Can you remember a time when brands didn’t really matter, when products weren’t placed in every movie and TV show, when advertising didn’t saturate the very fabric of our existence? If so, you must have been alive before the 1980s, the decade that set the stage for the modern consumer culture we’re all immersed in today.
That’s the premise of “Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s,” a new Hirshhorn exhibit that shows how artists grappled with those trends.
“Today, brands are how we live our lives, how we define our identity — all trends that took off in 1980s,” says Stephane Aquin, the Hirshhorn’s chief curator. “This is also the first moment when artists began reacting against this state of affairs.”
Some ’80s artists used the tools of advertising in subversive ways, while others embraced the commodification of art by turning themselves into bona fide brand names. “Brand New” includes witty responses to the decade of consumption from more than 60 artists: megastars like Jeff Koons as well as many overlooked female artists of the time. Here are some highlights from the show — just for the taste of it.
For this untitled 1987 piece, graphic artist Barbara Kruger changed a well-known philosophical quote into a statement on consumption — and then put it on a business card. “It’s a response to how the world of commodity and shopping and corporations had come to define identities,” Hirshhorn chief curator Stephane Aquin says.
This 1989 piece by Jessica Diamond called “T.V. Telepathy” makes the implicit message of many advertisements abundantly clear, with 5-foot-tall letters that take up an entire wall. The relatively crude, handwritten letters contrast with the increasingly sophisticated visual language of 1980s advertising.
Jeff Koons’ 1983 billboard “New! New Too!” skewers the way advertisers can put the word “new” on a picture of any product and make it seem innovative and exciting. The roughly 10-by-23-foot piece looks like a real billboard advertisement, but it’s never been displayed outside. “The moment we call it art, the moment we put it in a gallery, it changes the meaning,” curatorial assistant Sandy Guttman says.
When this untitled piece was made in 1982 by Canadian artist Ken Lum, it consisted of four rented couches turned inward to form an impenetrable square, transforming the furniture into a useless display of conspicuous consumption. “It’s both inviting and not at all at the same exact time,” curatorial assistant Sandy Guttman says. The Hirshhorn has re-created the piece, following Lum’s directions, using couches purchased from Macy’s and covered in fabric reminiscent of the 1980s.
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW; through May 13, free.