The Most Iconic Artists of the 1980s
The 1980s was a decade of meteoric growth, both for the global economic system and for the art world that swung in its orbit. Cocaine, MTV, the personal computer, the collapse of state-sponsored socialism: these were heady times for the neoliberal regimes installed in Deng Xiaoping’s China, Margaret Thatcher’s Great Britain, and Ronald Reagan’s United States.
In this atmosphere of accelerating modernization, everything began to serve the interest of profit. Whether the modernism peddled by art critic Clement Greenberg was dead or just demoded remained a topic of debate, but imagery of any kind could now be repurposed for the auction block. In his landmark 1984 text Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, American critic Frederic Jameson neatly summarized the spirit of the age. So long, grand historical narratives, his text announced; hello, consumerist desire.
As one of the most desirable and symbolic commodities, art slid easily into bed with business. Galleries multiplied in the established centers of Basel, New York, Paris, Cologne, and Düsseldorf, while new art fairs and biennials blossomed in Chicago, Stockholm, Madrid, Amsterdam, London, and Milan.
Artistic strategies to navigating this new marketplace, however, were more ambivalent. They can be slotted into two primary positions:
Bridging the late ’70s and early ’80s, the Pictures Generation—named for an important exhibition of their work held in 1977 at Artists Space in New York—characterized the Neo-Conceptualist gambit. Artists like
Kruger’s Untitled (When I hear the word culture I take out my checkbook) from 1985 presents its critique while skipping between humor and horror. The screwball face of the familiar puppet Howdy Doody (along with small text at lower right ventriloquizing “We mouth your words”) may seem at worst a comically unsettling black-and-white picture. But upon discovering the source of the text angled across the frame—a riff on a line from a play by the Nazi-era sympathizer Hans Johst, “Whenever I hear the word ‘Culture,’ I reach for my revolver”—the work begins to feel more like a ransom note. An
Through a series of 69 photographic self portraits, Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” interrogates the image of female stereotypes in popular culture. While the artist may resist the reception of this work as an exploration of identity politics, it stands as one of the most playful and simultaneously trenchant reimaginations of photography as a medium.
Alongside the Pictures Generation, a community of photographers, with
German traditions were also at the core of the other vein of 1980s postmodernism, Neo-Expressionism. Originating in late 1970s painting by the
Rejecting the cool distance of conceptual practices,
While Neo-Expressionism can be traced through other continental movements like Italy’s Mary Boone and Leo Castelli, but were also criticized for being more bravado than substance. Though they have often been written out of this history, female artists like
While some took their expressive strokes to canvas, others—like MoMA to the pages of MAD magazine. Establishing himself through the tag of an informal graffiti group named “SAMO ©” throughout downtown Manhattan, he developed an aesthetic charged by dichotomies: primitive and classical, high and low, rich and poor. He went on to bridge his street art origins with the Neo-Expressionist approach that filled the city’s galleries, integrating text with brightly colored canvas, invoking the history of oppression and racism with a rough-edged scrawl. Peter and the Wolf (1985), for example, is a palimpsest of signs, layering paint, drawings, and words that pay homage to the history of African-American music. After his first solo show in 1982 at the Annina Nosei Gallery, Basquiat became an overnight celebrity. His intimate friendship with Andy Warhol may well have been a lifeline to coping with success in the scene; shortly after Warhol died in 1987, Basquiat overdosed on heroin.
But the lighter influences of
Art that appealed to the public quickly found support in the ’80s, allowing Haring to produce more than 50 large-scale works during the decade, including the 77-foot-long, 24-panel mural he completed—in a single day—for the South of Market Child Care Center in San Francisco. A recent retrospective at the city’s de Young Museum demonstrates the beloved reputation he continues to enjoy.
Late in the decade, as the economic boom cooled, artists and gallerists began to test the limits of what kinds of art object the market would bear. Former commodities broker 2014 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, it seems “banality” has a permanent home in the world’s revered museums and most visible public spaces. Among other such Neo-Pop artists as
While the ’90s would address its own set of concerns, the establishment of the Young British Artists in the ’80s provides a sort of transition between the two decades. Perhaps no YBA is as influential (or infamous) as vanitas allegories that make his work impressive and infuriating at turns.
Hirst’s enduring reputation, like that of fellow YBA provocateur and Turner Prize finalist Royal Academy of Art. But that is a story for another decade.
George Philip LeBourdais