Eric Fischl, “A Visit To / A Visit From / The Island” (1983), oil on canvas, 84 × 168 inches (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

When was the last time you complained that a museum exhibition was too small?

Fast Forward: Painting from the 1980s is installed in the Whitney Museum’s light-filled 8th-floor gallery — arguably the most gorgeous viewing space of any museum in the city — but for the purposes of the exhibition, it is divided into three moderately sized rooms and a wide elevator lobby. I would like to have seen this show at least tripled in size across one of the sprawling galleries downstairs.

With the spare allotment of space, is the Whitney hedging its bets on the long-term significance of the work on display? The museum can be commended for its effort to place painting front and center, even as it derives the exhibition’s title from the 1980s video revolution, which has soaked up most of the decade’s critical respect. Still, the show feels like something of a missed opportunity. I believe that a case can be made for a deeper and wider examination of the era.

That said, the exhibition, like the decade it represents, is a mixed bag. In a sense, it serves as an institutional chaser for two scrappier, broader, and, taken together, richer examinations of the period, both of which closed in late November, Paradise: underground culture in NYC 1978-84 at Stephen Harvey Fine Art Projects and Something Possible Everywhere: Pier 34 NYC, 1983–84 at the 205 Hudson Street Gallery of Hunter College.

At the Whitney, there are 23 large works hung one or two per wall, while a salon-style installation presents 16 smaller pieces from floor to ceiling. This is a mistake. At the press preview, the curators explained that they decided to display the works in this fashion because they wanted to get away from the “white box” and approximate the free-for-all hangings typical of East Village galleries and countercultural extravaganzas like The Times Square Show (1980).

The main problem with this idea — aside from its denial of the Whitney’s de facto white box ambiance — is that we go to museums to look into, rather than at, works of art. The crowded installations in the raw, stained, and smelly spaces where much of this art had its debut did not consist of the cream of the crop; the Whitney show does. This miscalculation suggests a fundamental misunderstanding that equates a painting with its image, but more on that later.

One service that the exhibition does perform is that it separates American painting of the period from its European counterpart, the transavanguardia whose sound and fury is all but synonymous with art of the ‘80s: Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz, Jörg Immendorff, Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, Sandro Chia, Mimmo Paladino, the list goes on.

The resulting array of home-grown, almost entirely New York-based work seems lighter in two respects: the feeling that an enormous weight has been lifted, allowing the images of these artists to be seen on their own terms, and correspondingly, that there is something missing — a global dimension or a sense of historical awareness.

The other salutary effect is that the market heavyweights of the time have been set off in their own corners, affording a place in the sun for those who had once been shouldered aside by the Schnabel-Salle-Fischl juggernaut.

The exhibition opens with a fizzy blast of Neo-Pop: a billboard-size canvas by Kenny Scharf, “When the Worlds Collide” (1984), in oil and spray paint, hung against black-and-white vinyl wallpaper adapted from a mural that Keith Haring made for his Pop Shop (1986-2005) in downtown Manhattan.

The Scharf/Haring pairing, combined with Julia Wachtel’s “Membership” (1984), a painting that facilely juxtaposes kitschy greeting card imagery with a black-and-white rendering of matching African fertility figures, seems to signal that the Geist of the decade was bent toward crowd-pleasing hijinks and elitist condescension.

But thankfully, on the opposite side of the exhibition entrance, the Haring wall takes a grittier turn with Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “LNAPRK” (1982), a graffitied, scrawled, and distressed canvas sporting grotesque heads and musical notes. Alongside the Basquiat hangs Haring’s maze-like untitled drawing (1983-84) in fiber-tipped pen on synthetic leather, a shaped surface that evokes Native American hide painting.

Installation view of “Fast Forward: Painting from the 1980s” (2017), Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

The three galleries are thematically arranged: politics; appropriation; and abstraction. The salon-style wall is located in the appropriation room, a correspondence that fits most but not all of the work. Some of the larger paintings are similarly off-topic: an acrylic on canvas of a shuttered storefront, “Closed” (1984-85) by Martin Wong, hangs in the abstraction gallery, but isn’t abstract at all, and only two out of the five paintings in the politics room are overtly political: Leon Golub’s monumental “White Squad I” (1982) and Eric Fischl’s diptych of frolicking vacationers abutted against drowned and desperate refugees, “A Visit To / A Visit From / The Island” (1983).

It quickly becomes apparent, however, that even though a set of paintings may look well together, there can be fundamental differences among them, in both content and form — differences that don’t so much undermine the curatorial structure but speak instead to the artist’s ability to use the language of paint — to reinvent its application and to put across a construct of ideas.

