplethorpe certainly aimed at perfection. The still-life arrangements, portraits and heroic nudes are virtually Neo-classical in their purity, restraint, and severity. Every object his camera focuses on turns to stone. In his late portraits in particular, faces are slightly over-lit, like old Hollywood publicity shots, to create a soft focus, luminous effect very close to the lustre of polished marble; applying this technique to actual statuary allows hard surfaces to appear soft and mutable.

I really believe that Robert sought not to destroy order, but to re-order, to re-invent, and to create a new order.
—Patti Smith, 2010

Deeply influenced by Edward Weston and Minor White, Mapplethorpe used the camera to abstract from objects and bodies an inner or underlying essential form. The effect of timelessness—a moment captured and preserved—is, to some extent, unavoidable in photography. When a photographer takes as his or her subject nothing less than beauty itself and purity of form, time ceases to be a referent at all.

In the 1980s, critics praised Mapplethorpe either for his transgressive depiction of graphic and hitherto unrepresentable content or his formalism, which gave the impression of a seemingly split artistic personality (the essays in the Whitney catalogue read as if they were about completely different artists). The problematics of foregrounding the formalist over the hardcore Mapplethorpe became very evident in the expert testimony in the Cincinnati trial, which attempted to explain one version of Mapplethorpe in terms of the other.

Because his Black Book photos are now widely-known, and due to changing perceptions of gay sexuality, Mapplethorpe’s work is less shocking than he was in 1989 (which is what it sought to achieve, on some level). This makes the consistency of his visual interests clearer. The perfect moment turns out to be the perfect form, which is visible in all subjects once the filters of the dominant paradigm are removed.

This concludes The Art of the 1980s series.


1988: Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons (American, b. 1955) organizes his artistic production in series defined by abstract themes—The New, Equilibrium, Celebration, Easy Fun, Antiquity, each one having the aura of a new dispensation. The component works in each grouping are fashioned by a team of artists and manufacturers using the same materials, which gives the series a high degree of visual coherence. At the level of subject matter the groupings seem less crisp—almost all of Jeff Koons works are engaged with the new, the banal, the celebratory—and many works could be reassigned to a different series without any conceptual damage.

The Banality series was first exhibited not in a gallery, but at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, in the summer of 1988. The series is introduced by an outsized Hummel-style bisque group of two angels and a boy in modern dress, leading a pig, entitled Ushering in Banality (Koons commented that he thought of himself as the boy in back pushing the pig). The banality (which is both an era and a condition), that ensues is tremendous. Among the large-scale, polychromed and gilded, precision-made cast-porcelain figures are representations of a pure white Michael Jackson holding his pet chimp, Bubbles, a semi-nude woman embracing the Pink Panther and Leonardo’s shiny, leering John the Baptist. Sickeningly cute bears abound. One hardly knows how to react to this high-key spectacle of finely-wrought bad taste.

Koons brilliantly combines fine materials worked by highly-skilled mastercraftsmen and artists with cutesy, saccharine kitsch and soft porn subjects to create objects that are highly seductive and highly repellent in equal portions (equilibrium being a central epistemological construct in Koons’ work). One feels embarrassed to look at the Banality works too closely, yet ineluctably drawn to do so. Koons frontloads his subjects with potentially incendiary topics—racism, beastiality, sanctity, cultural decline, self-degradation and delusion, but holds them all in perfect suspension. It is impossible to decide if works like Michael Jackson and Bubbles are intended as sincere tributes, examples of catastrophic bad taste to be derided, or critiques of the culture that produces and consumes the imagery from which the work is derived. At the same time, one feels the need to try to sort these issues out because nothing less than the state of western culture is at stake. Extracting all that out of a reproduction of a gift-shop teddy bear is no mean feat.

Unlike conceptual art, these highly-intellectual issues are expressed purely in visual terms that require no specialized knowledge or priestly cast to decipher them. For Duchamp, the demi-urge who instigated Koons’ career, art was either conceptual or merely “retinal,” an instance of intellection or something just to look at, substance or decoration. Koons squared that circle, framing philosophically-inclined, aesthetic and moral content in gorgeously-realized, oppulently-appointed terms (Koon’s monumental, expensive and entertaining balloon-animal sculptures showed well at Versailles). This is all done with a lightness of touch and without any of the pretention and preening (although just as much self-promotion) of other top-drawer ’80s artists – and – Koons, the artist who stirred some of the most acrimonious re-hashings of the middle-brow is-it-art debate, has incredibly enough become a popular favorite of the masses whose tastes motivated the his work in the first place.

