Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Art and Photography: The 1980s

In contrast to the reticence and insularity of art influenced by Minimalism and Conceptualism in the 1970s, much art of the 1980s assumed the form of public address—from Jenny Holzer’s use of the Times Square news ticker to broadcast elliptical and vaguely threatening strings of text, to Krzysztof Wodiczko’s night-time projections of symbolically charged imagery onto the facades of museums, public buildings, and corporate headquarters. The infamous “culture wars” that raged at the end of the decade—pitting conservative politicians such as Jesse Helms against artists such as Andres Serrano and organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts—reflected this increased visibility and the socially directed nature of its subject matter: sexuality and identity, repression and power, commodities and desire.

Yet painting also returned with a vengeance after languishing in relative obscurity during the 1970s, reasserting all the myths of originality and authenticity that were under attack in the media-based works of the Pictures Generation from the same moment. Painters such as Julian Schnabel and Sandro Chia mixed expressionist brushwork with a panoply of historical references comparable to the stylistic pastiches seen in the “postmodern” architecture of Michael Graves and Philip Johnson. The art world expanded accordingly to accommodate the return of salable art: galleries groomed their “stables” of artists like racehorses, while collectors jockeyed for the inside track on the next big thing, and the auction houses provided a perfect arena for conspicuous consumption.

At the same time, however, artists’ collectives, alternative spaces, and artist-run galleries sprang up, with activist groups such as Gran Fury or Group Material (the latter whose members included Felix Gonzalez-Torres [1996.575]) staging guerrilla events or multimedia exhibitions that focused attention on topics avoided by the mainstream media such as the AIDS crisis or U.S. military intervention in Central and South America. There was also fluid and fertile interplay between the worlds of art, music, film, and performance seen at venues such as the Mudd Club and the Kitchen in New York. Nan Goldin’s photographs (2001.627; 2001.336.1) of the early 1980s summarize the underlying ethos of the period: the schizophrenic alternation between a cool detachment and an aggressively confessional style, an exuberant do-it-yourself attitude that masked formal dexterity with the enthusiasm of the amateur, and the recognition that the way one lives life is an inherently political act.

The scale and ambition of photographically based works also increased in the 1980s in recognition of the medium’s inextricable ties to mass culture in advertising and entertainment. Jeff Wall made his highly staged pictures to be shown as light-filled transparencies of the kind seen in airport terminals and bus stops; he composed his images with all the obsessive detail and narrative suggestion of a film director on location, while also referring to the socially oriented canvases of nineteenth-century French masters such as Courbet and Manet. Wall’s work straddled the worlds of the museum and the street, and was enormously influential later in the decade, especially for the work of Thomas Ruff and the German photographers of the Düsseldorf School. Other artists, including John Baldessari and Christian Boltanski, appropriated banal vernacular photographs—from movie stills to family snapshots, respectively—and integrated them into larger arrangements that commented on the erasure of cultural memory.

Recently the subject of much critical reappraisal, the art of the 1980s can now be seen in retrospect as a powerful synthesis of the personal and political, as well as an implicit rebuke to the hollow conformity and historical amnesia that characterized the Reagan era. Films such as David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) and Todd Haynes’ Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987) explored the dark underbelly of the American dream, while artists such as Robert Gober (2000.115) and Mike Kelley pioneered the nascent form of installation art in works that dealt with repressed infantile fears and wishes—the explosive material that haunts the unconscious psyche. It is this art that becomes relevant again in the context of our own troubled time.