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Review: “Fast Forward: Paintings from the 1980s”

Written by
Joseph R. Wolin
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★★★★

Robert Colescott, The Three Graces: Art, Sex and Death, 1981
Whitney Museum of American Art with permission of the Estate of Robert Colescot

The 1980s are back, not just in terms of the appalling triumph of a certain short-fingered vulgarian but also given the increasing attention museums and galleries are paying to artists from that decade. The Whitney’s salvo in this ongoing reappraisal is a collection show highlighting the museum’s holdings of big names from the period, along with lesser knowns who are perhaps all the more intriguing because of their lower profiles.

Julia Wachtel, Membership, 1984
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, © Julia Wachtel, courtesy the artist and Elizabeth Dee New York

Painting made a big comeback in the ’80s, partially as a swing away from the Conceptual Art, video, performance and other modes that marked the 1960s and ’70s. However, without much curatorial attention to the historical circumstances—or even to the specifics of pigment on canvas—the focus here feels contingent on another factor that’s as relevant now as it was then: a booming art market.

Julian Schnabel, Hope, 1982
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, © 2016 Julian Schnabel / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The medium’s roaring return nearly four decades ago came on a wave of Neo-Expressionism, represented in “Fast Forward” by variants that look toward art history on the one hand and to pop culture on the other. Julian Schnabel’s large and bombastic Hope (1982) superimposes nude figures and a skull with slashing strokes of oil on velvet in an unctuous evocation of German Expressionism, while Kenny Scharf’s 1984 When the Worlds Collide crosses Hanna-Barbera cartoon Surrealism with spray-painted graffiti. Other works appear to split the difference: LNAPRK, a 1982 work by Jean-Michel Basquiat, seems in retrospect to have one eye on SAMO, the artist’s tagger alter ego, and the other on Cy Twombly.

Kenny Scharf, When the Worlds Collide, 1984
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, ©2016 Kenny Scharf/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

But works by less famous artists, especially women, make the exhibition more than just a greatest-hits mixtape. A canvas from Kathe Burkhart’s “Liz Taylor” series, for instance, shows a crude rendering of the Hollywood icon receiving an injection from a doctor. Block letters on the bright orange background spell out prick, relaying the artist’s scabrous and idiosyncratic feminism. And a tacit comparison between Julia Wachtel’s Membership (1984) and David Salle’s Sextant in Dogtown (1987) proves telling. At the beginning of the decade, Salle pioneered the cryptic juxtaposition of disparate types of images in a single painting, which Wachtel picked up slightly later. Here Salle includes his typical faceless women in lingerie and awkward poses, along with figures from European folk art. Similarly, Wachtel pairs African sculptures of female figures with a sad nebbish from a tacky greeting card. It may be subtle, but one can sense both artists’ distinct approaches to sexist stereotypes, cultural appropriation and emotional affect.

Eric Fischl, A Visit To / A Visit From / The Island, 1983
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

As might befit a resurgent art, there’s little painting here that feels quiet or contemplative, save for some glowing abstractions by Moira Dryer and Mary Heilmann, and a mournful field of glowing points of light in Ross Bleckner’s Count No Count (1989), which memorializes people lost to AIDS. Fast Forward may have served as the unspoken motto of ambitious painters in the ’80s, but the Whitney’s show offers the pleasures of the slow rewind.

“Fast Forward: Paintings from the 1980s” is at the Whitney Museum of American Art through May 14.

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