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Boston ICA Celebrates the Excess of the 1980s

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   When I think of the 1980s, I think of an era of excess, indulgence and phoniness. When I think of the art of the 1980s, I think of three artists – Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jeff Koons. From what I understand, Schnabel, the protean prince of art excess, has been purged from the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston’s big, brawling survey This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s  (through March 3, 2103).

Rabbitt by Jeff Koons

This Will Have Been was curated byICA chief curator Helen Molesworth and was shown at theMuseum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis before coming home to roost inBoston. At each stop it has provoked comment, conversation and criticism as one woman’s view of a turbulent art decade (actually 1979 to 1992).

   Julian Schnabel, an opulent Neo-Expressionist egomaniac made famous by his broken plate paintings, was represented in the exhibition by a portrait of Andy Warhol, the prince of 1960s Pop Art, painted on black velvet. Tacky as high art. I may be wrong, but I believe Schnabel was metaphorically “banned in Boston.” He is not listed in the ICA press release and Helen Molesworth told Boston Phoenix art critic Greg Cook, “I don’t deal with a lot of what was super embarrassing. You won’t see [Francesco] Clemente and [Enzo] Cucchi. I don’t do the big Neo-Expressionist ’80s, and I think some of that stuff was embarrassing.”

   What Molesworth seemed to be saying is that she decided not to deal with the top of the market, the big money boys of the 1980s. Her vision of the 1980s is a far more egalitarian one animated by feminist, gay and minority artists. Still, the signature piece in This Will Have Been is probably Jeff Koons’ Rabbit. The master of expensive kitsch and a vigorous self-promoter (another characteristic of the 1980s), Koons produced a balloon bunny in stainless steel. More tacky as high art.

   Death runs through the exhibition like, well, an epidemic. Among the artists in the show who barely outlived their 1980s youth are Jean-Michael Basquiat (graffiti artist turned fine art star who died of a heroin overdose) and Robert Mapplethorpe (the beautiful boy fetishist who was the finest photographer of his time), David Wojnarowicz (passionate performance artist and filmmaker) and Cuban-born process artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, all three of whom died from AIDS.

Advantages by the Guerilla Girls

A lot of the art of the 1980s came loaded with messages for the conservative Reagan-Bush establishment. The feminist activist group Guerilla Girls addressed the under-representation of women artists in major art galleries and museum collections with a satirical poster entitled The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist.  Donald Moffett spoke for the gay community with a 1990 light box bearing the White House telephone number and the message, “Call the White House. Tell Bush we’re not dead yet.”

How Ya Like me Now? by David Hammons

And Black artist David Hammons thumbed his nose at American racism with a portrait of the Rev. Jesse Jackson entitled “How Ya Like Me Now?” Hammons’Jackson is fair-skinned with blond hair and blue eyes.

   Appropriation art (which by any other name would be plagiarism or copyright violation) was big in the 1980s, the borrowing, quoting or re-contextualizing of images from commercial media being seen as an act of edifying the mundane. The Prince of Appropriation was and is Richard Prince, a photographer who grew up in Braintree,Massachusetts and attended Nasson College in Sanford,Maine. Prince is represented by a photograph of the Marbleboro Man, which was an advertising photograph when Sam Abell originally made it but became fine art when Prince “rephotographed” it. Don’t ask me. I don’t get it either.

   This Will Have Been features 100 works by 90 artists and is organized around four themes – The End Is Near, Democracy, Gender Trouble, and Desire and Longing. Whether Helen Molesworth redeems the material and emotional excesses of the 1980s by ignoring some of the art stars and focusing on the art workers remains to be seen. But this is an exhibition you will want to see if only to be entitled to an opinion about it.

[Institute of ContemporaryArt/Boston, 100 Northern Ave.,BostonMa, 617-478-3100.]

 

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