Tuesday, February 19, 2013

This Will Have Been – now through March 3, 2013 at the Institute of Contemporary Art

Most of what I recall of the 80’s includes New Kids on the Block and My Little Pony, so it’s easy, if unfair, for me to stereotype the aesthetics of that decade.  But through the vision of the ICA’s show, This Will Have Been: Art, Love and Politics in the 1980s,  art of that decade was much more dynamic than rat tail haircuts and big shoulder pads.  The artists of the 1980s were born after WWII.  They were the first generation to grow up with televisions in their homes.  They could recall the 1960s, Woodstock, Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement.

Art in the 1980s fueled social reform, challenged governments, documented different cultures and engaged with more diverse audiences than ever before.  Artists were influenced by street art, mass media, feminism, the AIDS crisis, and a changing art market, both conceptually and geographically. 

This Will Have Been tells a cohesive story about the culture and art of the 1980s.  Nevertheless, the quality of individual works is stunning.  From Koons to Holzer, to Mapplethorpe and Bright, many of the artists are superstars in their own right.  And the artwork showcased is not only visually compelling, but has become iconic in today’s popular culture.

Hollywood Africans, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1983

Basquiat rose to fame during the Graffiti Movement in the late seventies.  He worked alongside the early graffiti artists known as style-writers who spent their adolescences tagging the subways of New York.  Basquiat was not a pure style-writer, yet he was part of the new trend of “uncomissioned art.”  His signed his street art SAMO, which stood for “same old shit.”  He wrote in plain text instead of stylized 3D letters, so the ordinary viewer could understand his message.  Rather than tagging a name, as the style-writers did for notoriety, Basquiat used a graffiti aesthetic to make larger statements, such as “SAMO as a neo-art form” and “SAMO for the so-called avant-garde.”  

This piece, Hollywood Africans recalls the style of street art.  It appears as though Basquiat repeatedly tagged the canvas, rather than a subway car.  The work fits into many subjects mentioned in the show.  It clearly relates to a discourse on race and racial stereotypes, but also speaks to an era that was seen as the end of traditional painting.  While the graffiti-like style is familiar to our culture today, in the 1980s it was only just reaching the majority of the country and was a totally new aesthetic.

Ballad of Sexual Dependency (still photo from the slideshow), Nan Goldin

Nan Goldin’s slide show, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, occupies a large wall space.  The accompanying music fills the gallery, providing a soundtrack to the space that is devoted to artwork related to Desire and Longing.  The music switches in an instant from Carmen to Cole Porter, but the images overpower the audio. 

Nan Goldin lived in New York through the 1970s and 80s, where she documented the post-punk music scene, the post-Stonewall gay scene and the hard drug culture present among her friends.  Goldin’s images present honest and unvarnished portraits of people in the midst of their most personal and private interactions.  Many of her subjects later died of AIDS or drug use. 

Her work is not merely about the world she inhabited in the 80s but also about the culture surrounding AIDS, transsexual politics, domestic abuse and women’s rights.  At the end of the exhibition, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency entwines multiple ideas previously displayed within the exhibition and holds rapt pensive viewers.

The artists of the 1980s were some of the first to be so socially and art historically aware in a new post-modern culture.  This Will Have Been features art that speaks to a changing world and only thirty years later reminds viewers of the challenges and vibrancy of that decade.

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