The ’80s aren’t what they used to be; nor are they what they were before that. They aren’t as awful as they were thought to be in the ’90s, when people denied being a part of the decade, acting as if they had been in some sort of imaginary underground; nor are they as great as many people thought they were when they were actually going on. They’re somewhere in between their former dominance and their recent disgrace. Exactly where that is remains to be seen. Unfortunately, “Around 1984: A Look at Art in the Eighties,” the earnest, bewildering, unfocused survey curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, won’t help clarify matters.
With 1984 as a focal point, 73 works by 54 artists are thrown together in a wing of P.S.1. The premise seems to be that in addition to the ’80s we know and love/hate so well, there was a shadow decade that thrived in countries less central, made up of artists who came to be better known in the ’90s or who never became household names. “Around 1984” tries to combine the profligate, well-fed, anything-goes, politically incorrect ’80s with the leaner, lesser-known one. It’s an interesting idea but one the exhibition follows too narrow-mindedly.
Attempting to pass as “a uniter, not a divider,” “Around 1984” is really only a divider. Instead of a rich mélange of competing trends, new names, kinky propositions, and reassessments, we get a squeaky-clean, can’t-we-all-get-along? version of the decade. Usual suspects like Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, Robert Gober, and Francesco Clemente, in other words, share space with usual-unusual suspects like Ilya Kabakov, Jimmie Durham, Adrian Piper, and Krzysztof Wodiczko. The whole show turns tame.
One of the great things about the ’80s was how contentious they were. Money and power and success were in the air, and taste was a blood sport. Neo-conceptualists critiqued painters who in turn critiqued paintings that critiqued collectors who bought photographs that critiqued the system. After a while you couldn’t keep track of who was critiquing who. If you liked artists like Sherman, Richard Prince, and Barbara Kruger (all included here), you weren’t supposed to like East Villagers like David Wojnarowicz, Martin Wong, or (God forbid) Rodney Alan Greenblat and Rhonda Zwillinger (none of whom are represented here), who were dissed by artists like Meyer Vaisman, Peter Nagy, and David Robbins (all excised from this show). Feelings still run high: While at “Around 1984,” I ran into an excluded ’80s text artist, who looked at the paintings by Julian Schnabel and David Salle and jeered, “I hate these guys. They’re so regressive and romantic.” Later, Sherrie Levine, who is in the show, said, “I always liked those paintings.” And I thought, “Then why were you so mean to painting in your work?”
This exhibition avoids all that. With an agenda so one-dimensional its choices are often rendered moot, the only limb “Around 1984” goes out on is a preapproved one. The show includes Salle and Schnabel and deletes Eric Fischl and Robert Longo; it expunges Sandro Chia, Jorg Immendorf, and Markus Lupertz, opting for big kahunas like Clemente and Anselm Kiefer, around whom it treads lightly, inserting only a book by each. Fashionable faves like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Martin Kippenberger are in; Philip Taaffe, Sarah Charlesworth, and Allan McCollum are out. Robert Mapplethorpe is excluded, as if to say his main importance was in the controversy his work generated; this thought is then negated with inclusions—like Judith Barry and Jeff Wall—that suggest only the theoretically correct need apply.
The selections may be partially explained by the slant the timeline takes in the exhibition’s brochure. Pop culture entries like the appearance of MTV or Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” are catalogued among world events like the Iran-Iraq war, terrorist attacks, and assassination attempts. But we get an idea of what this show finds important to the art world in the writing it chooses to mention. Rather than an array of critics, the chronology toes a very narrow line, listing texts by theoretical gurus Craig Owens, Rosalind Krauss, Jean François Lyotard, Julia Kristeva, and Jean Baudrillard. “Around 1984” doesn’t take a risky stand because the academic position it operates from doesn’t allow for one. Revisionism isn’t in its blood; neither is the oddball poetry necessary for truly reassessing the past.
The ’80s are still with us, if not in art, then in spirit. They were a coming-of-age period for art scenes all over the world: The base of the artistic pyramid widened, stakes grew, and money came to roost—at least for a while. Things have never been the same since. There are bound to be exhibitions that do the decade justice. “Around 1984” just isn’t one of them.