If you lived through the 1980s, here’s a trigger warning: The Hirshhorn’s “Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s” dredges up some ugly stuff. There is little pleasure in much of the work on view, which can be seen only as a symptom of a wrong turn in American culture. This is the rag-and-bone shop.
It may, however, be a necessary show, albeit a sad one. Curator Gianni Jetzer has brought together material that explores the evaporation of the line between art and commodity in the 1980s. It deals with the branding of art and artists, who embraced the techniques of corporate advertising, sometimes critically and with ironic detachment, but all too often with uncritical enthusiasm.
It also focuses on key developments in critical theory and ideas about representation, as the media-saturated world we know today began to take shape, and artists reveled in what seemed to be a breakdown between the real and representation. It ends with the economic crash of 1987 and the age of AIDS, a disease cruelly exacerbated by the sudden right turn in American politics to a sunny, mindless optimism that privileged consumption over compassion, selfishness over the social contract, and American power over American idealism. Artistically, and culturally, we are directly descended from the greed and hypocrisy of the 1980s — a fact that this exhibition emphasizes and perhaps implicitly endorses.
The 1980s are now being chewed up and processed by the art world, with the “Club 57” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York exploring the formation and efflorescence of East Village artistic culture from 1978 to 1983; a critically acclaimed Peter Hujar exhibition at the Morgan Library celebrating the independent vision of a brilliant photographer who died of AIDS in 1987; and a Leon Golub show at the Metropolitan Museum channeling the anger of an expressionist artist keenly aware of his country’s foreign-policy failings during this same period. The generation of artists, curators and critics who came of age in the 1980s are now running the show, and have turned their attention to the decade that marked their arrival on the scene three decades ago. “Brand New” is part of this generational attempt to establish the lines and paradigms of history.
“Brand New” focuses on artists who have become household names — Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Jenny Holzer — along with lesser-known figures who were concerned with similar ideas and themes. It’s hard to disagree with the premise of the show, stated in the wall text that greets visitors: “. . . these New York artists changed the landscape of the art world forever — directly impacting the practice and reception of art in the twenty-first century.” One might add, many of them also contributed to the moral landscape of the 21st century as well, to the larger art market as we know it today, with its infantilized collectors, money laundering and intellectual triviality.
The show does little to advance the critical understanding of these figures beyond where it has been for decades. And that boils down to a basic question that remains as troubling now as it was 30 years ago: Can you flirt with commercial culture and commercial practices without being co-opted by them?
Kruger has remained a trenchant voice; Koons has not. Other artists on view put too much stock in the idea of mere appropriation, as if lifting a product out of the supermarket and putting it in the art gallery was sufficient. Too many of them simply didn’t understand what they were reading, as if the whole of French critical theory could be reduced to an ironic bafflement at the slippage between the sign and signified. Too many of them believed that irony was a sufficient defense against the corruption of consumerism, as if they could somehow sidestep the blunt message of Kruger’s 1987 “I Shop Therefore I Am” silk-screen with a knowing wink.
The art on view runs a range, with the best of it the most engaged with genuine political and cultural concerns, and the worst sophomorically confused by the bewildering barrage of media, advertising and poorly digested critical currents floating in the ether. The Guerrilla Girls managed to use the techniques of advertising effectively to challenge the misogyny of the art world; so, too, the artists of Gran Fury, who created the iconic “Silence=Death” logo to call attention to the Reagan administration’s purposeful neglect of the AIDS crisis. Tishan Hsu’s 1988 “Biocube,” seemingly stripped out of some kind of morgue or abattoir, is a powerful object, distilling fears of bodily fluids and disease and the dehumanization of health care. David Robbins’s 1986 “Talent,” a collection of black-and-white glamour shots of artists associated with the New York scene adds nothing of value, nor does the repurposing of a Deutsche Grammophon CD cover by Clegg & Guttmann.
This exhibition focuses particularly on the artists of New York during this period, and especially the transformation of the New York art scene from a scrappy outsider to polished insider mentality. But there was a lot of art being made — about the environment, about political culture, about personal identity and about art itself — that dealt more honestly and substantially with the world, especially in Los Angeles. There also was art being made — see the work of Hujar and Golub for example — that remained rooted in visual aesthetics. That isn’t the scope of this exhibition, but it’s worth remembering that what is on view here is just one current of the 1980s.
The tone of the show is ambiguous, but in the end, it feels celebratory. The work was “transformational” to be sure. But there also is an implicit connection of the worst of this work — the least critical, most vapid and fully co-opted — to the contemporary art market in a way that feels like self-justification. If much of the contemporary art world is an elaborate scheme to park obscene concentrations of wealth into easily traded commodities, it is in part because some of the artists on view (and the gallerists and critics who celebrated them) in “Brand New” helped lay the groundwork for the current moment. There may have been skepticism about the market and the Man in New York in the beginning of the 1980s, but by the end of the decade, the embrace of branding was all but absolute.
Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s is on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden through May 13. For more information, visit hirshhorn.si.edu.