New York

“Your History Is Not Our History”

Haunch of Venison New York

This selection of work by twenty-two artists working in New York in the 1980s, organized by painters David Salle and Richard Phillips, was filled with many fine things. No surprise there: The artists in the show are all so well known that their names might almost stand in for their art. Still, the charge of clubbiness that inevitably hung over this basically good-natured exhibition was countered by the defensive edge of its Jenny Holzer–ish title, set, to be sure, in the Suprematist sans-serif bold font preferred by Barbara Kruger. Neither of these hectoring Conceptualists was, in fact, involved with the formulation of the title or its typography, though both were otherwise well represented in the show.

The title did, however, summarize the exhibition’s polemical intent, glossed in the press release with the declaration “The selection of works in this show will serve to lay to rest one of the most entrenched critical conceits of the last 30 years; that the 1980s are cleaved between painting, which was seen as regressive and market driven and the so-called ‘critique’ strategies which took the form of photography and/or text.” “Lay to rest”? Fat chance.

While the curatorial endeavor meant that there were very few sculptures—a sink by Robert Gober; two pieces by Jeff Koons—photography played a significant role, particularly with the work of Nan Goldin, Louise Lawler, Cindy Sherman, and Laurie Simmons. In historical terms, these figures did double duty as women (a total of seven were in the show), and as artists who speak to the putative opposition between photography and painting typical of the decade’s lip service—the primary delusion that the exhibition was determined to subvert.

In consequence, the bulk of the show sought to revalorize the unquestionable resurgence of painting in the ’80s. Many of the decade’s paintings were marked by a strongly expressionist, representational, and anti-abstract bias (often incorporating imagery derived from popular sources)—think Eric Fischl, Malcolm Morley, David Salle, Julian Schnabel, Terry Winters, or even, if you will, Donald Baechler, Ross Bleckner, Carroll Dunham, Richard Prince, Philip Taaffe, and Christopher Wool, all present and accounted for in this exhibition. Baechler, Fischl, and Schnabel—as well as Jean-Michel Basquiat, four of whose paintings were on view—came off very well with important, representative works, as did Salle, though perhaps, as co-organizer, he might have made himself a bit scarcer despite the beauty of his two magisterial submissions.

The show’s focus on works made in New York meant it neglected many young European painters who had finally thrown off their obeisance to the “Triumph of American Painting,” as Irving Sandler titled his 1976 history of Abstract Expressionism. Indeed, much talk at the time revolved around the “Three Cs”—recall the tag? Neither Enzo Cucchi nor Sandro Chia made the cut here, though Francesco Clemente (resident in New York since 1981) was represented by a lovely fresco, a decent pastel, and Untitled (Henry Geldzahler), 1983, a painting of hideous power alluding to the curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art responsible for the provocative 1969 exhibition “New York Painting and Sculpture, 1940–1970,” of which the present exhibition was but the faintest echo. But to consider the Italians as Italians points to the cavernous oversight of the German artists Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, and Georg Baselitz, whose work arguably had the most consequential influence on the painting of the decade. I recall the German dealer Michael Werner assessing the situation with terse acuity: “Everybody copies Polke.”

(One noted as well the absence of Andy Warhol. No doubt it was same-generation partiality that also led to the exclusion of other master figures such as Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, and even Willem de Kooning. Some omissions were less understandable: How David Hammons eluded selection escapes me, and surely photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, too, could well have been included.)

The press release contains a hallelujah coda by Phillips: “As we find ourselves in another era of massive historical and technological change and shifting power, appropriating lessons from some of art’s greatest achievements can help us build the new artistic infrastructures that will carry us into the decades ahead—and reignite our historical consciousness in a world that is increasingly interconnected.” Perhaps. But this nice, fanny-patting show twixt artist friends—handsome as it often was—was hardly commensurate with such utopian goals. For that, perhaps another Geldzahler at the Met will be needed.

Robert Pincus-Witten