“I thought that if painting was dead, then it’s a good time to start painting.” – Julian Schnabel
In art, the 1980s gave rise to new media like video and installation and galleries that subverted the preconceptions of “high art”—sculptures, drawings, etc.—with “low art” of cartoons and graffiti. As these new, exciting media emerged, which led some to call oil paintings outdated. To challenge this, some contemporary artists in the 1980s decided to forge ahead and use paint to express new forms and ideas. Fast Forward: Painting from the 1980s, on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art until May 14, lauds these artists’ initiative to reenergize a familiar medium.
The Whitney, as a museum, clearly takes pride in its permanent collection, as many exhibitions, Fast Forward included, solely use objects selected from it. As its full name is the Whitney Museum of American art, visitors should not be surprised that many of the artists in Fast Forward are American (although it should be noted that the Whitney holds many pieces from international artists, so long as they lived, worked, or created a substantial body of their oeuvre in the United States.)
This exhibition does not investigate deeply into the why’s and how’s of the 1980s painting revival. If visitors expect that of this exhibition, which hosts 44 works in three rooms, they will likely leave disappointed. Whether or not this was the museum team’s intention, the exhibition space on the 8th floor would not have the space to cover this background. It is difficult to determine whether the 8th floor of the museum—the smaller exhibition space—was chosen due to the others being taken up with the prominent Whitney Biennial (opened March 17th).
As a tasting session of the decade, Fast Forward is an excellent array of well-, better-, and unknown artists. The Whitney does not solely focus on celebrity artists from the decade. Certainly, famous artists—Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, David Salle to name a few—are displayed prominently, but these works do not overshadow the others. For example, Basquiat and Haring are displayed on the exterior walls in the elevator foyer; these two juggernauts, then, battle against each other for the viewers’ attention, leaving the others in the exhibitions to their own proper, quiet contemplation. Other artists, like Peter Cain and Christopher Wool, are displayed the same way: on a wall together, separate but in conversation with others.
The Museum does not stress that the rooms are themed, but whether unconsciously or consciously, the exhibition groups each room into similar themes or imagery. The outside walls are graffiti-inspired (where Basquiat and Haring are paired), the left room is politically-charged works, the middle room shows imagery appropriated from popular culture, and the right room is more abstract, meaning that, even with an underlying intention, the room of works is less straight forward or defined.
These themes might only be present so there is some sense of order, as the works seem to have tenuous relations at best. Eric Fischl (perhaps most known, now, for 9/11-inspired Tumbling Woman statue) is represented with a highly poignant work, A Visit To/ A Visit From/ the Island, comparing two similar beach compositions: the left depicts nude vacationers gaily playing in the ocean, while refugees escape the stormy seas on the right. Not to be outdone, across from Fischl is a painting by Leo Golub, which depicts soldiers laughing, comparing guns, and cleaning up the dead. The other three paintings, though interesting in their own right, do not hold a candle to these two evocative depictions, but there is no real connection to the commentary expressed, other than they are political and/or identity driven.
The middle room displays works of pop culture appropriation, as most works depict characters, actors, or objects from mass culture. Prick: From the Liz Taylor Series (Suddenly Last Summer” (1987) by Kathe Burkhart, depicts a movie scene with Taylor and Clint Montgomery, while Julian Schnabel’s Sextant of Dogtown, paints circus toys above images of a scantily clad woman deterring the camera.
The last room, which had more abstract works, showed works with underlying themes of identity. For example, two works Count No Count by Ross Bleckner and Told by Carlos Alfonzo, deal with AIDs, diagnosis, and activism. The seemingly zigzagged lines painted by Moira Dryer take on a new life in portraiture when named Portrait of a Fingerprint. The diversity of this room’s subject matter leads to more open interpretation from the viewers.
The themed rooms were not the point of Fast Forward, although there hardly seems to be any true point to the exhibition other than to highlight the amount of 1980s paintings the Whitney has in its permanent collection. Due to the lack of space on the 8th floor, however, the exhibition seems stilted. Many of these pieces are very large, with one taking a whole wall, such as Eric Fischl’s work and Schnabel’s Hope. Sixteen smaller works are hung Salon-style—a display with works hung above and below each other—on one wall in the pop culture room, which detracts from the emotional power that each could bring individually. The Whitney has displayed works Salon-style before, and the display can be a beautiful way to bring many similar subject matters together, such as in the Human Interests exhibition (see right image below). The difference between the exhibitions however, is size: Human Interests spanned two floors, whereas Fast Forward depicts 44 works (by less than 44 artists) in three small rooms. Therefore, nearly half of the artists shown are reduced to one wall, losing great names like David Wojnarowicz in a pictorial wash of pop culture appropriation.
Fast Forward feels, in a word, incomplete. This is likely due to the small exhibition space, which hinders growth and exploration. If presented like Human Interests, Fast Forward would leave the visitor with a greater sense of closure. Perhaps this signifies that the barriers 1980s painters broke did not end when 1989 turned into 1990; their changes to the medium continue to this day. As a brief survey of the decade, the Whitney successfully hits the target by including the bigger- and lesser-known names of the 80s painting scene.