Since the 1980s, the art world has acted as if it wanted to forget that the Neo-Expressionist, greed-is-good, Christian, pastel-preppy conservatism of that decade ever happened. So except for a handful of stars from those years — Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Jeff Koons, and so on — the decade has disappeared from museums.
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"I think there was a kind of '80s embarrassment," says Institute of Contemporary Art curator Helen Molesworth, whose major survey of the decade, "This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s," opens at the museum in November. It's a deeply personal version of that repressed history, and at the same time a landmark effort — the sort of hip, deep, scholarly show that truly great museums do. Its thrilling scope and ambition trumpets her and the ICA's aim to (re)make history.
"I don't deal with a lot of what was super embarrassing," she explains. "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. But I also think partly some of what's embarrassing is how earnest the '80s felt — but, of course, I was part of that earnestness. I was a young person in the '80s, and one of the reasons I do what I do was because I thought that art was really, really capable of changing the world. It sounds so grandiose, but it's what I thought, and I think a lot of people felt that then."
Part of what got Molesworth thinking back to the '80s was the past decade. The United States was embroiled in two wars and then the Great Recession, which she saw as "the culmination of the kinds of political and economic and social shifts that began during the Reagan-Thatcher era." But the art world barely registered these crises. "I was feeling kind of frustrated by the way you could actually go to an art exhibit and have no idea that we were at war," she says. She craved art that was more engaged with the world.
Reagan-era stars make appearances here: Holzer, Kruger, Koons, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Nan Goldin, Robert Mapplethorpe, David Salle, Julian Schnabel, Cindy Sherman. Part of the fun of the show is debating whether this version of the '80s lines up with your own. ("I still wake up and feel I should have put so-and-so in it," Molesworth says.)
"For me, the '80s begins with a struggle around the assimilation of the feminist critique," Molesworth says, "and ends with queerness." She deemphasizes the Cold War, graffiti, Pac-Man, and Andres Serrano's Piss Christ to focus on feminism, consumerism, Jesse Jackson, ACT UP, and the devastation of AIDS.
"The show really, I hope, is not seen as any kind of definitive or defining exhibition. I never meant it to be that. I always offered it as a conversational gambit. What happens if instead of looking at the '80s using the nomenclature that we all know, that actually hasn't persevered and hence feels stale and unuseful —what happens if we sort of do 52 pick-up, we throw the cards up in the air and we rearrange the work, is there something useful and germane that happens?"
What happens is Molesworth's subjective, melancholy portrait of the decade.
THIS WILL HAVE BEEN |November 15–March 3 |Institute of Contemporary Art :: icaboston.org