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This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s

A new MCA exhibition reveals the 80s as a very queer decade.

 (Photograph: Courtesy of the MCA)
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Photograph: Courtesy of the MCA

Dream Girls

 (Photograph: Courtesy of MCA)
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Photograph: Courtesy of MCA

Robert Mapplethorpe

 (Photograph: Courtesy of the MCA)
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Photograph: Courtesy of the MCA

Mapplethorpe 95.43231/7/2004

 (Photograph: Courtesy of the MCA)
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Photograph: Courtesy of the MCA

Looking for Langston

 (Photograph: Courtesy of the MCA)
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Photograph: Courtesy of the MCA

Peter Hujar

 (Photograph: Courtesy of the MCA)
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Photograph: Courtesy of the MCA

AIDS painting installation

When Republicans like presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich invoke the 1980s, it’s often in a way that filters the decade through a naive and gauzy wistfulness for Reagan and Thatcher conservatism. In “This Will Have Been: Art, Love and Politics in the 1980s,” a new exhibition opening Saturday 11 at the MCA, guest curator Helen Molesworth (chief curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston) frames the decade in part through feminism and the AIDS crisis and the way in which a culture of desire shaped the ’80s for LGBT artists. “There are different ways in and out of the exhibition,” says the out curator, “but certainly one path that you could take is a moment where you realize that the decade begins with a feminist struggle and ends with a queer one.” Molesworth guided us through some of the exhibition’s gay works:

Peter Hujar, John Heys in Lana Turner’s Gown, 1979
“Hujar used to take photographs of artists and the downtown scene in the ’60s and ’70s, but by the ’80s, Hujar, who was gay and lovers with David Wojnarowicz, was just taking really beautiful pictures of queer life, whether it was someone in Lana Turner’s old gown or really pretty circuit boys getting their pictures taken in the studio or guys cruising in parks. To be taking those pictures and printing them as art photography was about this sort of move out of a closeted space and into a more public space with queer life.”

Robert Mapplethorpe, Ajitto, 1981
“I chose three images from the Black Book, which is a very infamous book of images of naked black men. At the time, they seemed troubling because they were on this knife’s edge of this kind of stereotypical and racist imagery in which it really is a lot of black men just sort of being reduced to this big, black cock. ‘What does it mean that I’m kind of attracted to images that are a little racist? Does queerness or gayness trump racism or are all the power dynamics of white guy behind the camera, unnamed black guy in front of the camera still very much in place?’ The other reason it’s disturbing now is that so many people in the Black Book are dead, so it’s also a memorial to a group of people that didn’t make it.”

General Idea, AIDS Wallpaper, 1989
“General Idea was a collective of three artists, two of whom died of AIDS, and they took the Robert Indiana LOVE [sculpture], a sort of late-’60s/early-’70s classic pop logo, and turned it into AIDS. Of course I think one of the things they’re saying is, the ’80s is many things but it is the end of the ’60s. That kind of countercultural experimentation has ended for several reasons, one is Reagan/Thatcher and this really conservative move, and the other is AIDS, which brings to an end a certain efflorescence of sexual exploration.”

Deborah Bright, Dream Girls, 1989–1990 f
“Bright does these great photographs where she’s a very classic stone butch and she’s Photoshopped herself into these black-and-white movie stills so she’s lighting Audrey Hepburn’s cigarette or she’s flirting with Katharine Hepburn. It’s this desire on the one hand for there to be this image of lesbian desire, but also that you might, as a butch, not be identifying as Katharine Hepburn, [but rather] you might be identifying with Cary Grant and to let that intense pleasure have its space.”

“This Will Have Been: Art, Love and Politics in the 1980s” opens Saturday 11 at the MCA.

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