PRINT March 2003


Left to right: Cover of Artforum, Summer 1981. Slide of Richard Prince, Untitled, 1979. Cover of ZG no. 3 (1981). Cover art: Robert Longo.

I FIRST ENCOUNTERED THE ART CRITICISM OF THE ’80S around 1996, which made me a bit late to the party. By that time the party had moved to university seminar tables across the country and been neatly parsed for the syllabi, so that students like me could admire how Sherrie Levine plumbed the depths of originality (week 2: “Appropriation”) and Cindy Sherman slyly turned the camera on herself (week 5: “The Gaze: Basics”). Little did I realize, though, that I had nearly missed the party altogether, because just two years later the syllabus, previously titled “Critical Theory and Visual Practice Since 1980,” was repackaged as “Visual Theory as Inventiveness,” an attempt to stave off what was now seen as the embattled state of theory (with an extra week of queer studies thrown in for good measure). In those two short years, the critical apparatus of the ’80s had clearly lost some of its luster in the eyes of at least one professor, though I’m sure he wasn’t alone, and I hope it had nothing to do with my deeply earnest paper on Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, and the “subversion of the stereotype.”

This experience, though admittedly personal, may signal the extent to which the art criticism of the ’80s was quickly subsumed within a totalizing, if heterogeneous, discourse, only to become co-opted by legions of graduate students with a flair for the parenthetical “(pre-)fix.” We swallowed whole an official “history” of “the ’80s” that wasn’t actually a history at all, but rather a selective corpus of mostly primary criticism canonized in anthologies such as Hal Foster’s The Anti-Aesthetic and Brian Wallis’s Art After Modernism. It became hard to see the forest through the theory, which makes the task of confronting the less-remembered criticism of the early ’80s particularly appealing for someone who missed it the first time around. This is not to disparage the writing that came later in the decade or the genuine contributions of critical theory to our understanding of the visual arts. However, as I discovered for myself after delving into the art press of the early ’80s, the discourse that came to represent the decade emerged from a surprisingly multifarious and febrile chorus of critical trends and voices.

Louise Lawler, Why Pictures Now, 1981, black-and-white photograph, 3 1/16 x 6 1/16”.

The unbridled critical enthusiasm that greeted the ’80s can only be truly appreciated against the gloomy backdrop of the late ’70s. “The decade is over. Don’t you feel better already?” John Perreault asked readers of his last SoHo Weekly News column of 1979. “To many people who were active in the ’60s, the ’70s were a bore. . . . The art-world cliche is that nothing happened.” For several years critics had been wringing their hands over what Carter Ratcliff dubbed an “often sluggish, always confusing” decade that lacked the effervescent yet focused innovation of the preceding one. “The ’70s has been a decade which felt like it was waiting for something to happen,” Kim Levin wrote in Arts in 1979. “It was as if history was grinding to a halt. . . . The mainstream trickled on minimalizing and conceptualizing itself into oblivion.” In place of new ideas, writers such as Levin saw only the mannered refinement of old ones, descended from Minimalism, Conceptual art, and modernist painting, the dregs of which kept turning up on what Jeff Perrone called “all those dog-shit painting covers” of Artforum in the late ’70s.

Luckily for the art press, the ’80s came right on time. In just one salubrious year, the ennui of the ’70s gave way to a vivifying sense of epochal change, as Peter Schjeldahl demonstrated in January 1981 in his first column back at the Village Voice: “More is happening in American art right now than ever before. There is more of everything and everybody, including critics.” But what happened to the writing of all these critics? The trenchant observations of writers associated with October and their like-minded colleagues have for good reason remained at the forefront of our understanding of the period. Yet more idiosyncratic figures and critical developments deserve our attention too, for the value of their insights and to fill out our somewhat lopsided historical record. With twenty years distance it is possible to return to the art press of the early ’80s and construct a few preliminary profiles—not so much of critics themselves but of their varied and vibrant criticism.

Scott Rothkopf is an art historian based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.