WASHINGTON, DC — “We’re nostalgic for the ‘80s because it was a stress-free decade,” Steven Spielberg opined during a recent Q&A for his latest film, Ready Player One, a blockbuster packed with 1980s movie references. “Everything was sort of innocuous: style, music, it was great.” In a separate interview with the Los Angeles Times, the filmmaker described the period as “the most fun-loving” era he remembers.
Contrary to Spielberg’s assessment, the ’80s were not apolitical. They were merely sugar-coated. The age of MTV, a time-travelling DeLorean, and synth, also oversaw Cold War escalation, the Iran-Contra affair, the crack epidemic, and the AIDS crisis. The decade’s televisual and computational innovations — cable television, graphic user interfaces, VCRs, and game consoles — accelerated the rapid conflation and intermingling of images, values, and signs. The consumerist and entertainment booms that defined the decade offered a unique but fraught opportunity for its artists. How was one to navigate these monumental technological, perceptual, and economic changes? What was art in an age of rampant materialism and “brands?” Where were the boundaries between advertising, art, and entertainment? Could artists simultaneously commodify themselves and critique consumer culture? These are the questions raised by Brand New: Art & Commodity in the 1980s, an incredible collection of work curated by Gianni Jetzer at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
Brand New professes to offer an “alternative history” of ’80s art. While Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, and Richard Prince are all represented in the show, other blue-chip artists associated with the period such as Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and David Salle, are absent. In their place are renowned but lesser-known talents such as Julia Wachtel, Annette Lemieux, Erika Rothenberg, and Gretchen Bender. Brand New’s greatest strength is its spotlighting of women artists, whose work elevates and defines the show.
The exhibition opens with work by Richard Prince, Dara Birnbaum, and Jenny Holzer, artists who took their cue from mass media and advertising, probing the ways in which images and language could be reproduced and manipulated. Richard Prince rose to prominence with his “rephotographs,” prints of cropped, decontextualized details from advertisements. In works such as “Untitled (Hand with cigarette and watch)” (1980), the artist lays bare how specific visual cues — in this case, a pristine shirt cuff and an expensive watch — are used to convey masculine virility and power.
A nearby monitor features Dara Birnbaum’s “Remy/Grand Central: Trains and Boats and Planes” (1980), a work commissioned by the French cognac producer Rémy Martin. Like Prince, Birnbaum simultaneously utilizes and undermines advertising processes. Her four-minute film depicts a young woman brandishing a bottle of the brand’s liquor, cannibalizing numerous ad tropes: sexualized close ups, prominently-placed logos, and an inane but catchy jingle. “Remy/Grand Central” obliterates the boundary between artwork and advertisement, prompting difficult questions about artistic agency, integrity, intent, and process.
Jenny Holzer’s “The Inflammatory Essays” (1979-1982) dominates the exhibition’s opening room. As with her “Truisms” series, Holzer’s printed proclamations, affirmations, and aphorisms, reproduce the cacophony of opposing voices conveyed through mass media. “YOU GET RESULTS FROM GUNS…GUNS MAKE WRONG RIGHT FAST,” reads one of the posters. “MANIPULATION IS NOT LIMITED TO PEOPLE. ECONOMIC, SOCIAL, AND DEMOCRATIC INSTITUTIONS CAN BE SHAKEN,” reads another. Although Holzer’s much reproduced aphorism, “Abuse of power comes as no surprise,” has recently been adopted as a slogan for the #MeToo movement (specifically by the activist group We Are Not Surprised), the artist’s practice has historically been one of authorial self-effacement. This de-personalization is a core theme of Holzer’s work. It prompts the viewer to consider whose interests a stated opinion might actually serve.
Holzer exhibited her work at Fashion Moda, the innovative art space founded by Stefan Eins in 1978. Located in the South Bronx, the space played a critical role in bringing together members of the downtown, hip-hop, and graffiti scenes. Many of its exhibitors were also involved with Colab (Collaborative Projects), the art collective behind landmark events such as the Real Estate Show and the Times Square Show. The friendships and collaborations fostered through Fashion Moda and Colab largely set the course of New York’s downtown art scene during the ’80s. Brand New professes to tell the story of the scene’s transformation — emphasizing its unique “Do-It-Yourself counterculture” — but relegates its coverage to two meagre vitrines of select artist miniatures and editions. It is the weakest part of the show.
Despite this setback, Brand New shows curatorial verve. Jetzer utilizes the Hirshhorn’s cylindrical architecture to brilliant effect, opening up the exhibition into long continuous expanses of roughly chronological work. This linearity is echoed by an engrossing timeline of historic events placed at the end of the show. Thematic sections — including “The Artist as Brand,” “Product Placement,” and “Hygiene and Contamination” — are intentionally nebulous, each punctuated by a brief wall text summarizing key ideas. The approach encourages visitors to forge thematic links across disparate sections. Jetzer has exploited the clinical nature of the museum space to amplify the commercial strategies and interests of the show’s artists. Each work is given ample, reverential space, a difficult task for a collection of work that places a premium on presence and spectacle.
