The shock, critique, theatricality of '80s art, on view in Fort Worth

Christopher Knight
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Art Critic
The 1980s: The decade when a transnational art world overtook the supremacy of New York

For art in New York, the 1980s were the beginning of the end.

The end did not mean that significant art would no longer be made there, nor that droves of ambitious younger artists would cease to relocate to the city from around the country and even the world. It is and they do.

Instead, New York began to wrap up its heady run as art's foremost, even singular social condenser — the only place on the planet where the closely watched emergence of important new art really mattered. The city had occupied that position for two generations, after Europe's demolition in World War II.

But in the 1980s, change was afoot. Stirrings in Cologne, Los Angeles and London announced the beginnings of what would become the transnational art world that we know today. The "make it there" theme song from Martin Scorsese's 1977 film "New York, New York," whose story opens on VJ Day in 1945, became an ironic epitaph.

There's something quietly apocalyptic about so dramatic a cultural shift. But the day of reckoning isn't really sensed in "Urban Theater: New York Art in the 1980s," a new show (through Jan. 4) at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

There's plenty of flash and even some bombast. How could there not be, when artist Julian Schnabel was busily making the epic 1988 painting "Cortes"? A coarse, gashed, 20-foot-wide, olive-drab tarpaulin stained in map-like blotches, it's like a hazy chart for a massive military campaign.

Near the top hangs an embroidered Baroque altar front in royal purple and gold. Even the title, which refers to the Spanish conquistador who demolished the Aztec empire, speaks of feverish ambition.

Schnabel was partly inspired by new German art, then just becoming known in the United States and itself partly inspired by the European invasion by American Abstract Expressionism in the aftermath of World War II. What quickly came to be called Neo-Expressionism introduces the Fort Worth show, beginning with paintings by David Salle, Francesco Clemente, Eric Fischl and — with pride of place and the most wall space — Schnabel.

At the other end of the bravado scale are projected video clips from "Drum Dance, Home of the Brave," a brilliant 1986 performance piece by Laurie Anderson. Dressed in a white satin blouse and pants and spotlighted on a darkened stage before a large audience, she enacted rhythmic movements that lay somewhere between tribal dance and martial arts.

As she moved, Anderson struck parts of her body with her fists — shoulders, thigh, hip — where sound-sensors were hidden beneath her clothes. Her battered body became a musical instrument, merging an ancient drum with up-to-the-minute electronic music. An animatronic precursor to our era of creepy drones, somewhere in a netherworld between human and robotic, the deafening, dramatic result is scary-beautiful.

Schnabel's painting and Anderson's performance are different types of theater. That is how the exhibition's organizer, MAMFW curator Michael Auping, characterizes the decade's New York art. He selected 54 works to represent the theatrical moment there.

The show unfolds according to familiar groupings. After Neo-Expressionism, there's the mass-media and mass-production critiques of such very different Pictures Generation artists as Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman, the illicit scratching of urban graffiti echoed in paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf and Christopher Wool, the varied commercial exploitation and commodity questioning of Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger and Allan McCollum, and more.

Some works are iconic. The Oedipal, psychosexual drama of Fischl's rudely painted "Bad Boy," in which a nude woman lounges on a bed as a young boy stares at her exposed crotch while he surreptitiously steals from her purse, continues to pack a wallop.

So, in a very different way, does Kruger's monumental "Untitled (I shop therefore I am)." The big photo-printed vinyl banner features the splayed fingers of a black-and-white hand holding a blaring red sign printed with the consumer-identity subtitle. The fingers seem to crawl across the surface like some menacing tarantula.

There are so many familiar works in this greatest-hits show that it can seem a bit bland. Few are re-contextualized in a refreshing way.

Some selections even pull back — especially the nine photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, which are pretty tame. A rubber suit here and a devilish portrait there, with nary a phallus in sight, they might make a novice today wonder what all the legal hubbub over obscenity was about then.

Located near the start of the show, the Mapplethorpe photographs also make you wonder why certain works have not been included. Andres Serrano's 1987 photograph "Piss Christ" is perhaps the most obvious omission.

Today, everybody knows that Serrano's image of a crucifix was made by photographing a plastic symbol of suffering and salvation through the artist's urine. But you wouldn't know that just by looking at the radiant, flatly gorgeous red-and-gold picture.

The result is a devastating appraisal of the era's cruel Christian televangelism. In both, a camera's exclusionary lens transmuted acute spiritual decay into a deceptive phantasm of glorious moral uplift. Theatrical religiosity is as much Serrano's métier as it was Tammy Faye Baker's and Jimmy Swaggart's, so its omission from "Urban Theater" is surprising.

Unsurprising is the inclusion of one artist who, unlike all the rest, did not emerge in the 1980s. The exhibition's first work is a big, 9-foot-square self-portrait of Andy Warhol, rendered in acidic green and jet black. Prominent for nearly a generation before the 1980s began, Warhol is a virtual talisman for what follows.

The high-contrast photo-silk-screen emphasizes Warhol's facial structure, creating a skull-like death's head crowned by an absurd fright wig. The slashing plumes of synthetic hair recall the gestural brush-marks of Abstract Expressionist paintings, their momentous heroism here reduced to the media deceptions of a fake disguise.

That, in its way, was the 1980s. Usually it's a bad (if convenient) idea to bracket art by decades, which are after all artificial chunks of bite-size time. But in certain respects the bracket works for this one. There are significant markers that identify the start of the decade and the end.

At the start came the presidential election of Ronald Reagan. Following fast on the heels of Margaret Thatcher's elevation to prime minister in Great Britain, then followed shortly after by the anointment of German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, it marked the emergence of a reactionary conservatism in the West, a political worldview now in its late stages.

Individualism was trumpeted and greed was good. But American social institutions ached: Official antagonism toward the National Endowment for the Arts became a cultural equivalent to the shocking indifference to an exploding AIDS epidemic.

At the end of the decade came economic chaos. Art prices had risen in proportion to a surging economy, and when it crashed they did too. The abrupt art market collapse in spring 1990 forms a closing bracket for the show.

Is this apocalyptic sense conveyed in the museum's galleries? Yes, in individual works, where the backdrop of unbridled consumerism, the horrific health crisis and more can be felt. But, overall, "Urban Theater" generally reflects a kind of money-drenched celebrity that likewise rules today.

It was perhaps inevitable. Before World War II, virtually no market existed for contemporary American art. Most museums were apathetic about it. To gauge how fast and total was the transformation, a recent story in the Financial Times asserted than more art was sold during the 1980s than in all previous centuries combined.

New York art's most potent '80s urban theater was enacted in the mighty marketplace on the stage of the trading room floor. A chunk of that drama of conspicuous consumption — good, bad and indifferent — is now on view in Fort Worth.

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