PRINT March 2003


1982: The Other de Chirico

WHEN I THINK ABOUT THE AESTHETIC sea change of the early ’80s, I keep coming back to MoMA’s 1982 de Chirico retrospective, which, in fact, was not a retrospective at all. Coming to a halt in the 1930s, it censored more than half his career. (He died in 1978.) The show confirmed the received wisdom that, after his youthful glory days, de Chirico became a traitor to the modernist cause. But William Rubin’s essay in the catalogue also contained an unexpectedly subversive illustration, a double-page spread of eighteen (yes, eighteen!) near identical versions of The Disquieting Muses, 1917, all painted between 1945 to 1962. The old-fashioned point was to demonstrate again the bankruptcy of the later de Chirico, who would often stoop to making replicas and variations of his signature masterpieces. But times had changed. The grid-style layout of these eighteen clones suddenly felt at home in the world of Warhol, who, only months later, would offer his own mass-produced de Chirico show in Rome with assembly-line riffs on the canonic masterpieces. By decade’s end, Mike Bidlo upped the ante with his facsimile de Chirico retrospective in Paris, which, unlike MoMA’s, covered the artist’s entire controversial career.

Clearly the moment had come for even some early modernist rebels to start violating their own moribund prejudices. Call it zeitgeist, but 1982 also saw Philip Johnson undertake another watershed attack on his own and MoMA’s past: the final stages of the AT&T Building, a Chippendale skyscraper that made his pioneering International Style show of 1932 feel like a time capsule from a remote era. This shift in gears also meant rediscovering the late work of other twentieth-century old masters who had presumably gone off the track after the heyday of modernism. For instance, the last decade of Picasso’s art, as finally unveiled to New Yorkers in the Guggenheim show of 1984, seemed no longer an embarrassingly feeble postscript but something so different and messily vital that it could launch the fresh directions charted in the 1981 Royal Academy of Arts show “A New Spirit in Painting.” And it was around this time, too, that Picabia’s shameless girlie-photo paintings of the ’40s and ’50s began to make his early works look stuffy. This updated version of the old Dada assault on time-honored values fired artists of the ’80s—David Salle, among others. What could be more shocking than a return to realism, whether populist or museum-worthy? For this, again late de Chirico provided fuel, especially with his robust revivals of the old masters, quoting the styles of Titian and Rubens, Canaletto and Courbet. It was a neorealist milieu that would nurture the development of many artists of younger generations, from Eric Fischl to John Currin.

Who could ever have expected that all this scorned and buried twentieth-century art could ignite fresh imaginations? In the early ’80s, walls were crashing, vistas were opening, and sinner artists like de Chirico were not only absolved but embraced. A different past and a different future would be possible. What a liberation it was to have the old catechism turn into history!

Robert Rosenblum, a contributing editor of Artforum, is professor of fine art at New York University and a curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.