After an unexpected hiatus, The Higher Inquiètude is back.

1987: The Starn Twins

The photo collages made jointly by identical twins Doug and Mike Starn (American b. 1961) created a sensation at the 1987 Whitney Biennial, which led to show an equally well-received show at Leo Castelli in 1988.

The Starns had been assembling altering, adapting, and appropriating photographs, many vintage, together since the age of 13. They refused to discuss their work in terms of individual contributions, thus creating an attribution issue that reinforced the sense of age and loss. To underscore their corporate identity, they made numerous self-portraits, in which it is impossible to differentiate between the two.

Creased, worn, faded, and held together with Scotch tape the Starns’ fictive keepsakes and artifacts are someone else’s memories created with archaic media. The inward-turning melancholy and fragility are utterly unlike the self-aggrandizing and florid Neo Expressionism or the impersonal, hard abstraction that preceded them.

They were also of their times. The shared the decade’s taste for outsized scale. Along Daguerre Julia Margaret Cameron and Edward Muybridge, the photography of Joel Peter Witkin, the animated films of the Brothers Quay and David Lynch’s Eraserhead were also influences. The inclusion of Twins in their official moniker, as well as the gauzy layering and romanticism of the Cocteau Twins comes to mind as well (the cover photo of Treasure, released in1984, shares many characteristics with the Starns’ work). The 1980s was also the decade of chemically-induced or “distressed” faux-vintage fabrics and materials, meaning the retrospection and nostalgia of the Starn Twins is in some way the most contemporary aspect of their art.

1986: Eric Fischl

Eric Fischl’s mid-career retrospective at Whitney Museum of American Art in 1986 consisted of 28 paintings of obliquely-observed, semi-scandalous, sexually-charged situations taking place in spacious upper middle class houses, yards and beaches. Fischl’s subject matter is greatly enhanced by his equally licentious painting style, which consists of loosely-handled, summary brushwork, and an approach to the nude that is at once awkward and fluid at the same time.

Reviewing the show, New York Times art critic John Russell stated that Fischl’s work was controversial because his combination of anxious expressionism and suburban anomie, “had come down hard upon the exposed nerve of our time.”¹ Less portentously, Robert Hughes, writing about Fischl’s 1988 show at Mary Boone, credited the artist with conjuring scenes of unforeseen prurience “so vivid that for the moment you ignore the formal lapses in Fischl’s painting.” He also noted

… Fischl’s desire to turn the viewer into a voyeur, a reluctant and embarrassed witness. At such moments you realize that, whatever awkwardness his work harbors, he is up to something worthwhile at least on the plane of psychic narrative.²

By the 1970s, performance art had appropriated the representation of the body, which abstraction had programmatically displaced from painting and sculpture. As Fischl candidly acknowledged his lack of formal training in basic technique, pointing out that basic skills like drawing from the nude were not taught in the progressive American art schools (Fischl received his MFA from Cal Arts in 1974) and the were no American figural artists to serve as exemplars.

The figural tradition was thriving, however, in Britain, and Fischl clearly looked hard at and learned from Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and above all, David Hockney, whose glaring sunlight, anomie, and swimming pools filled with surprises suggested new directions for narrative painting. Stylistically, Fischl is more indebted to the slash and burn manner of Bacon and to Freud’s turgid and vexed exploration of the metaphorical relationship of oil pigments to skin.

The bulk of Russell’s review of the Fischl retrospective reads like an undergrad art history exam: pictures by Fischl are compared to and contrasted with works by Manet, Degas, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper and Max Beckmann:

[Degas] sets up a charged situation with his incomparable subtlety of insight and characterization, and then he goes away and leaves us to figure it out as best we can. That is the tactic of Fischl, too, though the society with which he deals has an unstructured brutality and a violence never far from release that are very different from the nicely calibrated cruelties that Degas recorded.

These artists were regularly mentioned at the time in conjunction with Fischl, either to demonstrate his place in the tradition of modern painting, or to show how short he fell from it. To a much greater extent, Julian Schnabel, and David Salle, to a lesser extent, were also discussed with reference to the canon in the same tendentious manner. Then again, the terms of the debate had been set by the artists themselves (Schnabel: “I’m the closest thing to Picasso that you’ll see in this fucking life”⁴), who proclaimed their project to be nothing short of the revival of painting itself.

