Art from the 80's (E)

‘80 + 25 = 2005

“Pushing art toward new extremes that were variously more decorative, more personal, more sexual, more political, often at the same time, it helped break open something that, thankfully, cannot be put together again.”
Roberta Smith in The New York Times, December 10th 2004

In December 2004 the ‘East Village USA’ exhibition opened in the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. There was great interest. From the usual art-lovers, but chiefly from the media and from artists. Everyone wanted to see if the impossible had been achieved. The exhibition was namely an attempt to embody and share the tempestuous revival in the visual arts that had taken place between 1981 and 1987 in the East Village district of New York. There, at that extraordinary spot, it seemed that the energy, which had emerged in many places in the world, was particularly concentrated. It was there that the new developments were making their appearance on the streets, in living rooms and shops transformed as if by magic into galleries, in all sorts of dilapidated rooms adapted for performances and concerts, on local television and in local magazines and newspapers.
The New Museum was unable to deliver the goods. The exhibition was a feeble reflection of a time that is impossible to represent in a static museum setting, precisely because its most important characteristic was its dynamism.

I am not one of those people who believe that nothing new is happening in visual arts. Magnificent works of art are still being produced and there are still exhibitions that are well worth going to see. It is just that the situation is less easy to read. There are no longer any important centres of art. After the Second World War, New York took the torch over from Paris and carried it through to the eighties. Afterwards London briefly appeared to take the initiative with Brit Art, but, if that actually was the case, it did not last long. Now, no single city or any single country is pushing itself to the forefront.
There is yet another factor that is distorting the picture. For a long time there was a sense of order in the art world since ‘art’ was understood to mean ‘western art’. This area has now become much larger. The other continents have enthusiastically been involving themselves in the discourse for years with a great variety of ideas and forms of expression, as a result of which specific developments are swallowed up more rapidly into the one, big entity, and therefore attract less attention.
Political developments over recent years, the post nine/eleven syndrome, have moreover squeezed art further and further out to the margins of society, partly because art is apparently at a loss to deal with these developments. Interest in art is steadily falling. Only the ‘blockbusters’, supported by the media, are able to pull in the big crowds.
A period of apparent calm is obviously a good opportunity to look back at more stimulating years. Not from nostalgia, but in an attempt to find an explanation for the energy at that time and to see why many of the artists who played a role in it then, while still being active, are much less visible.

Even though more than twenty years have since passed, it remains difficult to conclusively and definitively interpret the events of the eighties. There were a lot of them, they were inextricably interwoven and they did not all have the same form and intensity. I shall therefore restrict myself to a number of general observations and findings, which I hope will, in any case, provide a broad insight.
If there was one common aspiration, then it was to obtain freedom. This freedom clashed with and was at the expense of the established (art) order. It is understandable that this craving for freedom would lead a group of artists to distance themselves from all that was principled, theoretic, introvert and almost invisible in conceptual art. They wanted to be lavish again, to enjoy the act of painting, to use every available material that could lend itself for the purpose, independent of all the unwritten codes and laws that had previously applied. They wanted to again make a great, emotional, ‘wild’, artistic gesture. Movements such as neo-expressionism were just such a liberated reaction (Salomé, Jörg Immendorf, Julian Schnabel, Rainer Fetting, René Daniels, Walter Dahn, Francesco Clemente etc.). But there were also artists that evoked accessible realism and did not baulk at building on classic examples and searching for a new path through traditional genres (Eric Fischl, Carlo Mariani, Stephen McKenna, Stepanek/Maslin, and also ‘Gruppe Normal’).
There was still also a group of artists who maintained the need to keep on working from a particular theory or philosophy (neo-conceptualism). However they chose more appealing and accessible forms of expression (the non-documentary photo became popular). Supported by the ideas of French philosophers in particular, these artists were occupied with the power of the media and the way in which the media influenced representation. Nevertheless, they were just as interested in regaining freedom. They ‘fought’ to retain their own identity. John Baldessari, Dara Birnbaum, Lydia Schouten, Ken Lum and Cindy Sherman, among others, can, to a greater or lesser degree, be considered as part of this group.
Those artists who ‘ripped-off’ the images of others and who used existing objects and materials (appropriation) were often accused of nihilism. They were said to be acting out of a lack of original ideas or from the fatalist (or rather, pernicious) view that everything had already been done, but their most important principle was the right to make use of anything: in order to thus bring up the authorship or the cliché for discussion. This was the making of artists such as Rob Scholte and Sherrie Levine.
The fact that many artists of the time, particularly in America, produced political works was prompted just as much by circumstances. The Reagan era was conservative by nature. The government paid little or no attention, let alone consideration to minorities such as women, people of a different race or homosexuals. Their battle was to a great extent still to be fought and they found artists on their side. Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Hans Haacke and many others ensured that their ‘pamphlets’ reached a large audience.
Graffiti and other forms of street art emerged from this same climate. They were the manifestations of a culture that wanted to be seen and heard, that needed to show itself because it had been condemned to a subordinate role in society. Commercial motives may have ensured that these art forms were ultimately picked up – Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat were sought-after ‘stars’ – they likewise originally came out of an idealistic aspiration to demolish the boundaries between high and low art and to thereby liberate art from its elitist image.
The only movement that cannot immediately be explained through the idea of freedom is that of the neo-geo. According to many contemporary critics, this post-abstraction was a formal reaction to the unbridled, exuberant and sometimes overly boisterous neo-expressionism. The freedom had become too great and a number of artists therefore took the liberty of placing it back under control. Others saw the neo-geo works of art as an attempt at “abstract painting from found images”, as a form of appropriation or as a response to minimalism and pop art.

