“The 80s: A Topology”

THE 1980S WERE until recently a byword for everything to be reviled in contemporary art—the corruption of the market, the shallowness of the spectacle, and so on—in contrast to the purported rigor and purity of the conceptual, performance, and anti-form adventures of the preceding decades. A few years into the new millennium, however, it began to be evident that the tide of consensus was in reflux. In 2003, for instance, Artforum published a pair of ’80s-themed special issues, and Francesco Bonami and Daniel Birnbaum’s exhibition “Delays and Revolutions” in the Italian Pavilion at that year’s Venice Biennale included a number of works from the ’80s, which were exhibited alongside more recent art to sometimes impressive effect: Richard Prince’s Marlboro men, for example, suddenly looked better and more relevant than they had ever seemed before.

One can hypothesize endlessly about the reasons for this resurgence of interest in the ’80s, and the cynical view that starts by pointing to a mass of old investments needing to be kept up cannot be entirely discounted. So what might at first seem surprising about “The 80s: A Topology,” on view this past spring at the Museu Serralves in Porto, Portugal, is that the market darlings of the decade were mostly conspicuous by their absence. If you think that the ’80s means big, truculent neo-expressionist paintings, think again: There was no Anselm Kiefer or Georg Baselitz, Enzo Cucchi or Francesco Clemente, Julian Schnabel or Eric Fischl. If, on the other hand, you think it means neo-geo and commodity art, well, Peter Halley, Jeff Koons, and Haim Steinbach were absent as well. The explanation offered was that “the show focuses on work that in particular gives form to the contemporary uncertainty about the place of art in society” while excluding whatever “pretends to offer new (old) certainties” or “reacts with cynical detachment to the contemporary situation.” But it remains unclear whether an attentive critical inquiry would really show that a Fischl is more steeped in old certainties than a Jeff Wall, or that a Koons is more cynical than a Barbara Kruger. Without some analytical grounding, such judgments develop no further than cliché, all the more irritating for the patent self-contradiction involved in the curators’ claim to promote the value of thoughtful uncertainty while displaying unexamined self-certainty about their own taste.

While the lacunae in the exhibition made it difficult to take seriously its claim to offer a “topology” of a decade of Western European and North American art (supplemented by just a handful of artists from Eastern Europe, Turkey, Latin America, and Africa, but none from Asia), this gathering of some 250 works by more than seventy artists asked to be judged on its own terms as a revisionist account rooted in an experience of the time. (Ulrich Loock, deputy director of the Museu Serralves, and co-organizer of the exhibition with the institution’s Sandra Guimarães, became director of the Kunsthalle Bern in 1985. Like him, the majority of the contributors to the catalogue were born in the early to mid-’50s and played an active role in the art world of the ’80s.) How much any particular figure was missed depends on the viewer, of course: I would not make a strong case for most of the passed-over artists mentioned above, but it would have been interesting to see a few works by some of the figures who were well known at the time but have since been effectively cut from the record altogether—Helmut Middendorf, say, or Salomé. Are these artists really as atrocious as we’ve been told? Maybe, but the only way to be sure is to double-check.

Wilde Malerei is just one example. The suppression of figurative painting, with the exception of a few worthy anomalies like René Daniëls or Apostolos Georgiou, was matched here by a paucity of abstract painting—again with some exceptions (Ernst Caramelle, Helmut Dorner) that were puzzling in view of the omission of equally representative or better-known colleagues (why not Mary Heilmann or Jonathan Lasker?). But excuse me: To address the polemics surrounding painting, art historian Abigail Solomon-Godeau warns in her catalogue essay, “rigs the argument because the 80s was a period in which performance art, installation, video, hybridizations of various media, site-specific practice, political artists’ collectives, artist’s books of all kinds and feminist production of all varieties were everywhere in evidence”—though not, I should point out, in this exhibition.

One can certainly imagine an equally valid presentation of the decade through the work of seventy other artists. Rather than the product of any deep-seated historical curiosity, then, “The 80s” felt like an earnest—and, in truth, broadly successful—attempt to find the seeds of a presently acceptable aesthetic in the recent past. One sign of this was the inclusion of early work by artists who really only became prominent later, such as Mona Hatoum or Luc Tuymans, neither of whom gained much glory from the archaeological exercise. In fact, Hatoum’s unprepossessing photo/text pieces, dated 2004 but documenting performances from the ’80s, seemed more like studenty throwbacks to the conventions of the ’70s than either representative of their time or revelatory of what was to come.

