‘This Will Have Been’

Jeff Koons, Gerhard Richter & More: Taking the Measure of 1980s Art (PHOTOS)

A new show in Minneapolis looks at how artists in the 1980s, from Jeff Koons to Sherrie Levine, dealt with AIDS, feminism, Reaganism, and more. By Blake Gopnik.

Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

Jeff Koons, "Rabbit" (1986)

There's that moment, in any culture, where the moment right before ours stops feeling worthy of an Oedipal shove, and seems safely, charmingly in and of the past. We seem to have finally got to that point with the art and culture of the1980s: We can take a close look at it without wanting to kill it. A show called "This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s," which opened last week at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (it travels to Boston in the fall), takes the measure of that era's art, with works by a huge roster of names ranging from Jeff Koons to Gerhard Richter to Sherrie Levine. Curator Helen Molesworth examines how artists dealt with the AIDS crisis, feminism, Reaganism, and the culture wars, with the revival of painting—and its oft-pronounced death—and with the new forces of a raging art market. As the press release puts it, "'This Will Have Been' presents a vivid portrait of artists struggling with their wants, needs, and desires in an era of political and aesthetic urgency—and situates our contemporary moment within the history of art of the recent past."

This web gallery presents some highlights from the show.

– Blake Gopnik

Musée Departemental d'Art Contemporain de Rochechouart, Haute-Vienne, France; Photo: Freddy Le Saux

Gerhard Richter, "Skull" (1983)

In a single picture, the great German painter addresses the fate and viability of painting, where it stands in relation to the photos it's based on, and whether it can still claim to address the timeless themes—become timeless cliches—of the Western tradition.

Courtesy of the artist

Laurie Simmons, "Coral Living Room with Lilies" (1983)

Simmons gets dolls to act out the politics of the modern home.

© Guerrilla Girls

Guerrilla Girls, "The Advantages of Being A Woman Artist" (1988)

We tend to think of feminism as a movement that hit its stride in the 1970s, but it  took until the '80s for the art world to feel its full force. The anonymous collective called the Guerilla Girls, founded in 1985, used witty, caustic posters and performances to show how art remained a man's, man's, man's world.

© 1989 Lorna Simpson; Photo: Nathan Keay / MCA Chicago

Lorna Simpson, "Necklines" (1989)

The relationship between words and images was a 1980s preoccupation that it's hard to feel as strongly about now. No '80s photograph was complete without an inscription somewhere on its surface or frame. Simpson's brand of text-photo mashup was more resonant than most.

© 1984 Raymond Pettibon, courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Photo: Nathan Keay / MCA Chicago

Raymond Pettibon, "No Title (To Dust Cover...Shut)" (1984)

Pettibon launched his career in the world of American punk, designing posters and album covers and zines. Before long, however, the art world discovered his skills and effects. He was a pioneer of anti-aesthetic expressionism–which is still going strong in art schools today.

© 1985 Raymond Pettibon, courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Photo: Nathan Keay / MCA Chicago

Raymond Pettibon, "No Title (I don't know why)" (1985)

Private Collection, courtesy of Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin

Albert Oehlen, "Self-Portrait with Shitty Underpants and Blue Mauritius" (1984)

"Bad" painting counted as seriously good in the 1980s—especially if it came out of Germany. Oehlen was one of the best bad Germans.

© Deborah Bright

Deborah Bright, "Dream Girls" (1989-90)

In this series, Bright inserted herself into Hollywood scenes, imagining that lesbian desire could find a normal place in American culture. The "queering" of art was one of the most important ideas of the '80s. It still feels resonant 30 years later.

Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Carrie Mae Weems, "American Icons: Untitled (Salt and pepper shakers)" (1988-89)

Weems and other African-American artists of the '80s dealt directly with issues of blackness in America—but they rarely settled for sloganeering. The best of them depicted blackness and its burdens, rather than lecturing about it.

Rubell Family Collection

Richard Prince, "Untitled (Cowboy)" (1987)

Prince borrowed his Marlborough Man images directly from real cigarette ads. Such "appropriation" was one of the most important moves in the repertoire of 1980s art, turning mass culture against itself.

Douglas M. Parker Studio, Los Angeles

Lari Pittman, "The Veneer of Order" (1985)

Pittman was one of several 1980s artists committed to breathing new life into painting. He used complex surfaces to address complex ideas.

© 1991 Group Material; Photo: Nathan Keay / MCA Chicago

An untitled work from 1991 by the collective called Group Material

This collective included the well-known artists Tim Rollins, Julie Ault and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who died of AIDs in 1996. When the art world began to see its ranks decimated by HIV, it took treatment on as a political cause.