The Dark Trump Echoes in 1980s Art
A show of 1980s American painting at the Whitney includes meditations on sexuality, AIDS, wealth, and politics. Might it be a precursor to art under Trump?
Surveying the art hanging on the walls of the eighth floor of Whitney Museum of American Art, the visitor remarked softly to her companion, “Well, all the usual suspects are here.”
Indeed they were. In a modestly curated three rooms, Fast Forward: Painting From The 1980s, is a compact—rather than all-encompassing and definitive—collection of works from that decade that includes the likes of Keith Haring, Sherrie Levine, Kathe Burkhart, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Julian Schnabel, among others.
Missing here by definition is the video art, photography, photography-derived, and installation art that blossomed during the 1980s—so you will not see any Jeff Koons here, or Barbara Kruger, Nan Goldin, Robert Mapplethorpe, Jenny Holzer, and Cindy Sherman.
Some painters’ work one might have expected to be included--though may not be held by the Whitney, from whose collection the exhibition is drawn—include Allan McCollum and Ashley Bickerton.
The visitor is welcomed by a huge swathe of wallpaper with Haring’s familiar jiggling figures—an adaptation of a floor-to-ceiling pattern that adorned the famous Pop Shop, which Haring—who died of AIDS in 1990--opened in 1986.
On top of it, the curators have placed Kenny Scharf’s When The Worlds Collide, a multi-colored, acid-trip of a cartoon featuring lunatic-smiling devils and pink, fluffy clouds. The variety of painting styles—the clean lines of some canvases, the layering and tricksiness of others—is immediately striking.
The object of the exhibit is to somehow distill the artistic spirit of the 1980s, when HIV and AIDS cut such a swathe through the cultural communities, and where artists used their work to agitate against racism, gentrification, and war-mongering, and where some feminist, gay, and artists of color sought to imbue their work with passionate politics.
The brashness and riches of that decade are also visible in paintings such as Peter Cain’s Z (1989), which features the glossy, disembodied chassis of a car—the automobile equivalent of a Damien Hirst shark or cow.
In the first gallery, Eric Fischl’s A Visit To/A Visit From/The Island (1983) is a split meditation on race. The left hand side of the canvas is taken up with white people cavorting and laying in the sun in a holidaying pose, while the other half is based on a photograph of Haitian refugees arriving in Florida.
The images mirror each other, though their mood is wildly divergent: The Haitian refugees are as desperate as the holidaymakers are carefree.
On another wall, Leon Golub’s giant White Squad I (1982) is inspired by Central and South American death squads: Three swaggering figures contrasted to two that are prone, set against a background of deep red.
Julian Schnabel’s Hope (1982) is inspired by European painting and religious imagery, and the canvas is a mélange of color and iconography, its central figure emerging as its own X-ray made flesh.
Robert Colescott’s The Three Graces: Art, Sex and Death (1981) is a cartoonish mutation of the iconic trio here subverting sexual and racial stereotypes, the figures hold a dagger, hammer and chisel, and forbidden fruit.
In the second gallery, Carlos Alfonzo’s Told (1990) is a bold abstract, which, a curator said, denoted Alfonzo’s shock at receiving an HIV-positive diagnosis.
Alfonzo, who had fled Cuba in 1980 during the Mariel boatlift, died soon after the diagnosis. Ross Bleckner’s beautiful and haunting Count No Count (1989) looks like a series of lights mysteriously suspended in the air; the lights are reminders of mortality, and symbol of those lives lost during the AIDS pandemic of the 1980s.
On another wall are a group of paintings by different artists, including Joyce Pensato, Glenn Ligon, Nellie Mae Rowe, and Jonathan Borofsky. Among them is a piece by David Wojnarowicz, who died in 1992, and whose memoir Close To The Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration is one of the most powerful and visceral of AIDS-themed memoirs.
Not everything on display is politically charged. Moira Dryer’s Portrait of a Fingerprint (1988), an undulating series of black and red strokes, is based on a series of images of her magnified fingerprint.
Mary Heilmann’s Big Bill (1987) is a beautiful blue and white abstract inspired by the artist’s childhood on the Californian coast, while Susan Rothenberg’s Tuning Fork (1980) looks more like a bloody murder weapon than a musical implement.
The playfulness continues with Kathe Burkhart’s Prick: From The Liz Taylor Series (Suddenly Last Summer) (1987), one of a series of images the artist was inspired to create while considering the intersection of the struggles of Elizabeth Taylor and her own.
One of the final stunning canvases is Terry Winters’s Good Government (1984), whose title may arrest you in light of recent political developments, and—if not—its composition of strange-looking cell-like formations and bones will make you think of the jostling, but cohering systems that inspired Winters in its creation.
This involving show feels a little too done a little too soon—and while it shows an awareness of a range of bubbling political and cultural topics, a greater number of artists and works would make it feel more expansive and defining.
What Fast Forward does remind the spectator is how vital art can be when produced in a time of resistance, and from the wellspring of anger and opposition. For American artists in the 1980s it was Reagan and what he stood for, and already artists of today are beginning to explore and confront what the many meanings of the Trump era may be. This Whitney show also serves, then, as a tantalizing canary in the coal mine.
Fast Forward: Painting From The 1980s is at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Ganesvoort St., NYC, from Jan. 27 to May 14.