Last year, Walter Robinson noticed that art stars from the eighties are making a comeback. He wasn’t sure why this was happening but speculated that 30 years was just enough distance to start historicizing.
As someone who never experienced that decade, I suspect that the renewed interest has to do with eighties political conditions that have recently exploded into a supernova. The eighties saw a rise of art celebrities contrasted by a wave of alternative spaces; the gentrification of the East Village and Soho; and a wave of activism that was eventually squashed by police force in a public park.
My own interest in eighties New York came from Occupy Wall Street, which led a lot of critics to look back at alternative gallery models and activism of that time. The last word on that subject is Julie Ault’s compilation of essays Alternative Art New York, 1965-1985, which describes an alternative art world on the fringes of blue-chip colonization. Scenes of neighborhood activism are contrasted with art collectors speeding across town between thirty galleries in a private car; artists like Jeff Koons dominated the galleries, while the AIDS war raged outside; the 1988 Whitney Biennial curators decried in the catalog essay that “wealth is the only agreed upon arbiter of value,” but the curators themselves, noted David Deitcher in Ault’s compilation, still “managed to sidetrack all but the most ironic or subtle signs of social disgruntlement.”
Unlike today’s art world, though, there seemed to be a larger contingent of politically engaged arts writers, and I looked to their writing for an alternative to the more recent “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach (This book should be a pre-req for all art majors). I also imagined art from the eighties to have a little more tooth.
That wasn’t entirely true, as you’ll find out from Artists Space’s current show Macho Man, Tell It To My Heart: Collected by Julie Ault, a collection which largely protests The Man by celebrating flamboyance, femininity, and friendship. This comes with vague formalism and a indirect critique that makes some political art safer than it perhaps aspires to be. That said, the show is mostly personal gifts, so you go in expecting more ephemera than anybody’s opus. What makes this a critical exhibition, I think, is how it shows a collaboratively-minded generation of people engaging with each other, and in a way that doesn’t seem to happen as much today. (You could argue that Twitter has increased the dialogue, but the various essay compilations and collective projects from that time give you the sense that words had a longer life.) If we take any radical ideas from this group, I hope it’s their emphasis on community; in this show, it comes off as a weapon.