If there’s one work emblematic of the entire show, it is surely Gretchen Bender’s (1951–2004) extraordinary 1984 installation “Dumping Core,” an “electronic theater” of rapidly cut and cascading film footage, corporate logos, computer animations, and crashing noise presented across 14 television screens. The work debuted at The Kitchen in 1984, where the artist described it as a response to the “corporatization of culture.” Bender operated beyond the sphere of fine art, editing music videos for New Order, R.E.M. and Megadeth. She also produced the frenzied and nightmarish title sequence for Fox television’s America’s Most Wanted. “Today legal questions concerning movies are generally related to pornography” a female voice declares during “Dumping Core,” “… but the violent cry over movie content continues.” The voices sampled in “Dumping Core” are frequently interrupted by audio glitches and violent sounds including crashing glass, broken synth music, and gun shots. The work is as engrossing as it is unnerving.
The primary takeaway of Brand New is how high the stakes of representation became during a decade of proliferating imagery and technology. Much of the work on display sought to disrupt the mass media’s ability to perpetuate and normalize discrimination. Julia Wachtel’s 1983 painting, “Love Thing” isolates cartoon characters from two separate greeting cards: a young Native American woman with an arrow shot into her buttocks, and a well-coiffed white woman brandishing a pair of scissors. Each are bent over suggestively, with their buttocks prominently raised. The decontextualization of each character emphasizes their respective stereotypes while also amplifying the underlying violence of each image.
A section dedicated to “Artistic Subversion” includes Adrian Piper’s “Vanilla Nightmares #8” (1986), a perfume ad from the New York Times onto which Piper added black male figures rendered in charcoal. The vampirish men loom over and caress the white model at the center of the ad. Piper’s intervention transforms the image into a commentary on the racist anxieties surrounding interracial sex and relationships, whilst also emphasizing the exclusion of black models from the commercial sphere. The ad, appropriately enough, is for a perfume named “Poison.”
The artists featured in Brand New critique not only misrepresentation but also the absence of representation itself. Many of the works on display explicitly or obliquely refer to the AIDS crisis including ACT UP/Gran Fury’s neon rendition of their iconic and proselytizing SILENCE = DEATH poster campaign (displayed by the museum’s entrance). “The poster needed to be cool, and to intone “knowing,”” Avram Finkelstein, a co-creator of the campaign, wrote in 2013. “It needed to give the impression of ubiquity, and to create its own literacy. It needed to insinuate itself into being … it needed to be advertising.” The penultimate section of the exhibition includes a floor to ceiling grid of Donald Moffett’s 1987 poster, “He Kills Me,” which juxtaposes a photograph of former president Ronald Reagan alongside a swirling bulls-eye target. Reagan did not public acknowledge AIDS until a press conference on September 17, 1985, by which point the crisis had claimed well over 10,000 lives in the US.
Like Holzer, Moffett distributed his posters around the streets of New York as well as at ACT-UP demonstrations. Jetzer has paired the work with Gretchen Bender’s “Untitled (People with Aids)” (1986), part of a broader series in which the artist pasted vinyl lettering across the surface of television screens. Bender’s simple intervention alters the meaning of any images that appear on the screen. In this case, the statement seeks to eviscerate ignorance of the disease’s reach. “Even though AIDS was an epidemic, it was seen as isolating certain individuals and was totally ignored as the crisis that it is for all of us as human beings,” Bender stated in an 1991 interview. “So what I did was make everyone on television have AIDS. I used the phrase “People With AIDS” rather than “AIDS Victims,” which was the way network media was referring to people with AIDS at the time, so that we all have AIDS, to get across the idea that this is something that affects all of us.”
It is extraordinary how current Brand New feels, whether it’s the ongoing relevance of Holzer’s “The Inflammatory Texts” or the remarkable prescience of Bender’s “Dumping Core.” The ’80s were a political decade and Brand New is a political show. The art world as we recognize it today was largely manufactured by the decade’s commercial prowess, and we’re still grappling with its fallout. Jetzer’s exhibition is by no means perfect. It stumbles with its coverage of collectives and often foregrounds blue-chip work whose thematic relevance is obvious. It remains however, an engrossing exploration of art and commerce that deserves far more critical attention. The exhibition indelibly contributes to ’80s scholarship by foregrounding the talents of the decade’s less-appreciated artists.
Brand New: Art & Commodity in the 1980s continues at the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden (Independence Avenue SW & 7th Street SW, Washington, DC) through May 13.