All New York Is a Stage
An Exhibition & Book Explores 1980s New York as Theater, When Artists Grappled with New Media, New Fame, and the First Wave of the AIDS Epidemic
by John Eimicke
The art of the 1980s made drastic jumps from the previous eras. The tempest of social change was a perfect storm for artists of the time and the new exhibition and book put together by Michael Auping, chief curator of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, aims to illustrate this point. (The release of Urban Theater: New York Art in the 1980s, out in October from Skira Rizzoli, coincides with the exhibition of the same name on which it is based. The show runs from September 21, 2014, to January 4, 2015, at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, Texas.)
Essays by Auping (“High Performance: Theatricality and the Art of the ’80s”), and the museum’s curator, Andrea Karnes (“Personality Complex”), and assistant curator, Alison Hearst (“Keeping It Real: The Impure Abstractions of Ross Bleckner, Troy Brauntuch, Peter Halley, Donald Sultan, Philip Taaffe, and Christopher Wool”), run alongside the 208-page book’s 120 illustrations and touch on the era’s interest in media culture, consumerism, cartoons, and street art. The book and show also illustrate the camaraderie and relationships shared by many of the artists, who mostly lived and worked on New York’s Lower East Side, as exegeses of the 1980s as theater. As Auping so eloquently puts it in the book’s Introduction: “…New York art in the ‘80s was bigger, brighter, more glamorous, and in some ways darker than anything Americans had ever experienced…With a generation raised on Hollywood films and television, and sophisticated in the power and rhetoric of media, the ’80s produced large, artistic personalities that helped
support the content of their art or became the art itself. Andy Warhol had predicted that in the future everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes. There is the sense that this generation took that prediction to heart, although many of them have experienced far more than fifteen minutes of fame.”
The authors’ aim plods along like most other art books covering the main biographical and bibliographical points of the infamous artists of the time; Haring, Rothko, Basquiat are briefly touched upon, as well as the significance of so many creative people dwelling together, dating one another, sharing each other’s ups and downs, results of which led to the coming of age of so many influential artists in the eighties in New York City and engendered a wealth of work so diverse as to be unlike any previous school of art. From the gender-identifying artwork of Barbra Kruger to the social criticisms of Jeff Koons—the full gamut of 1980s art superstars is appreciated.
The book also covers some more less-exposed or rather forgotten figures of the time. A considerable section is devoted to the late Lou Reed’s wife, Laurie Anderson, and some of her contemporaries of the performance art scene of that time. Robert Longo and Basquiat’s band Grey also helped to develop this image of 1980s art as theater. Anderson’s “O Superman” to this day pops up on tenacious collegiate artists’ playlists and Longo’s “Men in the Cities” drawings, which are a literal marriage of performance and graphic visual art, are iconic images of the eighties, only preempted by the artist’s eventual foray into video art ballads like Killing Angels: Marble Fog. In fact Longo is quoted in the book as saying, “At a certain point in the ’80s,
it seemed like all roads led to performance, whether you were a painter, sculptor, or a video artist.”
And many artists at the time were performing art or in bands alongside creating conventional art, thus synthesizing the book’s point of the period as a theater. And the time was a very theatrical one. The twenty-four-hour lights of Times Square were the accent lighting on this stage, with no curtain call in sight, especially for the artists living and working at this time in New York City.
For the first time artists attempted to use their real lives as subject matter and expressions of art, none more than those artists whose lives had been touched and affected by the AIDS epidemic that dominated the minds of all New Yorkers. Artists like Robert Mappelthorpe, who unflinchingly publicized their sexual journeys, as in his photos of himself and friends clad in leather, black-and-white close-ups of cod pieces, and the people and appurtenances of the underground gay bar scene, expressed and described their lives through their work.
And most likely it’s because of this outpouring of emotions and the humanization of the AIDS epidemic that the disease no longer carries the kind of stigma it once did during the artists’ time, when AIDS was being labeled as a “gay cancer” and fear was the prevalent prescription. Artist Keith Haring and his “Ignorance=Fear, Silence=Death” posters certainly accomplished this: While simplified and featureless characters danced in harmony to cryptic proclamations, the homogenous nature of the illustrations helped to identify the millions affected by the crises. On the other hand artists like Nan
Goldin took a different approach. Along with its subsequent book, her show, “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” was an autobiographical snapshot of so many friends’ lives that were lost to AIDS. The informal photos depicting the dysfunction and basic human dependency are only amplified by Goldin’s comments years later in a 1996 reprint: “The pictures in the Ballad haven’t changed. But Cookie is dead, Kenny is dead, Mark is dead, Max is dead, Vittorio is dead. So for me, the book is now a volume of loss, while still a ballad of love.”
Different artists experiencing the epidemic from different viewpoints registered and conveyed the same message of humanity. And though the book and show do not focus on the era’s advances in AIDS activism, and the book only mentions how the pandemic played such a key role in the creation of so much of this era’s art, the 1980s’ art as urban theater was definitely innovated by AIDS and its unfortunate sacrifices.
For more information about the exhibition, log on to: www.themodern.org.
John Eimicke is an artist living in New York with his dog, Arya. He holds a BFA from Fashion Institute of Technology.