The art-historical assumption behind the exhibition was that the ’70s had witnessed a “linguistic turn” in art to which the next decade responded—altogether respectfully—with a “return of the object.” Not just an object, however, but one that, Loock says, implies “a non-place, a place without place, a suspended place.” The tone was set by the first work one encountered, Untitled, 1982, by Niek Kemps—a vast cubic structure draped in red velvet. The construction plays on a sense of mystery, because there is supposedly something hidden within it, removed from sight, yet it is entirely unmystifying: It seems clear that there is in fact nothing beneath the enveloping fabric except the armature supporting it. Less than constructing an object, Kemps is giving a form and a sort of visibility to emptiness. Through its scale, moreover, the work has a curious passive-aggressiveness. Its “function,” according to the curators, is “to eliminate exhibition space.”

Works by Jan Vercruysse—Atopies (VIII), 1986, and Tombeaux, 1987—were similarly concerned with the manifestation of absence, as their titles make didactically clear. Taking the form of a sort of relief sculpture, they evacuate the place of painting by occupying it, much in the same way Kemps’s work evacuates the place of sculpture itself. In both cases, one can see at work a process of abstraction, but one that—rather than eliminating image and space to uncover the fundamental conditions or conventions of a medium—takes off from its conditions and conventions in order to make explicit an underlying vacancy. The same might be said of a good deal of the sculptural work here, especially by artists from the German-speaking world, such as the massive vitrines by Reinhard Mucha, which are essentially reliquaries for fragments of his own previous works; Georg Herold’s cinder-block room-within-a-room X. Baracke, 1986; or works by the likes of Harald Klingelhöller, Isa Genzken, and Katharina Fritsch, as well as by the featured sculptors from the Iberian peninsula: Rui Sanches, José Pedro Croft, Pedro Cabrita Reis, Cristina Iglesias, and Juan Muñoz. American artists often take up similar themes without the funereal atmosphere of mourning and melancholia. Allan McCollum’s candy-colored 216 Plaster Surrogates, 1987–88, and the paintings of Christopher Wool may manifest emptiness, but they don’t suggest that anything’s really missing—their Pop-inflected stance is remote and insolent, not mournful or melancholy. Nor did the absent figure denote a sense of loss in most of the photographs on display: Thomas Struth’s early black-and-white streetscapes, James Welling’s images of debris-laden fabric, Rodney Graham’s upside-down trees, or even many of Candida Höfer’s images of museums and libraries and Louise Lawler’s of art collections.

According to Loock, the return of the object, albeit in a negative sense, was accompanied later in the decade by a parallel development: “the return of the body that is a fragmented, traumatized, hybridized body.” This damaged body became an object of sentimentality in some of the sculptures on view, for example the work of Mirosław Bałka or Guillermo Kuitca (not to mention some of Muñoz’s later work, not included here). Several striking photographic works successfully avoided such pitfalls, however: Hannah Villiger’s extraordinary “Skulptural” series, 1984–85, of blowups from Polaroids of fragments of her own body, and Cindy Sherman’s alienated self-portraits have little to do with the melodramatic evocation of trauma. In fact, if Sherman and Jeff Wall are the artists who most saliently helped free photography from its formerly marginal status in artistic reflection, it is in part because they found something like the “precarious place between presence and absence” of Kemps’s concealed yet obtrusive cube in the photographed figure itself, which in their work took on dramatic blankness and enigmatic monumentality.

This exhibition convincingly showed that the “non-place” that fascinates Loock was one of the primary concerns of the art of the ’80s, whether in its saturnine European version or its petulant American one. But it would have been better to have abandoned any pretense to being a survey of the decade—which was certainly how it looked, despite Loock’s disavowal of any attempt at being “encyclopaedic”—and to have eliminated perhaps a third of the featured artists (including some of the most interesting) in order to concentrate on this single, quite powerful strand in the art of the time: one in which artistic responses to what Loock calls “the uncertainty of art” subtly shifted the focus from the essentially political or institutional concerns of artists like Daniel Buren or Michael Asher in the ’70s to more metaphysical and existential ones—inadvertently suggesting that much of the art in the exhibition, as represented by, say, Kemps, Villiger, or Sherman, was not in fact as distant from the supposed “expressionism, subjectivism and aestheticism” of the expressly excluded modes of artmaking as Loock and his colleagues imagine.

Barry Schwabsky is an American art critic and poet living in London.