The cultural and artistic zeitgeist of New York City during the 1980s is unrivalled in the contemporary imagination. For a select group of artists living and working in New York during that tumultuous decade — among them Richard Prince, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Willem de Kooning and Jeff Koons — the city streets proved a hotbed of creativity and their work flourished amid its vibrant landscape.
The ’80s witnessed dramatic growth in the art market while silent terrors gripped the city, from the crack epidemic and widespread crime to the spectre of the AIDS virus and looming Cold War tensions. A selection of works from this important decade embodies the divergent trends that emerged during this era. Taken together, they represent the intersection of art and culture that resulted in one of the most significant moments in modern art history.
In 1981, the exhibition New York/New Wave at P.S.1 propelled a young painter to fame as the poster-child of Neo-Expressionism. Heralded in the seminal Artforum article The Radiant Child by Rene Ricard, this natural talent — Jean-Michel Basquiat — symbolized the raw, emotional intensity of this brave, new style.
Basquiat’s unique amalgamation of art historical quotation and 1980s street culture poured out in the heavily and feverishly worked surfaces of his paintings and drawings, the most significant of which were done in 1982.
The highly expressive Untitled, a work on paper from 1982, embodies the artist’s signature blend of spontaneity, brashness and wit that caused Peter Schjeldahl to describe him as ‘the essential American Neo-Expressionist painter of the early 1980s’. Indeed, Basquiat’s resolutely singular style helped revitalise the primacy of the artist’s mark at a time when painting had been declared ‘dead’.
Featuring prominently in this collection is the work of artist-provocateur Richard Prince, who alongside Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo, Sherrie Levine and David Salle, was a member of what became known as the ‘Pictures Generation’.
In their appropriation of photographs, film and advertisements, the Pictures Generation artists interrogated the saturation of media imagery of the era in which they were raised. Exposing the mechanisms of seduction and desire that were encoded within them, the work that emerged was unlike anything that had ever gone before.
In his important early series Fashion of 1982–1984, Prince enhanced the anonymity of the female model by creating a sort of codified presentation of generic beauty. In re-contextualizing the imagery from glossy magazine ads, Prince also redefined the concepts of artistic originality and ownership while exposing the images as lies.
He continued this technique in the Cowboys and Girlfriends series that followed. Going a step further, Prince brought imagery back into painting when he began to silkscreen the covers of romance novels in his provocative series of Nurse paintings.
Perhaps the most radical transformation witnessed by the 1980s scene was the spectacular rise of graffiti art, epitomized by the subway drawings of Keith Haring. Art on and from the streets — in the work of Basquiat, Haring and Kenny Scharf — emerged from the jarring cacophony of New York’s seedy neighbourhoods and the glorious depravity of its club scene, from CBGB to the Mudd Club and Club 57.
Early exhibitions of their work took place in relatively obscure venues before they were snatched up by enterprising young gallerists. This frenzied environment — the influx of cash and the perceived manipulation by hawkish dealers — was all the more poignant given the crises that gripped the city at the time, from the lack of infrastructure to the onslaught of the AIDS virus which would take Haring’s own life in 1990.
Though the rising stars of art reigned, more established painters of the post-war era silently plied their trade against the backdrop of this wildly momentous decade, often breaking new ground while seemingly consigned to the sidelines. Just outside New York in his East Hampton studio, where he had lived since the 1960s, Willem de Kooning created a series of light and lyrical abstractions that served as a profound visual coda for his life’s work.
In the present selection of work from the 1980s, de Kooning’s Untitled XVIII, which he painted in 1984, exemplifies the grace and gravitas of these late, large-scale abstractions. As the curator Robert Storr has observed, ‘In the works from 1984, the results are paintings of an openness and freedom not seen before… extraordinarily lyrical, immediately sensual and exhilarating; of all of the paintings of the 1980s, they are the most diaphanous and drawing-like.’
As the decade came to a close, the nexus of the art-world universe began to shift focus from the downtown punk aesthetic of the East Village to the slick objects of newcomer Jeff Koons, a former commodities trader who showed at the freshly minted International with Monument gallery.
Frequently blurring the lines between fine art and mass consumerism, Koons introduced a new series, Luxury and Degradation, in 1986, drawing attention to the overt marketing campaigns used to advertise alcoholic drinks to specific slices of the socio-economic spectrum. The artist encourages his viewers to be mindful of the advertising ploys that play on consumer vanity.
In deceptively seductive works like Find a Quiet Table and others from this series, Koons calls upon his audience to disentangle themselves from a cynical and self-perpetuating system of social immobility and not to be lead astray by false promises of luxury.