Russell’s review is important not for its pictorial analysis, but because all of the comparisons to past masters are favorable to Fischl. No ironic points are scored and no falling off is lamented. It is clear that Russell feels not only that it is legitimate to assess Fischl’s paintings in terms of their place within the western tradition, but that they can hold their own in the process. At that moment, Eric Fischl, the ultra-hyped, contemporary art star, became a modern master charged with representing “our time”, and an object of art historical analysis. Neo-Expressionism was here to stay.


1. John Russell, “At the Whitney, 28 Eric Fischl Paintings,” The New York Times, 21 February 1986.

2. Robert Hughes, Nothing If Not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists (Penguin, 1992).

3. Russell, 2.

4. Michael Stone, “Off the Canvas: The Art of Julian Schnabel Survives the Wreckage of the 1980s,” New York Magazine, 18 May 1992, p. 32.

1985: Peter Halley

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Peter Halley had his first one-man show at International with Monument, the now defunct East Village gallery, in 1985. The large-scale paintings were executed in a hard-edged, impersonal, geometrical style and unmodulated planes of highly-contrasting colors. SoHo had been in search for painterly, figural Neo-Expressionism’s successor, and quickly conglomerated Halley, Ashley Bickerton, Phillip Taafe, and Ross Bleckner into a “movement” alternately called Neo-Geo or Neo-Minimalism, the hallmarks of which were abstraction, rectilinearity, and machine-like finish.

Halley’s paintings, however, are not abstract. He began the decade painting radically-simplified architecture, including a recurrent prison cell with an iron-barred window. The title of the first prison-cell painting, The Prison of History(1981), in which one hears echoes of Nietzsche, Frederic Jameson, Foucault and De Man, reminds one that Halley went to Yale in the 1970s, during the heroic years of Deconstruction, semiotics and linguistics-based literary theory (Halley also served as the Director of Graduate Studies in Painting and Printmaking at the Yale University School of Art from 2002-2014). With Mondrian and Ad Reinhardt guiding his way, Halley has spent the last 30 years exploring, refining, elaborating and purifying the formal, material and epistemological aspects of this single motif to great effect and hasn’t come anywhere near exhausting it.

In a 2013 interview, Halley offered the following account of his technique. He continues to describe his work in Saussurian terms, although in the past decade, it has become more lush, joyful and—dare one say—painterly:

I started using Roll-a-Tex® in 1981. You don’t need any special virtuosity to make my paintings. Roll-a-Tex® and Day-Glo are commercial techniques. In the early 80s, artists had returned to using oil painting and brushes, making romantic figurative paintings. I wanted to emphasize the physical signifiers in my paintings. When I wanted to show the ground plane, I put two canvases together. When I wanted to make the geometry feel architectural, I put stucco on it. So the signifiers in my paintings are physical rather than illusionistic. Traditionally, artists are celebrated because of their virtuosity. To me, virtuosity is a little anti-democratic.

1984: Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat was already well-known in the SoHo art world and downtown club scene as a member of the graffiti art collective called SAMO, but his first show at Mary Boone in 1984 marked his arrival as A-list artist whose sought-after paintings commanded high prices.

Basquiat’s work was immediately and warmly received by dealers, critics, and collectors because it was imbued with the conventions of high modernism to the same degree it was informed by the street. His middle-class family had encouraged his talents and supported his art education so that when he began spray painting walls in lower Manhattan, he was already self-conscious about the place his medium and style occupied within a tradition. Basquiat’s dual-citizenship in both the street and the gallery and his fluency in the visual languages of both high and low art, effectively neutralized charges of dilettantism and of selling out.

Although Basquiat ceased to be a graffiti artist when SAMO disbanded in 1981, the iconography and graphic style of street art were carried over to his studio art. More importantly, the ability to address the public directly through language and image, in an improvised, rhetorical manner allowed Basquiat to present politically-charged content with a low-key confidence and authority honed by practice. The 1980s were notorious for the proliferation of unenlightening politicized art and for ugly racial confrontations, yet Basquiat’s work was able to speak persuasively and compellingly to major historical and cultural issues like the legacy of slavery, racial inequality and identity politics not because he was a man of color (an essentialist fallacy that marred much of the political art made by his contemporaries), but because he had five years of experience in public speaking before he began making politically-charged art.

Understanding the rhetorical nature of Basquiat’s art helps to explain why his collaborations with mentor (and landlord) Andy Warhol were not successful. Warhol’s impersonal use of found and reproduced imagery derived its power not from addressing the public from a position outside of it with the intent to persuade, but by appropriating the imagery and passive point of view of that public for ironic and subversive purposes. Next to Basquiat’s discursive engagement and bravura painterly style, Warhol’s contributions seemed anemic and evasive.

