PRINT March 2003


Editor’s Note

This is an intermediate moment where people are going to reminisce and at least begin to study the period. But to me it doesn’t seem historical because so many of the developments of the ’80s . . . are still unfolding.
—Jeff Wall in Artforum, March 2003

AIMING TO SECURE A BRIEF ESSAY ON A CULTURAL MILESTONE OF THE 1980s for this issue (the first of two devoted to the art of that decade), I phoned a favorite—and famously “difficult”—contributor, who had made his name as a critic in those years. His response, while on the face of it astonishing, didn’t entirely surprise me: “I remember nothing of the ’80s. Not a thing.” Indeed, the retort was fully in character, and I suspected it was little more than a rhetorical flourish aimed at calling me on my shabby conceit of parsing cultural history into tidy decades. He would come around. I felt sure of it.

But three or four subsequent conversations over as many weeks convinced me that the amnesia owed to something deeper than kneejerk contrariness. Scores of names were proffered in seeming good faith: Those he suggested tended to fall outside the decade (by as much as a half-dozen years!); those we supplied were “too obvious” or, alternately, “interesting, worthy, but . . .”—always a but—“did that really happen in the ’80s?” he would ask incredulously. “I very much doubt it!” As the weeks wore on, I came to think of the “’80s gap” as a symptom—a frightening symptom (this voracious intelligence stone blank on a full third of his adult life)—and at the same time as a merry bit of madness, comical in a man-who-mistook-his-wife-for-a-hat mode, hinting at some larger truth.

The larger truth is that the ’80s remain something of an open wound—not just in terms of the toxic residue of greed and glamour (the “excess” of the journalistic cliché) but simply because of the decade’s proximity: There is a traumatic aspect to the process of coming to terms with a period whose developments are, as Wall observed, “still unfolding.” If the ’80s are in one sense decidedly behind us, they are also very much with us—the “Warholism” (the elided portion of Wall’s quote) apparent in every neo-Pop recurrence no less than in the passion of antithetical response is only one example. And while the art and criticism of the ’60s and ’70s feels comfortably canonical, with young art historians today earning doctorates and producing reams of manuscript on the period, the decade that follows, beyond the few primary anthologies that have settled into college curricula, remains, on the level of secondary study, largely untouched. It was this middle ground between the present tense and the properly historical that inspired us to dedicate our fortieth-anniversary edition to the ’80s. And, of course, it was the shock of our official invitation, the onus of periodizing this still-breathing moment, that triggered our friend’s chronological confusions.

What can we begin to remember, with the modest hindsight afforded us today, of an epoch the art world might rather forget? The wager was that our “decade-ist” conceit—“The ’80s,” the cliché writ large—would put everyone off balance, but hopefully to a less disabling degree than was the case with our sidelined author. Even for those who contributed importantly to the culture of those years, the question was hardly settled: What exactly were the ’80s? The answer that came back in chorus was not just broken dishes and Baudrillard. It was the interface of art and AIDS activism that filmmaker Gregg Bordowitz tracks in his autobiographical account of the decade (“My Postmodernism”). It was the B side of a Scritti Politti single titled after a cer tain French philosopher, so emblematic of the era’s perfervid romance with a handful of Continental thinkers, which Diedrich Diederichsen recalls in his “Milestone.” It was the strange adventures of a controversial curator who took the art world by storm at the close of the decade and then vanished just as suddenly (profiled here by Alexi Worth, in “The Trouble with Christian”). And it was the idiosyncratic voices that slipped through the cracks of the period anthologies but are remembered here by Scott Rothkopf in his look at the criticism of the era (“Other Voices”).

The hope is that our two-issue study, in its promiscuity and its plenty, will ease the process of incorporating this contested swath of our recent past, opening the reader to the myriad countertendencies and secret histories that thread through these pages. As for the threads dropped, the countless unavoidable omissions even as one volume grew to two—take them as the inevitable flaws of a rough draft, the rough draft of a history yet to be written. Welcome to the fabulous, fucked-up ’80s.

Jack Bankowsky