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Gerhard Richter Schadel (Skull) 1983 from This Will Have Been...

Crossing The Rubicon

In art terms, you might not readily recollect the 1980’s – so much has happened since – but the decade’s parameters were memorable.

Text: Mike von Joel | Images: Various

Helen Molesworth - Crossing The Rubicon

Helen Molesworth
This Will Have Been: Art, Love, and Politics in the 1980s
Yale / MCA Chicago
Fb. 448 pp. 225 col illus. £35
ISBN: 978-0300181104


John Lennon was assassinated in November 1980; and the Berlin Wall came down in November, 1989. Politically, it was the decade of the Regan/Thatcher backlash against the rebelliousness of Punk and a conservative paranoia derived from the AIDS epidemic, first reported in June 1981. This Will Have Been: Art, Love, and Politics in the 1980s re-examines a decade of irreversible cultural hegemony.

The artists discussed in This Will... were the first to mature in a social environment infatuated with technology. They grew up with television in the home; witnessed the advent of personal computers, portable music devices, video recorders and the power of media advertising dedicated to one thing: desire. The widespread schizophrenic response to the question of personal identity was addressed across the culture in a wide variety of (often) diametrically opposed ways, though united by an appetite for change. Dara Birnbaum appropriated televisual imagery to reconfigure through the emerging VCR technology; whilst Leon Golub would continue with large scale (unfashionable) figurative painting studies invigorated by a caustic subject matter: famously scenes of torture and abuse by militaristic types of blindfolded and naked victims. Keith Haring carried out undercover painting assaults on the New York subway; whilst the Guerrilla Girls enacted a poster campaign to promote gender equality in the visual arts.

In the 1980’s, popular culture was preparing itself to go nuclear and the glittering prizes were going to be available to all, not just the select, and fortunate, few. The fraternal innocence, that legacy of the late 1960’s art world, suddenly seemed irrevocably defunct. It was the decade of the preening show off, the living works of art that cast Andy Warhol into the shadows. Leigh Bowery and his like populated the alternative club scene; David Bowie recruited his MTV chorus line from Blitz. Against this, and as if to illustrate the aforementioned schizophrenic cultural impetus, CalArts was incubating the new generation of leading painters on canvas: Eric Fischl combined traditional concerns with loaded subject matter and overtly sexual reference.

This survey – a wide range of artworks made by nearly one hundred artists – curated by Helen Molesworth (with essays by Johanna Burton, William Horrigan, Elisabeth Lebovici, Kobena Mercer, Sarah Schulman and Frazer Ward) reprises the 1980’s and it is a helter-skelter ride that captures the energy and optimism of a decade that ushered in the cataclysmic eruption of art-money-meltdown that was to define the Nineties. It is a bravura performance by Molesworth, the chief curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) Boston. An attractive, flexi-cloth-backed format and funky design by James Goggin & Scott Reinhard will ensure this book will itself become a collectors’ item.

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