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Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s at the Hirshhorn by Kerr Houston

On the wall of the lobby on the second floor of the Hirshhorn hangs a small bronze plaque made in 1987 by David Robbins. “Here you leave today,” we read, in a stentorian mid-century font, “and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy.” It takes a moment or two, but soon the connection falls into place. It’s a reproduction of a detail from Disneyland, the brainchild of the animator and visionary who founded a kingdom upon the intersection of mass entertainment and make-believe.

David Robbins, Prop, 1987. Bronze, 6 × 12 × 3⁄8 in. (15.4 × 30.5 × 1 cm). MAMCO (Musée d’art moderne et contemporain), Geneva, Gift of Galerie 1900–2000, Paris.

Robbins’ work, and its implicit condensation of popular imagery, fine art, and profiteering, thus forms a sort of leitmotif for Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s, a show of nearly 150 works by 70 artists that was conceived and organized by Gianni Jetzer, and which will be up through May 13. Where recent exhibitions of Eighties art have considered it primarily through geographical or sociopolitical lenses, Jetzer explores the ways in which (as he puts it in the engaging exhibition catalogue) “artists came not just to accept but to revel in the commerce of art.”

That may seem, at first glance, like a rather naïve claim. For one thing, it’s not as if Eighties artists invented the idea of mingling of art and commerce. Think of Claes Oldenburg, selling works of art from a Lower East Side storefront in 1961, or Andy Warhol, who moved seamlessly from window displays to paintings of Campbell’s soup cans, or Seth Siegelaub, the gallerist who skillfully courted the press throughout the 1960s. An active engagement with the commercial realities of the art world was hardly new in 1980. And then, too, there’s the fact that visual artists were not the only creative workers active in the 1980s who chose to navigate the world of commerce. Indeed, one could make a compelling argument that musicians did so even more adroitly, as MTV forced them to dedicate at least as much energy to the creation of a distinct image as to the composition of power chords or synth-pop ballads.

Haim Steinbach, on vend du vent, 1988. Text in matte black latex paint, or vinyl letters applied onto the wall; dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York

And yet, Jetzer’s angle of approach does offer a viable entry into an artistic era that occupies a strange place in our collective imagination. The Eighties stand at a weird distance from the present; a sort of ghostly doppelgänger to our own moment, they are both remote and all too familiar (ex-actor in the White House; irrationally high stock market; constant saber-rattling). As a result, we may feel as if we already know Eighties art: large-scale figural paintings, Schnabel’s shattered plates, beautiful Basquiat and those endless theorizations of simulacra and appropriation. But this show suggests that there may be other ways of seeing the period.

At least it does so in part. For in fact many of the more than hundred works on view could easily be called canonical. Over there is a pristine installation by Jeff Koons, pairing a rug shampooer with fluorescent bulbs; over here is a lithograph and silkscreen by Barbara Kruger, complete with a typically dark, cryptic message (“You rule by pathetic display”). Jenny Holzer is on hand, and so are Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince. If there in fact is a revisionist spirit discernible here, it is a gentle one.

Still, the show does tease out various possibilities. For one thing, it effectively documents the variety of ways in which these artists engaged with the idea of commodification. Some of them were primarily interested in a guileless celebration of consumerism or in the possibility of developing their own personal brands: Koons, in fact, pursued both of these ends in a smarmy series of photographs that position him as a sort of proto-Kardashian. Other artists, by contrast, were clearly suspicious of the glossy exterior of the Reagan era and dedicated themselves to the indignant deconstruction of its visual vocabulary: a painting by the collective General Idea executed in acrylics and (why not?) pasta effectively others the ubiquitous Marlboro logo. And still other artists applied significant pressure to the economic and gendered systems that undergirded the art world: the Guerilla Girls drew attention to the absence of work by women artists in New York art auctions, and Louise Lawler issued a sly gift certificate for nominal use at the Leo Castelli gallery.

Kruger and General Idea, installation view of Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s, featuring Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am) (1987) and General Idea’s Sans Titre (Marlboro) (1986-7)

What else do we learn? Minimalism, it is obvious, was a fundamental point of reference for these artists. Again and again, the works on display employ crisp geometries, hard edges, and gridded layouts, and suggest a comfort with manufactured elegance. These are hard works to love, perhaps, but they certainly exude confidence and an embrace of a slick professional veneer.

Interestingly, too, many of these works are large: they are often, as Michael Fried once noted of Minimalist works, approximately human in scale. Indeed, the scale and sheer dimensionality of the works repeatedly surprised me. Given the centrally conceptual aspect of much 1980s art, I had wondered if the works on display would really differ in effect from the photographs with which I was more familiar. Strikingly, though, they do. Kruger’s works, especially, are massive, intensifying their effect; so, too, is a delightful 96-by-64-inch painting of two cartoon figures by Julia Wachtel. There’s a reason, apparently, that we refer to the Big ’80s.

