In 1990, when Gran Fury’s AIDS-awareness PSA Kissing Doesn’t Kill (1989) appeared on 60 CTA buses and at 25 El stations for a month, certain Chicagoans freaked out. Some of the activist collective’s posters were vandalized. Former Mayor Richard M. Daley asked the CTA to develop “less offensive” ads. State Rep. Monique Davis criticized the work for “enticing” young people into the “[gay] lifestyle.” The Illinois state legislature considered a bill banning CTA ads that depict same-sex displays of affection.
The focus of this ire merely proclaims kissing doesn’t kill: greed and indifference do over a photograph of three smooching couples, one of whom is gay, and one of whom is lesbian. The 12-foot-long poster now hangs out of reach at the Museum of Contemporary Art in “This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s”—just in case, curator Helen Molesworth cheerfully explained during a recent tour.
The furor over Gran Fury’s work would seem preposterous today if we weren’t having nationwide arguments about contraception and gay marriage. “This Will Have Been” does not claim to be a comprehensive overview of 1980s art: It doesn’t dwell on appropriation, though the latter strategy influences myriad pieces on view. But Molesworth’s foregrounding of the culture wars, American foreign policy, feminism and LGBTQ visibility fills the show with contemporary relevance.
Leon Golub’s Interrogation II (1981), a painting of torture that critiques U.S. intervention in Central America, bears an eerie resemblance to the photos of abuse at Abu Ghraib. Louise Lawler’s Between Reagan and Bush (1989), which pairs a photograph of Jeff Koons’s expensively produced sculptures with a menu from the yuppie Silver Palate Cookbook—complete with sorrel flan—presages 2012’s income inequality, hyperinflated art market and foodie folderol.
“This Will Have Been” also recalls the 1980s’ emphasis on multiculturalism while acknowledging its pitfalls. Writing in the catalog about Lorna Simpson’s photographic installation Necklines (1989), Jennifer Quick asks if it’s fair to hold the African-American artist “responsible for representing the experiences of ‘the black subject,’ as if such a monolithic subject ever existed.”
The divisions within minority communities became evident when David Hammons installed his public-art commission How Ya Like Me Now? (pictured, 1988) on a billboard in Washington, D.C. Hammons intended his whiteface portrait of the Rev. Jesse Jackson—captioned with a lyric by rapper Kool Moe Dee—to comment on young African-Americans’ distance from the civil-rights activist. A group of black youths interpreted the work as racist, however, and tore it down. Hammons recognized the incident by adding a circle of sledgehammers to the installation.
“This Will Have Been” functions as a series of such dramatic episodes rather than as a chronology, but it doesn’t matter: Whether or not you remember the ’80s, we appear to be doomed to repeat them.