CHICAGO — For art museums interested in contemporary American art, the 1980s have been a bit of a blind spot.
Individual artists who emerged in those rambunctious years have not been in short supply in their galleries, through retrospectives and theme shows. But the period as a whole has remained elusive. Incisive surveys have been almost nonexistent.
Perhaps it has something to do with wounded pride. With the roaring return of new European art, felled from prominence a generation earlier by the brutal devastation of war, a 30-year run that saw American artists at the top of the international heap came to a definitive end. Add New York's loss of national dominance after 1980 with the unequivocal emergence of Los Angeles art, and the cultural alterations were apparently too much to wrap one's head around.
That's changing now. Another generation is passing, so the '80s are coming into new focus.
At the Museum of Contemporary Art here a tight, well-selected exhibition is a quietly compelling survey of a transformative period. "This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s" sets a high standard, rooting art in the era's social landscape.
The show's time frame begins in 1979, a year bracketed by a terrifying accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in the spring and the fall hostage crisis at the American Embassy in Iran. It ends in 1992, when lingering economic distress saw the election of President Clinton with just 43% of the popular vote.
Some international artists are included. Among them are South Africa'sMarlene Dumas, with a scalded painting of a woman's imploring face; Germany'sGerhard Richter, giving the soft-focus treatment to a bleached human skull;Brazil's Jac Leirner, who makes a creepy smile by stringing hundreds of Marlboro cigarette packages on a diaphanous cord tacked at both ends on the wall;Colombia's Doris Salcedo, whose stack of neatly folded white shirts stiffened with plaster and pierced through the shoulder by a steel rod reads as a stark, Minimalist totem, and more.
However, of more than 90 artists and several artists' collectives — including General Idea, Gran Fury and the Guerrilla Girls — Americans are in the majority by a sizable margin. Art's internationalization is seen from an unabashed U.S. perspective.
And rightly so. In the United States, everything changed in the '80s. The stark adjustment had been building for some time, but during those tumultuous years the attitudes that drove the nation into a ditch not so long ago were kicked into gear. Connections between then and now are sharp. Take the current Occupy movement, which was augured a quarter-century ago in the ACT UP outrage against official indifference to the AIDS pandemic.
The '80s witnessed the greed-is-good ascendancy of economic royalism, a supply-side voodoo claiming that what works for the wealthy is best for everyone. Religious fundamentalists built communications-based empires by profiteering on culture war. Militarism stood triumphant, grandiloquently beating its chest astride the rubble of the Berlin Wall. Propaganda went mainstream, first on talk radio and later on cable TV.
All of it is encountered in the show, given the dual focus on love and politics. "This Will Have Been" employs a savvy, future-perfect title that collapses time into a space of transformation. It's divided into four sections, which overlap.
"The End Is Near" includes the persistence of painting, despite some critical claims of its death as a medium exhausted by tradition, irrelevant in a media age or compromised by commerce. Sherrie Levine's color stripes are painted on a wooden chair seat hanging on the wall — a pure abstraction redolent of medieval panel painting, here wittily applied like prison bars to the fanny side of a child's classroom chair.
Mike Kelley's big wall-hanging made from a web of bruised stuffed animals echoes monumental Abstract Expressionist paintings, now presented as parental offerings to soothe an infantile society's damaged psyche.
"Democracy" contemplates an end to social exclusions, sometimes taking to the streets. David Hammons' "How Ya Like Me Now?" retains the volatile power to shock, with its billboard-size image of theRev. Jesse Jacksonin white face, blue eyes and blond hair. (Its title is borrowed from a song by rapper Kool Moe Dee.) A picket fence of sledgehammers stands between the disorienting picture and a stupefied viewer — a solemn American flag over to one side — creating an ambiguous sign of determined security or potential assault.
Feminism and the social construction of identity is a primary theme in "Gender Trouble." Cindy Sherman's grim self-portrait photograph casts her as a battered corpse lying in the dirt, starting to decompose. It pictures an equation between photography and death, the condition of the women's movement in the wake of the Equal Rights Amendment's 1982 defeat, art's contradictory status as a truth-telling lie and more.
Above a doorway Gran Fury's exuberant bus billboard, which shows joyful couples of mixed race and gender kissing, is as life-affirming today as it was in the darkest years of the AIDS crisis.
Finally, "Desire and Longing" identifies an erotic undercurrent of push-pull coursing through a profoundly conflicted era. Its icy icon is Jeff Koons' justly celebrated sculpture "Rabbit."
The glistening bunny, at once riveting and remote, reconstructs a child's flimsy, inflatable toy in pristine and enduring stainless steel. In the 1960s an artistic revolution had brought sculpture down off its pedestal and onto the floor, where it shared the mundane world with viewers; but Koons' work clambered back up, where it's trapped and alone on an isolated island of privilege.
The show sets aside typical categories like chronology or style. Forget Neo-Expressionism, for example, although paintings by Julian Schnabel, David Salle and others are not overlooked. Lari Pittman's "The Veneer of Order," which scrawls a revision of the Gettysburg Address on a decorated, decaying pink ground, is more typical — a painting suitable for any and all of the show's four categories.
"This Will Have Been" digs deep, walking softly and carrying a big stick. Convincingly identified as key to '80s art is feminism's second wave, which artists were assimilating into the culture just at the moment AIDS began to viciously unravel it.
What makes the show powerful is an aura of curatorial modesty. Without bombast, one or sometimes two works per artist are displayed in thoughtful relationships with other art. The decade's volatility and the gravity of its interests grow in relation to the rectitude of the artistic motives on view.
Deftly organized by Helen Molesworth, a curator at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art, the show closes in Chicago on Sunday before traveling to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis later in June, then to its final stop in Boston in October. It's a pity it won't come to Los Angeles, but the excellent catalog is a rich and rewarding substitute.