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According to Ronald Reagan, the 1980s represented “morning again” in America. In New York, Pop Art came roaring back in different forms and an exploding downtown club scene overlapped with the art world, while graffiti entered the hallowed precincts of high culture. Foreign artists started coming to New York in larger numbers, becoming more visible than ever before.
A survey of Tseng Kwong Chi's (1950–1990) photographs, opening April 21 at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, shows the Hong Kong-born artist trading on his fish-out-of-water status in a country shrugging off its post-Vietnam defeatism and re-embracing its mythic sense of exceptionalism. Tseng’s work involved portraits of celebrity artists (Warhol; Haring; Basquiat), members of the downtown demimonde now lost to time, and conservative political figures (Jerry Falwell; William F. Buckley, Jr.). He also engaged in what might be called performance art for the camera, dressing up in a Mao suit, and posing himself, Cindy-Sherman style, within scenes made strange by his alien presence: In front of the former Twin Towers and the Brooklyn Bridge; at a fancy Metropolitan Museum opening. In each, the remote shutter release is clearly visible, while Tseng can be seen standing stiffly or exuberantly jumping into the air.
Tseng’s work was all about artifice—his own, but also that of his adopted home, which at a crucial moment in its history chose self-delusion over reformation. Dying of AIDS in 1990, Tseng didn’t live long enough to witness how the Reagan Revolution played out, but his satirical, outsider observations of the period continue to bite today.