Jean-Michel Basquiat died of a heroin overdose in New York City on 12 August 1988, at the age of 28. On 13 May 2013, Basquiat’s Dustheads (1982) was sold at a Christie’s auction for a record $48.8 million.

ART OF THE 1980s

1980 – Cindy Sherman

1981 – Robert Longo

1982 – Keith Haring

1983 – Barbara Kruger

1984 – Jean-Michel Basquiat

1982: Keith Haring

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On the opening night of Keith Haring’s 1982 solo show, Tony Shafrazi’s gallery looked like a graffiti-covered subway car or a freshly-tagged wall in an East Village empty lot, which was exactly what the artist had intended. Like the kid who cannot color within the lines, Haring could not be restrained by orderly rows of minimalist frames set against pure white walls. Instead, he covered those walls with rhythmic patterns,  densely-populated with outline figures engaged in frenetic activity. All of this was drawing, rapidly-executed with markers and felt tip pens (Haring didn’t start painting until the mid-1980s). Mounted and framed works were incorporated into this setting as well.

The overall effect was electrifying, and unsettling as it was truly unclear where the boundary between art object and display space had been redrawn. The artwork’s feral energy made the tidy commercial gallery and the patronage system it represented seem puny and dull. They were definitely chasing the tiger, whose disregard for their rituals and conventions made him all the more desirable. A popular and critical success, Haring’s show drew in 4,000 visitors in the month it was on view.*

After this success, Haring could have stepped into a new identity as critically-approved artist with SoHo gallery representation. Instead, he went underground again, and in 1982 he began drawing on the unrented, blank spaces on advertising billboards in subway stations all over Manhattan— each an authentic act of graffiti, motivated by genuine, populist impulses.

The subway drawings generated more interest in Haring and his personal, yet universally-legible, iconography quickly begat imitators. By 1984, the subway drawings were being removed from the wall and sold and their uncopyrighted imagery started appearing on cheap clothing, posters and other commercial junk. Haring could not exactly complain about unauthorized use and maintain his status as a street artist, but he did cease the subway drawing raids and began to consider ways to control the use of his imagery and market those aspects of his work which were rapidly becoming popular with the general public

In 1986, following the unclearly-motivated advice of Andy Warhol, Haring opened a chain of retail “Pop Shops,” where he sold mass-produced versions of his non-threatening work directly to the public.

Haring’s work is darker, more varied and provocative than the brightly-colored, dancing dogs and hugging stick people of the Pop Shops. Throughout the reactionary and atavistic 1980s, he consistently addressed religious bigotry, intolerance, war-mongering, and the accumulation of power over many possessed by the few. He produced work with gay sexual subject matter as explicit and unapologetic as anything Robert Mapplethorpe produced, and used his branded imagery to great effect in support of Act Up’s heroic battle to force governments to take action against the AIDS epidemic.

His death from AIDS-related complications in 1990 at the age of 31 coincided with the collapse of the 1980s art market. Haring’s work, already over-hyped and over-exposed, looked to many less like subversive subway graffiti and more like Hello Kitty or The Simpsons—great as graphic design, but vacuous and trivial. 

Those abruptly-shifting perceptions of Haring’s work are now over 20 years ago and no longer exert any influence on his reputation as artist and never did on the quality of his work. The Pop Shops are closed and the radiant child and hugging stick people are no longer ubiquitous. The clearing away of the hype and side-shows has allowed a new generation of viewers and collectors to see the freshness and originality of Haring’s imagery and style. Two recent exhibitions of Haring’s early work, Keith Haring: 1978-82, mounted in 2012 at the Brooklyn Museum, and Keith Haring: The Political Line, a major retrospective organized by the Musée de l’Art Moderne in Paris in 2013, gave Haring’s work the comprehensive, scholarly and curatorial treatment it clearly merits. On 13-14 May 2014, two monumental Haring paintings from 1981 and 1986, sold at auction for $4.59 and $4.87 million respectively, establishing new sales benchmarks for the artist.

(*) Haring’s Tony Shafrazi show was not his first solo exhibition, nor was it the first time he had applied graffiti-like imagery to gallery walls. In February, 1981, artist Michael Keane, curator of the Des Réfusés gallery at the Westbeth Painters Space, gave Haring the run of the space, which he covered with graffiti-like drawings. The flyer for that show features the radiant child and barking dog outline figures that would become, for better of for worse, his trademarks.

ART OF THE 1980s

1980 – Cindy Sherman

1981 – Robert Longo

1982 – Keith Haring

1985 – Peter Halley

1987 – The Starn Twins