One of the curatorial convictions behind the survey exhibition ‘The 80s: A Topology’, was that 1980s art is currently misunderstood and underappreciated. The exhibition, accompanied by an extensive catalogue, presented around 250 works by 70 artists, and was intended as a positive reappraisal of the period. For the most part, the co-curators Ulrich Loocke and Sandra Guimarães stuck fairly squarely to art works originally made in and for gallery and institutional contexts. Without making any impossible claims to completeness, they sought to present an idea of the art of the 1980s at odds with unflattering stereotypes: its rampant commercialism or aesthetic heavy-handedness, for instance. The show also allowed new emphases to emerge in light of contemporary art practice; a practice that has, in many ways, been weaned on a diet of stoic Conceptualism and Minimalist display, but that probably has more in common with 1980s art than is generally acknowledged – particularly in terms of its pluralism and of the culturally and politically neo-conservative climate in which it is made.
One word speeds to the lips in any discussion of 1980s art, and that’s painting: from the expansionism of Neo-Expressionism to Neo-Geo’s seductive endgames. But in one clean revisionist sweep, this exhibition intentionally turned a blind eye to most 1980s painting – a decision that resul-ted in many of the glamorized, shoulder-padded art stars of the 1980s making their presence felt only through their absence. Thus the exhibition had a powerful shadow; a kind of virtual parallel show, which no one probably feels the need to re-hang just yet.
While New York was undoubtedly the puffed-up art world epicentre back then, this geographically organized exhibition also inverted the usual weighting of the Northern European/North American axis by paying more attention to the former. Such an approach was locally pertinent given that, for Portuguese artists who emerged struggling at the end of the country’s dictatorship in 1974, the 1980s represented the first possibility of participating in the then-burgeoning international contemporary art discourse. The show’s alternative ‘topology’ was also a global readjustment of centres and peripheries and included artists, if a little symbolically, from other regions.
The section of the exhibition devoted to German-speaking countries produced the most fruitful debates about the differing positions in contemporary art at the time (for instance, its relation to architecture), and was also the most successful in terms of the selection and display of works. Jostling for position were, amongst others, Martin Kippenberger’s painting trio Three buildings with slits. Betty Ford Clinic, Stammheim prison, Jewish elementary school (1985), Franz West’s homemade prototype art-fair booths Wegener Räume 2/6 – 5/6 (Wegener Rooms, 1988), Heimo Zobernig’s untitled objects and videos, and Gunther Förg’s colour photographs such as Casa del Fascio, Como (House of Fascists, Como, 1985). Nearby, Candida Höfer’s images of institutions and museums and Thomas Struth’s photography series of an urban fringe, ‘Paris Beaugrenelle’ (1979–80), made perfect interior and exterior companions.
Elsewhere, the British section contained a selection from Richard Wentworth’s photography series ‘Making Do and Getting By’ (1978–onwards), which treats odd objects in the street as art, reminding us that, for the vast majority, the 1980s wasn’t a preppy party. Amongst the art from the rest of the world was Gülsün Karamustafa’s Remake of the Studio of 1985 (1985/2006). Her hanging kitsch-printed fabrics and drapes referred to the improvised domestic aesthetic of migrants in Istanbul who abandoned the countryside in droves in the 1980s.
The downstairs galleries contained a more modest selection of North American art, although there were high points even here: the consecutive triangulations of Robert Gober, Cady Noland and Christopher Wool, and then, Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince and Louise Lawler, for example. Noland’s works – including an ensemble of two chairs, a stainless steel bar, handcuffs and a US flag (Untitled, 1989), Oozwald (1989) and Tanya as a Bandit (1989), screen-printed aluminium cut outs of, respectively, John F. Kennedy assassination suspect Lee Harvey Oswald and Patty Hearst, the gun-wielding heiress-turned-bank robber – remain as biting as the day they were made. Although in fact, the work of each of these prominent US artists recalled the still-crucial 1980s debates around representation and the image, appropriation, language, film and institutionalization.
Despite its generous and eclectic spread of works, however, I felt the show’s lack of garishness left it tamer than it arguably could have been. Although addressed in the catalogue, the exhibition itself could have benefited by more reverberations from post-Punk and New Wave, some resonance of activism and anti-nuclear marches, some more chilling Cold War confrontation, and a more direct address of the AIDS epidemic. But perhaps that is indicative of what was deemed successful in 1980s art, and can serve as a warning for contemporary practitioners.