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.

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.

Notes

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.

1981: Robert Longo

Frozen in ice … buffeted by the forces of modern urban entropy … brawling … or just dancing? (The answer is all of the above.) Robert Longo’s Men in the Cities drawings, which were first shown at Metro Pictures in 1981, are a productive mixture of directness and inscrutability. “Iconic” is an overused and often misused word these days; nevertheless, Longo’s stark, large-scale, charcoal and graphite drawings of well-dressed men and women, their bodies contorted by (or creating) an unseen, anarchic energy, are as close to iconic images of the early 1980s (from the vantage point of New York City, at least) as one could ask for.

Like all highly-memorable images, the success of the Men in the Çities series became something of an impediment for Longo but, like Roy Lichtenstein before him, he got through it by continuing to work in black and white, graphic media and in series but varying the content.

Robert Longo is also a member of the X-PATSYS.

ART OF THE 1980s

1980 – Cindy Sherman

1981 – Robert Longo

1980: Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman composed and mostly shot the 69 photographs of the Untitled Film Stills series between the years 1977 and 1980. They were first exhibited in early 1980 at The Kitchen; later in the same year, the series was chosen to be the inaugural show at Metro Pictures.

Basing her cinematic clichés on the lurid, high-cholesterol psychodramas of Sirk, Hitchcock and Fellini, Sherman qua actress, lays it on thick, pushing makeup, wardrobe, wigs and facial expressions to the edges of camp. Shernan qua director, however, is a model of restraint and understatement, allowing the work’s central irony to come into view only at its conclusion, when we realize that the identity of the artist is not occluded or negated by the compulsive adoption and abandonment of identities, it is the sum of them. The more she proliferates roles, personae, and disguises, the more Sherman reveals of herself; she is everywhere and nowhere in the series. Personal identity, for the Pictures generation, is constructed from an ever-changing array of images of attitudes, incidents, and outfits, the only constant being the act of perceiving them. This proposition could have beem cast as an existential paradox (i.e., Bergman’s Personae), but Sherman sees it as an irony inherent in all acts of representation.

In 1995, The Museum of Modern Art bought the Untitled Film Stills series from Sherman for $1 million (they would fetch far more today). In a perfect moment of 1980s synchronicity, the ensuing MoMA exhibition, Cindy Sherman: The Complete Untitled Film Stills (1997), was sponsored by Madonna.

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