The Whitney Finds the Good Thing About the '80s

Like time spent staring at roof pigeons, the summer doldrums in New York are good for stocktaking. A recent lunch with an uptown museum curator led to some, as we debated a type of show popular with local institutions since 2008: the historical survey of engagé art (think of White Columns' "Activism, Art, and the AIDS Crisis, 1987-1993"). Afterward, I strolled a few blocks to the Whitney (ground zero for the 1990s culture wars) to visit its latest manifestation, the exhibition "I, YOU, WE"—a roundup of art's responses to the crises of the Reagan and Clinton decades.

A walk through the galleries provoked a few lingering, stray questions: Will we have to wait two decades for a show that takes the measure of art's engagement with the Obama era? Shouldn't today's institutions promote exhibitions that address art's responses to political and social dilemmas beyond the star-making demands of generational shows and biennials? If that show existed today, a book like George Packer's sweeping account of America in crisis could provide the perfect title: The Unwinding. Like Packer's bestseller, such a display would go far in illuminating a period that has transformed American culture—from politics to finance to art—resulting in a nation defined increasingly by winners and losers.

"I, YOU, WE" would provide the perfect blueprint. A show that eschews polite curatorial habits for blunt examples of artistic responses from the period, this judicious effort emphasizes argumentative, blistering works as it examines how artists once viewed themselves and their subjects in the round of society at large. Organized by David Kiehl, the Whitney's curator of prints and special exhibitions, "I, YOU, WE" comes across as a vivid polemic. According to Kiehl: "The brash and often strident, confrontational approaches initiated by artists during this period to address the personal, social, economic, and political concerns of these years have a stirring, thought-provoking relevancy to our present day." In Ezra Pound's phrase, much of the art presented in Kiehl's forthright show remains "news that stays news.

Anthony Hernandez, Landscapes for the Homeless, #17 (1989)
Courtesy the Whitney Museum for American Art
Anthony Hernandez, Landscapes for the Homeless, #17 (1989)

The final installment in a two-year series of exhibitions meant to reassess the Whitney's permanent collection before it quits Madison Avenue for the retail bohemianism of the meatpacking district, "I, YOU, WE" makes a virtue of both its timeline and location. Despite the New Museum's raiding of that institution's 1993 "political" biennial—after featuring Daniel J. Martinez's museum buttons reading "I Can't Ever Imagine Wanting to Be White," it remains the most polarizing to date—the Whitney quite literally owns many of the goods that made the era's art so controversial. Yet rather than lean exclusively on greatest hits, the museum reframes celebrated and under-known works within a context defined by ongoing "disparities of wealth, ideology and social responsibility." The result is a fresh picture of a time many people still associate primarily with Madonna and the Porky's films

The 1980s and early '90s, of course, were an age characterized by a top-heavy art market (just like now) fueled by a surging financial sector (ditto) in which art with lots of zeros became status symbols for the rich and the famous (Google Jay-Z's "Picasso Baby" video for parallels). The gaps that opened up in wealth and inequality became canyons, decades later, though back then a robust response was in the offing among many artists and cultural producers. Identity politics and the AIDS epidemic became effective rallying points. No wonder, then, that this exhibition features both subjects front and center.

Organized into three sections according to their relevant pronouns, "I, YOU, WE" starts at the beginning, with the first person—as signaled by highlighted wall text. Moving through a gallery of self-portraits that includes an untitled photo of Cindy Sherman as a mustachioed dyke, a black-and-white image of Carrie Mae Weems simmering beneath posters of Karl Marx and Marcus Garvey, and an encaustic and collage painting by Jasper Johns, the show invokes modern America's ur-Whitmanesque self. Yet the Johns makes for a bracingly apposite selection. Appropriately titled Racing Thoughts and loaded down with trademark motifs more appropriate to middle-aged soul-searching than social commentary, it offers insight from an earlier generation. Young curators take note: Reaching beyond the obvious inclusion broadens the company of the converted.

The "YOU" portion also features an expansive examination of the period's shifting artistic terrain—this time of "The Other," an intellectual streetcorner that became almost as contentious as the crack-dealing blocks fought over by Bloods and Crips. On view are Shirin Neshat's portrait of a Muslim woman wearing a hijab (her face and neck are covered by Arabic verses); Richard Avedon's portrait of Bill Curry, a craggy-faced drifter whose likeness portrays the end of the line for Jack Kerouac's open road; and John Currin's Skinny Woman, a Manet-like painting of a casually clad, silver-haired, uptown stereotype pinched and mannered beyond belief.

Appropriately, the "WE" section occupies the majority of the exhibition's wall space—three rooms, in fact—in its wide-ranging attempt to synthesize contemporary art's capacity to reflect on shared pain, anger, and resistance. Prints by activist collectives like Bullet Space and Political Art Documentation/Distribution featured in one room make way for graphic images of AIDS in another. Among the last is David Wojnarowicz's iconic photo-triptych of Peter Hujar—the artist's former friend, mentor, and lover—minutes after he expired from that terrible plague. Also on view: a highly schematized, acid-colored painting by Ed Paschke of a woman being strangled, as well as a touchingly poignant color photo by Anthony Hernandez. Titled Landscape for the Homeless No. 17, this 1982 picture of a cardboard bed laid on a grassy groove suggests armies of down-and-out folks made visible by their very conspicuous absence.

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