Why did all these activities end so abruptly? Has this need for freedom now completely disappeared? Is the situation now so very different from then?
Every counter-movement runs the risk of becoming socially acceptable. The new developments were initially excluded from galleries and museums. All sorts of artists’ initiatives solved that problem (for example W139 and Aorta in Amsterdam). Eventually, ‘people’ realised that the various movements were inevitable and that it would be more clever to embrace them than to reject them. Commercial interests re-united the ‘strictly orthodox’ with the ‘moderates’. The rejuvenating energy was for the most part tamed inside the regular scene.
Once they had been accepted here, the artists became dependent on the “dark forces and powers of the economy”. The stock market crisis of 1987, ‘Black Monday’, caused the art market to collapse completely. Many an artist who had become used to an almost star-like status was suddenly confronted with a dramatic fall in his income. Galleries that had gambled on a number of big names went out of business or had to lay off staff. They feverishly set about looking for new artists. With the collapse of the market, strangely enough, the interest for the artists who had once profited from that prosperity also disappeared. It seemed as they had been declared contaminated. They were shelved as failures, particularly in the media. The appreciation of their artistic capabilities disappeared along with any appreciation for them as individuals. As Bickerton once expressed it: “The 80s had eaten too much, and many people wanted to take them down.” Various so-called ‘new wild men’ in particular from Germany, the USA and Italy fell so far into oblivion that they had to build up a new career.
However cynical it may sound, a large proportion of the interest for artists from other parts of the world arises from that economic crisis. They were cheap and were only too happy to be represented by a gallery. They took the place of their unfortunate predecessors and so had an unexpected chance to develop further, both artistically and professionally.
In New York there were other, specific causes for the disappearance of the energy of the eighties. Just at the time the East Village was tasting success and the limousines were double-parked in front of the improvised galleries, the property market shot up. Rents rose, sometimes by hundreds of percent, so that many inhabitants (and thus also many artists and art establishments) were literally driven from their neighbourhood. The number of galleries dropped just as fast as it had risen. The survivors moved to SoHo and were taken in by their former ‘enemies’. In addition, the aids epidemic accounted for a large number of victims in New York. The art scene in the East Village, in particular, was deeply affected by this.

Circumstances, the spirit of the times, these determine developments in the visual arts. Artists fit in with these developments, influence them or get them going. It sounds paradoxical, but their work, the quality of their work is, in essence, no part of this. Changed circumstances do not necessarily affect it. These do, however, influence the esteem in which the work is held and the position this work is given within the art circuit of museums, galleries and the press.
Therefore it is interesting and appropriate to pay attention to artists who began in the eighties and who are still producing good work, but who, because of the changing times, arouse less interest. It will not bring back the energy of the eighties, but it can get the much-needed discussion going regarding the current “state of the arts”.

Introduction ’80 25 2005. Art from the 80’s into the twentyfirst century’