The two above-mentioned canvases in the politics gallery offer distinct contrasts in attitude and painterly approach. For his depictions of Central American death squads — bands of indiscriminate killers who, with the support of the Reagan administration, spent much of the decade terrorizing the peasantry of Guatemala and El Salvador — Golub rethought the idea of the triumphal frieze, transferring the red oxide of Roman frescoes to his monochromatic fields, while incising his super-sized figures in scraped-down, ever-shifting layers of dark and light.

Golub has cast his gun-toting, khaki-clad thugs as the dominant characters in the scene, leaving their victims virtually anonymous, and all but forcing the viewer to identify with the perpetrators. This standpoint operates collectively and individually, spotlighting the culpability of a free and prosperous electorate whose tax dollars are funneled to support atrocities south of the border, as well as the genetic propensity of the human species to abandon mercy and reason for animalistic, tribal instincts. In Golub’s cool-eyed worldview, evil prevails; there is no uplift beyond the painting’s mesmerizing formal strengths. The only vulnerability of power is the extent of its overreach.

Leon Golub, “White Squad I” (1982), acrylic on linen, with metal grommets, 120 × 210 inches

At its best, and “White Squad I” is among his most exceptional works, Golub’s art conveys thorny truths with a sophisticated, stratified sense of nuance that inflects but never tempers his paintings’ overwhelming force. Eric Fischl’s “A Visit To / A Visit From / The Island,” on the other hand, relates to Golub’s work in category but not in kind; instead of the collective responsibility of a democratic society to remain vigilant over the actions of its government, we are presented with limousine liberal guilt over indulging upper-middle-class lotus-eating in climes where the majority of the population is black, destitute, and hopeless.

In contrast to Fischl’s truly disturbing early work — in which prurient, self-lacerating subject matter is underscored by the artist’s attempts at realism via the “Bad Painting” aesthetic defined by the New Museum exhibition of the same name (curated by Marcia Tucker in 1978) — “A Visit To / A Visit From / The Island” is executed in a not-entirely-successful academic technique that possesses none of the material exploration evidenced in Golub’s scoured pigment or the sooty exactitude of Wong’s “Closed.”

It may be tempting to imagine one of its panels bedecked with the buttery lushness and clashing colors of Luisa Chase’s “Limb” (1981), which hangs on an adjacent wall, while the other is painted with the knowing trashiness of Walter Robinson’s borrowed pulp-novel cover art, “Baron Sinister” (1986) from the neighboring appropriation room, but it is also pointless to play “what if” with a firmly established artist’s oeuvre.

Still, in a museum exhibition concentrating on a decade that brought about, in the minds of critics and collectors at least, a revival of image-based painting, the fusion or disconnect that exists between the handling of the medium and the picture it generates deserves special attention.

Like the bits of celluloid that make up a film, the laying-on of paint skews our emotions and layers our perception. Despite the flashiness of Fischl’s diptych as a whole and the undeniable beauty of its portrayal, in the right-hand panel, of black refugees emerging from a black sea under a lowering sky, the blatancy of the political message and the retro quality of the neo-Manet brushwork render it the most incurious work in the show.

Despite the emphasis on subject matter that the decade heralded, the most effective works are those that take painting apart and put it back together again, often leaving traces of the process in scars and ghosts across the surface.

Christopher Wool, “Untitled” (1990), enamel on aluminum, 107 7/8 x 71 3/4 inches

In Christopher Wool’s untitled enamel-on-aluminum painting from 1990, the black-stenciled words “RUN DOG RUN” split and shift down the length of the white surface — a juicy presence in itself augmented by a vestigial “R” from a painted-over “RUN” in the uppermost rank. It is a work that would seem to genuflect before the denatured terms and conditions of mechanical reproduction, but can be fully experienced only in person, a sly subversion of expectations that leads you to look deeper into painting, where the drips hold a sexual charge and swatches of dark blue appear seemingly out of nowhere.

Wool’s painting hangs in the appropriation room, but it feels misplaced there, even though its text comes from an exterior source; its modus operandi is instead the garden-variety appropriation that has been practiced by modernists from Pablo Picasso to Jasper Johns — an instigation for formal inquiry.

The type of appropriation that prevailed in the ‘80s involved a wholesale repurposing of imagery as the work’s primary statement. It has since become a byword for the bulk of Neo-Conceptual art, but its experiment in painting, as manifested here, feels as hermetic as it did when it first hit the scene — despite its aim to reopen art to mass media and the breakneck speed of contemporary life. The paintings in the rooms on either side of the appropriation-based works feel fresh and inquisitive by comparison.

