Amid looming Cold War tensions, rising crime, and the spectre of the AIDS virus, New York gave rise to some of post-war art's most exciting and daring innovations
According to Michael Auping, chief curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, ‘If you wonder why the art world is like it is today, refer to the 1980s. That’s where it began.’
The decade marked an explosive turning point in art history on both sides of the Atlantic. It was during this period that established post-war masters gave way to a younger generation of contemporary artists, who rose to fame amid far-reaching changes in music, fashion and cinema. In a world increasingly powered by advertising, technology and mass media, the concept of image-making underwent a radical transformation, and traditional artistic practices were knocked from their pedestals.
This was the era of street art, of ‘Bad Painting’, of Neo-Expressionism and appropriation. For the first time, a truly global art market came into being: between New York and Cologne, Paris and London, Madrid and Rome, a new breed of gallerists and collectors reshaped the international art scene.
Amid looming Cold War tensions, the spectre of the AIDS virus, rising crime rates and political activism, the streets of New York witnessed some of the most exciting and daring artistic innovations of this period. Painting, a medium declared fundamentally dead by Minimalist and Conceptualist artists, was reinvigorated by a wave of young, dynamic artists. Jean-Michel Basquiat claimed the fading façades of the Lower East Side as his first canvases, rocketing to stardom before the age of 21. Channelling the city’s rhythms, his works combined a deep appreciation for the art of the past with a host of contemporary influences: from children’s cartoons and scientific textbooks to poetry, jazz and Beat Generation literature.
In SoHo, the Sonnabend Gallery staged its landmark 1986 show Neo-Geo — short for ‘Neo-Geometric Conceptualism’ — featuring works by Jeff Koons, Ashley Bickerton and Meyer Vaisman alongside Peter Halley’s rigorous spatial abstractions.
Building on the languages of Pop Art, Minimalism and Op Art, Halley, like his fellow Neo-Geo adherents, sought to capture what he saw as the ‘geometricisation of modern life’. His compositions — conceived as a series of ‘cells’ or ‘prisons’ connected by ‘conduits’ — strove to reflect not only the city’s three-dimensional urban grid, but also the burgeoning flow of information spawned by computer technology. In works such as The Place (1992) — a monumental piece spanning over two metres in width and height, rendered in Day-Glo red, blue, yellow and pink — geometric abstraction becomes a metaphor for the isolating effects of these new structures.
Halley’s use of Roll-A-Tex — a textural additive common to suburban buildings — lends his works a base architectural quality, as if it has been ripped from the ceiling of a clinic or motel. His vibrant hues become markers of artifice, evoking government-issued neon signs and the glare of city lights.
As New York Times art critic Roberta Smith has noted, the paintings of David Salle, another key figure from this period, are ‘pictorially rooted in Pop Art’s use of common or degraded images’, layering elements drawn from high and low culture. But Salle insists that — unlike most Pop artists or postmodernists — his work ‘has absolutely nothing to do with popular culture’.
His 1982 diptych, A Couple of Centuries, is composed of elements that conjure a wide range of periods, themes and artistic styles. A motorbike in the right-hand panel denotes Americana, machismo and teen rebellion; a sketched dancehall scene has an air of Golden Age decadence. On the right, spectral characters and an abstract grid conjure both Die Brücke and De Stijl, while a nude figure feels distinctly photorealist.
Salle offers no easy answers to the problem of decoding his eclectic canvases. But he suggests that, rather than serving as a comment on contemporary life, his work explores the fundamental function of images. ‘Some images,’ he has said, ‘reveal something deep about how the world works; it seems as though they can access how consciousness is structured.’
New York native Julian Schnabel studied at the Whitney Museum of American Art from 1973-75 (his application to the program included slides of his work stuck between two pieces of bread). Schnabel had his first solo show at the Mary Boone Gallery in 1979 and exhibited in the 1980 Venice Biennale alongside George Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer. In 1981, he became the youngest artist to be included in the Royal Academy’s major survey of contemporary art, A New Spirit in Painting. Known for his large-scale works, Schnabel painted with a sincerity not seen since the era of Abstract Expressionism, revelling in the grandeur of his vision.
In 1978 Schnabel set out on a tour of Europe. In Barcelona he discovered the mosaics of Antoni Gaudí, made out of broken crockery. This medium, Schnabel would later explain, ‘had a certain kind of reflective quality and density of colour and light that I felt hadn’t really been used in painting.’ Schnabel made his first plate painting as soon as he returned to New York.
In Marc-François Auboire, a striking large-scale piece from 1988, Schnabel painted on broken plates glued to a heavy wooden panel. Up close, the work seems almost abstract: a jagged sculptural surface covered in bold strokes of red, green, black, purple, ochre and brown. Step back, and this monumental composition — almost two metres in height — resolves into a surprisingly delicate portrait.
Carroll Dunham, too, borrowed from graffiti, abstraction, Pop and Surrealism to create new visual worlds. His paintings on wood from the 1980s are marked by forms that recall living things; these biomorphic shapes would become central to his practice. According to American conceptual artist Mel Bochner, at that time Dunham ‘took as his job breaking out of the age of rectangles and seriality’.
In their own way, each of these New York artists forged new directions for painting that continue to reverberate today. ‘In a sense, the painting that emerged in the early 1980s was mongrel and illegitimate,’ Roberta Smith has written. ‘In logical art-historical terms, it wasn’t supposed to happen.’