This Will Have Been: Art, Love, and Politics in the 1980s

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Bring me home, please

This Will Have Been: Art, Love, and Politics in the 1980s, by Helen Molesworth, chief curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) Boston.

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Available on amazon USA and UK.

Publisher Yale University Press writes: Art of the 1980s oscillated between radical and conservative, capricious and political, socially engaged and art historically aware. Published in association with the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, this fascinating book chronicles canonical as well as nearly forgotten works of the 1980s, arguing that what has often been dismissed as cynical or ironic should be viewed as a struggle on the part of artists to articulate their needs and desires in an increasingly commodified world. The major developments of the decade--the rise of the commercial art market, the politicization of the AIDS crisis, the increased visibility of women and gay artists and artists of color, and the ascension of new media--are illuminated in works by Sophie Calle, Nan Goldin, Mike Kelley, Jeff Koons, Sherrie Levine, and Lorna Simpson, among others. Essays by leading scholars provide unique perspectives on the decade's competing factions and seemingly contradictory elements, from counterculture to the mainstream, radicalism to democracy and historical awareness, conservatism to feminist politics.

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Group Material, Untitled, 1991

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Christy Rupp, Rat Patrol, 1979

Unlike the fashion of that decade, the art of the 1980s never really benefited from a revival. It generally remains overlooked and unbeloved. Yet, while reading through this book, i realized that just like today's artists, the artists of the '80s had plenty to fight for and fight against.

Many factors contribute to make the 1980s a fascinating period: the HIV/AIDS crisis, Ronald Reagan elected twice as the President of the U.S.A., the secrecy surrounding gay and lesbian life (Molesworth argues that the 1980s began with feminism and ended with queerness), queerness itself which i think is a very 80s word, the return to figurative imagery, a world that became increasingly media-saturated (and indeed the artists represented in This Will Have Been belong to the first generation to have grown up with a television in the home), etc.

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Peter Nagy, Intellectual History, 1984

But the 1980s are also hold mirror to our times. Think of the ongoing resurgence of feminism, the current debate about footballers ashamed to 'get out of the closet', the Occupy movement which has so much in common in form and force with the ACT UP actions against a governmental lack of concern for the AIDS pandemic, the global economic recession, etc. Are we as combative, as revolted, as inspired as they were in the '80s? Is there anything today's socially-engaged artists can learn from a previous generation?

This Will Have Been is the catalogue of an exhibition of the same name. It is only one of the many possible retrospectives of art in the 1980s. First of all, because it is very U.S.A.-centric but also because it looks at the artistic production of that decade through the lens of desire.

This Will Have Been is divided into four non-hermetical sections that each explores a specific issue/desire.

"The End Is Near" is about the desire to break with the past. The 1980s was characterized by debates about the end of painting, the end of the counterculture, the end of history, the end of modernism.

"Democracy" addresses political desires under the conservative governments of Reagan and Thatcher, and in particular the renewed interest in the street as a site for public intervention, the increasing awareness of the importance of the mass media, the growing prominence of South and Central American artists and artists of color, and the pervasive commitment to the political that shaped the period.

"Gender Trouble" elaborates on the implications of the 1970s feminist movement by gathering works that interrogate and ultimately expand our sense of the social construction of gender roles.

In "Desire and Longing" artists working with appropriation techniques are held in relation to the emergence of queer visibility brought on by the AIDS crisis.

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Carrie Mae Weems, American Icons: Untitled (Letter holder), 1988-89

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

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Guerrilla Girls, The Advantages of Being A Woman Artist, 1988

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Deborah Bright, Dream Girls, 1989-90

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Peter Hujar, Daniel Schook Sucking Toe, 1981

Peter Hujar's portray of members of the gay subculture in New York's East Village were often part document, part theater--collaborative performances between himself and the person in front of the camera.

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Black Audio Film Collective, Handsworth Songs, 1986

Formed in 1982 and dissolved in 1998, the seven-person Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC) explored Britain's emerging multicultural society, combining a montage aesthetic with personal reflection to invent a new genre of moving image that challenged traditions of British documentary and drama, and profoundly influenced contemporary avant-garde film-makers and theorists.

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David Hammons, How Ya Like Me Now?, 1988

The painting of a blond and blue-eyed Reverend Jesse Jackson's was originally installed in Washington, DC, near the National Portrait Gallery which displayed no portraits of blacks at the time. Misinterpreting the work as racist, local African American youths smashed the piece with sledgehammers. The painting was moved into a traditional gallery and David Hammons subsequently added a row of upside-down hammers as a reference to the incident.


Charles Atlas, Mrs. Peanut Visits New York, 1999


Marlon Riggs, Tongues Untied (trailer), 1989

Marlon Rigg's Tongues Untied mixes documentary footage with personal account and fiction to address the specificity and difficulty of being both black and gay in North America.

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Richard Hamilton, Treatment Room, 1983-84,

Richard Hamilton's Treatment Room, where a video of Thatcher giving a speech plays over a hospital bed in a bleak room, was an urgent response to the assault on the National Health Service.

The design of the catalogue (by Scott Reinhard Co. with James Goggin) is particularly stunning, simple and efficient.

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This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s

catalogue essay.
Image on the homepage: Guerrilla Girls on Tour.

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