Critics’ Picks

View of “This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s,” 2012.

View of “This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s,” 2012.

Chicago

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

Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA Chicago)
220 East Chicago Avenue
February 11–June 3, 2012

“This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s” examines artists’ responses to that decade’s cultural upheavals, including the rise of gender politics, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Cold War anxieties, and President Ronald Reagan’s malign indifference to the AIDS epidemic. Spanning the years 1979–92, it features approximately one hundred artists’ works, which are grouped into four thematic sections, each addressing a different area of cultural conflict: “Gender Trouble,” “Democracy,” “Desire and Longing,” and “The End Is Near.”

This framework successfully vivifies major thematic concerns of the ’80s: The impassioned calls for gender inclusivity and HIV/AIDS action expressed through posters and bus billboards made by groups like the Guerrilla Girls and Gran Fury are amplified when assembled alongside other like-minded works in “Democracy.” Conversely, when two, typically large, neo-expressionist paintings by Julian Schnabel and Eric Fischl—each depicting an attenuated male figure—are placed within the feminist-themed “Gender Trouble” section, they gain fresh relevance as signifiers of “masculinist” culture’s decline in the ’80s and of the American male’s diminishing economic prospects today.

In her catalogue introduction, guest curator Helen Molesworth of the ICA Boston summarizes the standard rap on ’80s art: too bombastic, too ideological, all in all “too much.” Yet the exhibition shows that those same “excessive” qualities also infused the decade’s best art with lasting vitality. A case in point is David Hammons’s How Ya Like Me Now?, 1988, its title crudely spray-painted across a blonde, blue-eyed, light-skinned portrait of then presidential candidate Jesse Jackson hung behind a flaccid American flag and a fence formed from sledgehammers and wire. The piece is just as aggressively provocative now as it was then, but it has also grown richer in complexity over time.