Fast Forward: Painting From the 1980s

Whitney Museum of American Art | January 27 – May 14, 2017

Drawn from the museum’s collection, this welcome forty-work reappraisal of a decade still warily regarded is not meant to be comprehensive, but well lays the groundwork for a fuller consideration. The first of four thematic sections is a hallway featuring Kenny Scharf’s monumental When the Worlds Collide (1984) hung on a reproduction of Keith Haring’s monochrome mural from his Soho Pop Shop (1986). This canny curatorial gambit reflects popular conceptions of the period, one drowned in tacky Day-Glo colors, cartoonish fashion, street art pyrotechnics, and synthesizer accompaniment, all backed by Haring’s lyrical figuration—a stand-in for a freewheeling adventurism brought low by the effect of HIV/AIDS. But it is little preparation for the surprises to come, a range of the well-known and the should-be-better-known, some bought fresh off the walls of Biennials, and some recently acquired to fill lately realized gaps.

Robert Colescott, The Three Graces: Art, Sex and Death, 1981. Acrylic on canvas. 84 × 72 inches. Whitney Museum of American Art, gift of Raymond J. Learsy. With permission of the Estate of Robert Colescott. Courtsey the Whitney Museum.

Basquiat’s LNAPRK (1982), a Haring drawing on synthetic leather (1983 – 84), Julia Wachtel’s Membership (1984), and George Condo’s Brown expanding Drawing Painting (1991) round out the entry display, with Condo’s work providing a mini-survey of post-war painting: monochromatic abstraction, action painting’s large deconstructions of reality, and a brusquely painted still life from a photograph representing the claims of both naturalism and appropriation.

Bold figurative pictures by male artists who came to fame in the period dominate much of the first gallery. Eric Fischl describes A Visit To/A Visit From/The Island (1983), his forceful diptych mash-up of white Caribbean vacationers and black Haitian refugees, as “the horrible irony of the simultaneity of our world.” It participates in a critique of rarefied modernism by accessing the history of art via Modigliani nudes, the classical Discobolus, and Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa. Julian Schnabel’s Hope (1982) leaves the crockery in the pantry in favor of tawdry velvet and slapdash brushwork that somehow coalesce into a vivid pulsating whole. Up close all is grotty and unlovely, but from a distance it possesses the artist’s usual power and a strong sense of self—equal parts Van Gogh, Soutine, Nolde, and any number of Symbolist artists.

Leon Golub’s White Squad I (1982) is characteristically gripping and politically charged, dealing with Latin American assassins. Adjacent, Robert Colescott’s The Three Graces: Art, Sex and Death (1981), however, is a vibrant riposte to Golub’s scraped and chromatically subdued work. Paul Gauguin’s Polynesia is present in the bright background and flatly patterned top and sarong of the black woman in this modern goddess trio, via Charlie’s Angels. To her right, a white nude sculptor in a beret delivers a chisel blow to an egg-pelted herm of Colescott himself, and a modern Lucretia, with purple garter and scarlet sandals, ominously points her knife at her midriff. It is a blend of Watteau’s rococo fantasies with the traditional theme of Et in Arcadia Ego, in a paradise strewn with beer cans, a wine bottle, and a skull.

The outlier here is Louisa Chase, who died last May, and whose Limb (1981) is a reworking of Pavel Tchelitchew’s famed Hide and Seek (1940 – 42) at MoMA. Electric bolts of red, yellow, and maroon tree branches wend through cool-colored leaves and sky, with Chase’s signature headless and apendageless figure at left, all rendered with creamy brushwork.

Gallery two is less traditional and deals with appropriation of a more conceptual and popular nature. Peter Cain’s slickly painted Z (1989) of a compressed Nissan sports car looks fresh, as does Kathe Burkhart’s interrogation of celebrity and self from her Liz Taylor series (1987), but David Salle’s Sextant in Dogtown (1987) is inexpressive and humorless. Smartly hung by the co-curators, Jane Panetta and Melinda Lang, is a wall of sixteen small pictures to broaden the scope, allowing the inclusion of fine works by Ida Applebroog, Glenn Ligon, David Wojnarowicz, and Elizabeth Murray aside less familiar artists like Rex Lau and Nellie Mae Rowe (b. 1900), plus an incisive collaboration by Golub and Nancy Spero, The Feminization of Poverty of 1987.

The final gallery is dedicated to abstraction, both of a personal nature, as in Moira Dryer’s Portrait of a Fingerprint (1988), and politically pointed, as with Ross Bleckner’s elegant and elegiac memorial to AIDS victims, Count No Count (1989), and Cuban-born Miamian Carlos Alfonzo’s gripping and swirling reaction to his HIV positive status and suffering, Told (1990). Terry Winters’s utopian Good Government (1984)—the most well known work in the show—and Martin Wong’s dystopian Closed (1984 – 85), of a padlocked and forlorn storefront, respond to the mid-way point of the Reagan era with powerful forms and formidable brushwork. Susan Rothenberg’s spectral Tuning Fork (1980) just plain works, in every way, from its engaging brushwork to potent and human-scale instrument, like a floating drawing in white space.

Any exhibition that assays a period as arbitrary as a decade will have absences: here the quirky is hardly present outside of Colescott, Wachtel, and Scharf, and the older working generation—Noland, Mitchell, Martin, Warhol, Johns, Rauschenberg, Stella, Twombly, Close, etc.—are calculatedly missing. But as an in-house show, with limited but stimulating wall text and artist interviews on the audio tour, Fast Forward is blissfully free from engagement with contentious artistic debates of the 1960s – ’80s about concept or commercialism. Refreshingly formalist in a way, the display avoids separating artists by identity or region, and asks viewers to consider the art, with deep focus.

Panetta states that the title Fast Forward came from an article on Haring wherein he discussed the freedom artists felt in the period, as well as the new lingo of the incipient VCR age. In our inattentive DVR age, we fast forward as a way of skipping unwanted content, but to skip this exhibit would be a mistake. That freedom, seen by some as showmanship and commercialism in the work of Schnabel and European Neo-Expressionists, responded to an era of conservative government and increasing economic disparity. Tempered by the losses to AIDS and drugs, and followed by the explosion of the art market in the 1990s, the 1980s look more and more poignant, intriguing, and ripe for a fuller reassessment.

Contributor

Jason Rosenfeld

JASON ROSENFELD, Ph.D., is Distinguished Chair and Professor of Art History at Marymount Manhattan College. He was co-curator of the exhibitions John Everett Millais (Tate Britain, Van Gogh Museum), Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (Tate Britain and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), and River Crossings (Olana and Cedar Grove, Hudson and Catskill, New York).

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