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ICA | The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston | This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s


Jean-Michel Basquiat, Hollywood Africans, 1983. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Gift of Douglas S. Cramer 84.23. Photograph by Sheldan C. Collins. © 2012 The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat / ADAGP, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Hollywood Africans, 1983. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Gift of Douglas S. Cramer 84.23. Photograph by Sheldan C. Collins. © 2012 The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat / ADAGP, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

“This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s” started in the hallway with a video clip from Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style, 1983. The feature length underground movie cobbles together a love story of renegade urban artists in New York city with incredible footage of hip-hop culture including a very young Grand Master Flash scratching on real turntables. A great way to start the exhibit, since it shows the genesis of the next generation to come. The ICA curator Helen Molesworth focused on connecting today’s social consciousness with its roots. The show was divided into four sections which helped define and focus the exhibit into manageable chunks. There was “Gender Trouble,” “The End Is Near,” “Democracy,” and “Desire and Longing.” The show was more than a distillation of youth culture, and a passing look at the excesses that led to a troubling future. Missing were the obvious associations of the era, Madonna, Michael Jackson, big hair, shoulder pads and epaulets, that so captured the essence of excess that epitomized the ’80’s, but also missing were the alternative music scene’s synthpop punkers, and do-it-yourself college scenesters. There was a feeling of an epic Star Wars battle unfolding between the fighting youth and the empire, however.

In the 1980’s the art market was turning art into a commodity. The excesses of the financial markets extended into those of the intellectual and artistic arenas. Warhol had been a precursor and now Jean-Michel Basquiat was the product, and he was very aware of his brand. “Hollywood Africans,” 1983, distills many of the concerns onto a single canvas. Control by Bwana struck through, foot prints to fit into, and written on a sulfurous yellow background the word toxic, taxes, tobacco, sugar, all part of a commodity trade – one that extends to include disenfranchised peoples.

Manifestos, including the Guerrilla Girls “On the Advantages of Being a Woman Artist,” 1988, hung as a testament to how far we still have to go, with its clear cry for equality in an ironic parody of normal expectations for the job of artist. Cindy Sherman’s photography and films poignantly discussed women’s role in society.

Extremes of the financial/political spectrum were represented with a portrait of Ronald Reagan cordoned-off by a red velvet rope over a red carpet in Hans Haacke’s installation “Oil Painting: Homage to Marcel Broodthaers,”1982, conceptually juxtaposed to a canvas full of used crack cocaine containers precisely dated and labeled with the location found on the lower east side of Manhattan. Another fascinating work that spoke of the excesses of poverty that still remains today, and indicative of street life, was Krzystof Wodiczko’s “Homeless Vehicle,” 1988. A sleeping chamber on wheels that is similar to a coffin, but with “amenities,” of a wash basin, and a place for redeemable cans. To Wodiczko this encompassed the attitude of New York city towards the homeless – it demonstrated “the symbolic, psychopolitical and economic operations of the city.” Running around the bottom border of the room were wheat-pasted posters of Christy Rupp’s rats, while Jenny Holzer’s truisms ran up the walls around the regal Reagan portrait. In the corner, Adrian Piper’s “Calling Cards” examined issues of identity, race and and sexual assumptions about women alone.

Even the irreverent “Snap Diva,” from “Tongues Untied” by the late Marlon Riggs acts as a call to action. Almost everything selected by curator Helen Molesworth is politically charged and a call to fight injustice. This show offers a look at work by the first generation of artist’s to have an increasingly global sense of community because of television, but also an increased sense of individual entitlement via personal devices like the Sony walkman and microprocessors.

David Hammons “How Ya Like Me Now?,”1988, portrait of the still recognizable Rainbow Coalition leader Jesse Jackson with blond hair and blue eyes, brings to the fore concerns about Jackson willingly assimilating into white culture as he gained political power. Hammons observed a disconnect between the hip-hop generation and the civil rights generation, that was later dramatically demonstrated when the painting hung in Washington DC. Black youth attacked the artwork with sledgehammers because they thought the work was “a result of racism.” Hammons later added sledgehammers separating the viewer from the work.

Aids, the disease of the decade, brought the marginalized together. The “AIDS poster,” General Idea, 1987, that mimics the iconic love poster of the 1960’s, is reproduced in the General Idea, “AIDS Wallpaper,” 1989, to great effect. “Silence = Death” became one of the radical rallying cries for inclusiveness and to speak out against hatred and oppression, no matter where. The symbol of the pink triangle, that Act-Up chose as its emblem not only recalls the Nazi movement, but also the oppression of the 1950’s with its nauseating pink delivering an ironic punk-edged slap to Reaganomics’ family values regarding same-sex love.

Donald Moffett’s, “Call the White House,”1990, a multi-colored light-box display of the White House phone number says “Tell Bush we’re not all dead yet,” and high on the wall above, runs his Kissing Doesn’t Kill, Greed and Indifference Do,1989, ad campaign that ran on urban buses in Chicago to combat the fear of Aids showing interracial couples or same-sex couples kissing. Paraphrasing Moffett, for artists, this time period was about “harnessing terror, angst, and fury.”

Consumerism was a suffocating blanket during the Reagan years. Jeff Koons “Rabbit,” 1986, both the recontextualization and recasting of a plastic balloon animal into a shiny object of desire is a classic representation from the era. Some excesses were cast-off only to be replaced by others. The eighties saw the end of the missile crisis, and the end of Communism in the eastern block, but the Iran-Contra Affair uncovered governmental gun running and drug trafficking that is commonplace today and the beginnings of unscrupulously manipulated financial markets with, for example, insider trading, a la Michael Milken. These days civil disobedience has become civic duty, but the radical rallying cry of Occupy began during a tremendously oppressed era, one that cultivated the germ of social consciousness we see today. Still, inequity exists. Homelessness, fair wages, drugs, disease and human trafficking are just the beginning and artist’s will always have their place in the forefront of the fight bringing it to our consciousness.

About Jessica Fisher-Willson

Jessica Fisher-Willson
Jes (Arts & Independent Music Editor) is a nerd girl who needs constant validation. To this end she invented White Light Tarot TM, a reiki-tarot deck that validates one's concerns and helps balance one's energy. It is available as an online app, a download for free, or as a book and tarot deck available for purchase from Amazon, Barnes & Nobles, and White Light Tarot's website, as well as finer independent New Age purveyors. Mostly she is writing fiction as fast as she can and learning to be socially media-phoric. http://jessicafisherwillson.com/

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