June 2012

Leah Triplett


This Will Have Been: The Political, the Personal, and the Neon-Bright in 1980s Art

"People love telling stories. I know some I shouldn't repeat," writes curator Lia Gangitano in her introduction to her 1995 exhibition Boston School, which she organized for the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. A group show that studied a small contingent of artists living and working in Boston in the late 1970s into the early 1980s, Boston School consisted of photographers, video artists, painters, and performers interested in fluidity of sexuality and identity as much as memorialization and mythmaking. Through their work, many of these artists, such as Nan Goldin with her poignant The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, sought to tell the story of their lives as it corresponds to ever-evolving shifts or critiques of memory, and thus people, place, and time, across biography.  

Though many of the artists included in the Boston School exhibition later voiced dissent in parallels in aesthetic or theme, all were bound by a familial friendship to Mark Morrisroe, an artist who chiefly used photography, video, and performance to explore these subjects and issues. In 1995, Morrisroe was just five years deceased from complications from AIDS; he died in 1989, when he was forty years old, a few years after he moved from his native Boston to New York. "The impact of AIDS on this particular extended family is reflected in their work as a continuation of the story, and this is where (in the discussion of Boston School) the documentation of a movement necessarily intersects with the documentation of a broader history," finishes Gangitano in her essay the catalogue.

I feel like the "broader history" of the 1980s is being exposed and explored in full force. One is hard pressed, certainly in fashion this year, to escape neon yellows and pinks reminiscent of Debbie Gibson videos, or the menacing accost of mini bows where one can get them. In books and art the 1980s reigns, too -- Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot finally seems to subside in popularity, and Eleanor Henderson's Ten Thousand Saints is still on my summer reading list. If you are in Minneapolis this summer, you can flee the sun's rays for those of neon and visit the Walker Art Center to see This Will Have Been: Art, Love and Politics in the 1980s on its second stop (the show just closed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and travels to the ICA, Boston this fall). Curated by the ICA, Boston's Helen Molesworth, the exhibition is groundbreaking in its scholarly survey the artistic output of the 1980s and the contemporary response of their critics in the pages of art magazines as well as the floor of Congress. I can hardly wait for This Will Have Been to come here to Boston; in the meantime, I've contented myself with the exhibition's astutely designed, brilliantly illustrated, and sharply academic catalogue. With essays by Molesworth, Johanna Burton, William Horrigan, Elisabeth Lebovici, Kobena Mercer, Sarah Schulman, and Frazer Ward, the catalogue also gratifyingly includes brief biographical sketches of the exhibition's included artists, written in context with their artwork present in the show. In doing so, the catalogue emphasizes the person behind the "artist," dispelling the myth of artist-genius as it was first refuted in 1980s appropriation, and reinforces how we shape the contours of our social and political contexts as much as they do us.

Personal, earnestly exposed, and rigorous in her recollection-infused analysis of performance in the decade, Sarah Schulman's essay "Making Love Making Art: Living and Dying Performance in the 1980s," is the most affecting of the catalogue. It's Molesworth's leading essay, though, with the same title of the exhibition, that students of late twentieth century art history will refer to for years to come. Molesworth, who previously curated canonical shows of 1980s art, such as 2009's ACT UP NY: Activism, Art, and the AIDS Crisis 1987-1993, skillfully weaves together the piercing, global problems of poverty, AIDS, and violence within the framework of art making and appreciation. While her approach is one of a steadfast scholar, Molesworth intersects moments of distant theoretical analysis with jolts of compassionate understanding of the conflux of personal experiences that informed 1980s art. Her approach is resolute in its retrospection, and one that acknowledges the many textures and divergences the 1980s cultural and political landscape, surveying it as an epoch marred by the growing pains of liminality. "This exhibition suggests that much of the art of the 1980s was involved in a shared project of expanding our understanding of identity and subjectivity, exploring the possibility of politics in a mediated public sphere, and offering increasingly nuanced and complicated versions of history and memory," writes Molesworth. "This Will Have Been presumes that works of art did not illustrate these ideas, but helped to create the conditions of possibility for both the most advanced theoretical writings of the period and the AIDS activist movement that profoundly shaped the end of the decade." The catalogue includes thoughtful, thorough essays searching Molesworth's named themes, which she titles "The End is Near," "Democracy," "Gender Trouble," "Desire and Longing," "A Backward Glance," and lastly "Making Love Making Art," and is wonderfully illustrated with images that do not prove, but articulate all on their own, the virulence of their context.

This Will Have Been is at once personal and public, and global in its scope. It's exuberant and sad, and no more so the latter than in the biographical vignettes of artists who died of AIDS before they could see their efforts -- artistic and political alike -- to full fruition. But in reading them, I am struck that artists of the so-called "Boston School" are scantly mentioned. Morrisroe is barely recalled, despite how he buoyed the art scene in 1980s Boston, a scene that delivered some of the decade's quintessential art works, such as Goldin's Ballad, to the global art world. It seems strange, given that This Will Have Been is the vision of a Boston curator, that the subtle distinctions of this place are marginalized. It makes me wonder what stories of Chicago, Minneapolis, and other non-New York places won't be repeated in the rush to broadly historicize.