Moira Dryer, “Portrait of a Fingerprint” (1988), casein on plywood, 48 1/8 × 61 1/4 × 4 inches

The exhibition is drawn entirely from the Whitney’s collection, which explains some of its lacunae and odd choices. I was surprised that the curators selected, for the political room, “The Three Graces: Art, Sex and Death” (1981), a candy-colored send-up of a classical theme by Robert Colescott, rather than one of the artist’s many trenchant and disquieting satires on race. But when I checked the Whitney’s website, I discovered that, at least according to the information provided by the collection database, it’s the only Colescott that the museum owns.

To my mind, the salon-style wall is the most problematic aspect of the show; the obstacles it places in the way of absorbing the art are especially self-defeating in light of the high quality of what is on display.

The combo of Joyce Pensato’s untitled mouse head from 1992 (more Ignatz than Mickey) and Elizabeth Murray’s shaped abstraction, “Druid” (1979), smack in the middle of the uppermost reaches of the installation, is an instant eye-magnet, but it would be so much more enriching to experience, in a larger show, these two idiosyncratic artists facing off in a room of their own.

I also wish I could have had a better look at Carroll Dunham’s antic, untitled painting in oil and graphite on wood veneer (1984); Rex Lau’s painted landscape on carved wood, “The Mountain Demons” (1980); and Nellie Mae Rowe’s fanciful, untitled depiction of a woman raising her yellow-gloved hands above her head, which the artist made in 1981, the year before she died at age 82.

And it would have been intriguing to revisit in depth the individualistic, at times bizarre early work of such artists as Jonathan Borofsky, Andrew Masullo, Ida Applebroog, and Glenn Ligon, whose inclusion on the salon wall seems to relegate them to a footnote in the larger picture.

One striking omission in the museum’s collection was brought to light by a collaborative lithograph, “The Feminization of Poverty” (1987) by Nancy Spero and Leon Golub, which hangs in the lower right-hand corner of the installation. A quick search of the collection revealed that this is the only work by Spero owned by the Whitney, which makes you hope that the database is incomplete (though the text above the website’s search engine invites us to “browse the full collection”).

Of course, you could fill a pocket-size phone book with the artists who were active during these years but are not included in the exhibition, even Peter Halley and Philip Taaffe, who achieved substantial critical acclaim and market success at the time. Perhaps it would have been more fitting for the Whitney to present Fast Forward as a rotating exhibition, like the wonderful Human Interest portrait show downstairs.

These caveats, however, should not detract from the museum’s efforts to shine a light on the importance of painting in an era that has proven deeply influential on succeeding generations of artists, both inspirationally and critically — an era, it should be kept in mind, whose reactionary policies, as destructive as they were, will be nothing compared to what we are about to undergo.

Perhaps this is why the abstraction room offers such solace and grace. These are paintings, based on the human body, botanical forms, and other sources, that sublimate a storm of emotions into transcendently formal terms, none more than Ross Bleckner’s “Count No Count” (1989) in oil and wax on canvas, a glimmering memorial to those lost to the AIDS epidemic.

No less poignant are Carlos Alfonzo’s “Told” (1990) — an abstracted silhouette of a despairing figure made the year before the artist’s AIDS-related death at the age of 41 — and “Portrait of a Fingerprint” (1988) by Moira Dryer, a green-and-red abstraction in casein on plywood.

Dryer’s life was also cut short, by cancer, when she was 35. Her composition is smeared by solvent on three sides, turning her edge-to-edge horizontal red strokes against a green field into a fog lit by flashing patrol car lights. Dryer’s imagery typically played with dissolution, which we read now, rightly or wrongly, as the slipperiness of mortality and the inadequacy of trying to hold onto anything.

Elsewhere in the room we encounter the feathery whiteness of Susan Rothenberg’s “Tuning Fork” (1980), the zigzagging blue and white bars of Mary Heilmann’s “Big Bill” (1987), and the pollen spores and floating cells of Terry Winters’ “Good Government” (1984) — a title that refers to Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s masterwork “The Effects of Good Government in the City” (1338-1339) in the Sala della Pace in Siena.

We may be tempted to smirk or shrug at the apparent irony of Winters’ title, given what we’ve experienced in the past week alone, but the wall label suggests that the artist was playing it straight:

Winters considered this painting finished only when the elements began to cohere and the composition reminded him “of those maps you saw in grammar school and it said ‘good government’ and everything was working together.”

“Good Government,” done in oil on linen, is a tour de force of painterly techniques, in which rough-hewn impastos in dark, aggressive earth tones are laid beside delicate stains and linear patterns, while scraped knife strokes in smeary blue and white seem to glow from within. Though at times mottled and choked, it’s the kind painting, along with others in this room, that you would want to linger over, and that’s saying something.

Fast Forward: Painting from the 1980s continues at the Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street, Meatpacking District, Manhattan) through May 14.

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.