But not all of the works retain their original potency. A video by Dana Birnbaum, which is partly comprised of a series of images of a woman proffering, sipping from and shattering a bottle of Rémy Martin, feels especially naïve. Commissioned, in fact, by the cognac manufacturer, the piece feels ambivalent: a sort of toothless cousin of John Berger’s seminal Ways of Seeing. And while I have a lot of respect for the work of Sarah Charlesworth, the piece included here – a cibachrome print of a paragon of female beauty topped with a halo – looks sharp but is ultimately glib and unremarkable (it’s telling that the same piece was placed on the cover of Diane Elam’s Feminism and Deconstruction – but was never even mentioned in the text itself).

Moffett and Gonzalez-Torres, Installation view of Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s, featuring Donald Moffett’s He Kills Me (1987) and Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (Perfect Lovers) (1991).

For the most part, though, such misses are rare, and there are numerous highlights. The Israeli-born Haim Steinbach is given a striking prominence throughout the show, and consistently delivers: a wall text entitled On Vend du Vent (Wind for Sale) coyly conflates both the immateriality and the everything-must-go attitude typical of early 1980s art, while an installation featuring three detergent boxes on a shelf nods to works by Jasper Johns and Donald Judd while also anticipating Koons’ crisp arrangements. David Robbins’ Talent, a collection of 18 glossy posed photographs of artists active at the time, effectively distills the Zeitgeist in its unironic foregrounding of pretentious self-promotion. And I smiled, too, at Jetzer’s affecting juxtaposition of Donald Moffett’s He Kills Me (a jarring combination of bold graphic design and a photograph of a smug Ronald Reagan) and Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (Perfect Lovers), which consists of two battery-driven clocks, one of which will inevitably expire before the other. The two works recall each other formally, in their basic use of circular forms, even as they offer distinct reactions to the growing AIDS crisis.

Distinct reactions, then, but to what ends, exactly? It is instructive, in this regard, to note some of the verbs that appear in the wall text: these artists, we read, sample, subvert, investigate, satire, skew, and intervene. One gets an impression of a sort of frenzied, de-centered energy – and, too, of an almost total lack of consensus about any larger project. Was the goal here to lay bare the device? To use the master’s tools to dismantle the master house? Or simply to explore a new set of forms and motifs, and perhaps to have some fun in the process? Again, the show accepts diversity, eschewing any forced single interpretation.

Jessica Diamond, T.V. Telepathy (Black and White Version), 1989. Acrylic paint on wall; dimensions variable upon installation. Number 1 of an edition of 3. Courtesy the artist. © Jessica Diamond.

Ultimately, then, insisting on a single reading simply won’t work. Nevertheless, I did find it useful to think of much of the work in terms of what Harold Bloom called, in a famous 1973 book, the anxiety of influence. Aware of the monumental achievements of their Pop and Minimalist and predecessors, the artists who emerged in the 1970s and 1980s had to clear a space for themselves. And they did so both literally (as they created a series of artist-run spaces and new galleries in the Lower East Side, eventually gentrifying an entire series of neighborhoods) and figuratively (as they appropriated, cropped, and ripped, creatively re-imagining canonical works and dismembering the magazine culture that surrounded them). In short, grappling with the notion of commodification offered a rich field of possibilities – and wound up transforming, for better and for worse, the urban geography of Lower Manhattan.

But given that, and given too the clear conviction of some of the artists on display, the final room of the show comes as an odd surprise. Here, Jetzer suggests that the 1987 stock market crash and the scale of the AIDS crisis in the late Eighties led to a pronounced concern with social issues and an ebbing of what the catalogue terms the “gold-rush mood” of the mid-1980s. Perhaps – but such a claim baldly undermines the work of pre-1987 artists, openly suggesting that their output was somehow frivolous and apolitical: an inconsequential, uncritical idyll. When we remember Martha Rosler supplementing her reading of a copy of Vogue with acerbic comments, or think of Richard Prince taking apart the trappings of American malehood, such a stance seems unfair and reductive. Political engagement and the critical examination of popular imagery are not opposites.

And so we emerge, somewhat uncertainly, back into the lobby, where we encounter a final installation: a monitor playing a looped version of the famous Apple ad that first ran during the 1984 Super Bowl. We watch as the nameless heroine runs through halls of oppressive gray and hurls her hammer at a vast screen that is filled with the visage of a grim, vaguely Soviet orator, destroying the apparatus. And perhaps we then recall Robbins’ plaque, and realize, with a shiver, that Apple now constitutes the very sort of empire that it once claimed to challenge, and we wonder: is the world of today really different at all from the world of yesterday? And which screens and systems might we slay, exactly, if our fantasies really could come true?

Donald Moffett’s He Kills Me (1987)

Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 80’s will be on view at the Hirshhorn through May 13, 2018.

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