The Whitney Museum’s “Fast Forward” To ’80s Paintings Was Nostalgia For The Underground Soul

by C.S. Jobson

When you think of art, as in paintings, sculptures, and illustrations, from the 1980s, three names come to mind for the general public: Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Keith Haring. Warhol continued to create artwork for clients and celebrities, including the cover of Diana Ross‘ 1982 album Silk Electric but had delved further into becoming a media and TV personality. He headlined two talk shows/TV magazines, Andy Warhol’s TV and Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes, the latter airing on MTV from 1985-1987. And before their untimely deaths at the ages of 27 and 31, respectively, Basquiat’s and Haring’s graphics, that were in tandem with the at-the-time heavily graffitied streets and subways of New York City, were regarded highly by their supporters. Haring’s responses to the AIDS and crack cocaine epidemics, through his faceless dancing figurines, were particularly emblematic of the era, and a call for hope and unity.

The aforementioned are the triumvirate of ’80s art but were three of many fellow (and underrated) creative iconoclasts. The Whitney Museum of American Art shouted those lesser known talents out in the introductory paragraphs of their recently closed exhibit, “Fast Forward: Paintings from the 1980s.” 

Featuring nothing but art from the decade, “Fast Forward” was a celebratory event for the unsung, though Haring and Basquiat lead the way. (No Jeff Koons. More of a sculptor, he was honored in a career-spanning exhibition at The Whitney in 2014).

The exhibit was small in space, only consisting of three big rooms on the 8th floor of The Whitney’s new Meatpacking District location. Following is a snippet of what The Whitney shared with visitors upon arrival: “In the 1980s, painting recaptured the imagination of the contemporary art world against a backdrop of expansive change. An unprecedented number of galleries appeared on the scene, particularly in downtown New York. Groundbreaking exhibitions—that blurred distinctions between high and low art—were presented at alternative and artist-run spaces. New mediums, including video and installation art, were on the rise. Yet despite the growing popularity of photography and video, many artists actively embraced painting, freely exploring its bold physicality and unique capacity for expression and innovation…and by several lesser-known painters.”

So as video art was trending (hence MTV and BET’s arrivals in 1981), painting became the contrarian thing to do for a lot of artists. These talents believed that the traditional form had not lost its touch or impact and 30+ years later for most of the artwork on display at The Whitney, the paintings proved this theory right.

The New York Times were naturally a bit antagonistic towards “Fast Forward” calling it an “irresistible if flawed exhibition.” Roberta Smith provided a lot of history of the scene as part of her review. The artists were also collectively grouped under the title of “Neo-Expressionists.”

Convoluted definitions run amok online, but in simple terms, beginning in the late 1970s, Neo-Expressionism was a style of painting and creation, derived from the modernist, German Expressionism, and post-modern movements of art. Neo-Expressionism flourished in intense hues, no matter how dark or bright, and played out subjects that were political, societal, sometimes personal, and critical of popular culture in very heightened, abstract, or unvarnished demonstrations. Smith found the term miscast for the “Fast Forward” artists, hinting that the work wasn’t worthy of the umbrella title, but Smith was harsh because she is a lettered critic. The average Whitney attendee was likely moved by the artists in “Fast Forward” and how they translated what was going on right in front of their eyes, or imagined, in 1982 or 1988. All of the works were indisputably representative of the seismic changes of the ’80s from technology, challenging societal norms on sex and the sexes, as well as death and cultural/racial privilege.

In room 1, notables pieces started with “Portrait of a Fingerprint” (1988) by Moira Dryer. Dryer ingeniously used her own fingerprint to further draw out the waves of her one of a kind imprint and used the emotive color of red and an unexpected shade of green. Next to it was “Big Bill” (1987), by Mary Heilmann. As The Whitney stated, it was inspired by the blue and white hues of her Californian childhood neighborhood. It was such a simplistic yet warm tribute.

“Count No Count” (1989) by Ross Bleckner was another minimalist offering, as black, yellow gold, and a lettuce green mimicked a nightfall backdrop. It still obtains the wet-looking gloss of its debut 28 years ago. In lingered observation, stunning is a fitting word for it.

“Told”, by Carlos Alfonzo, was surprisingly from 1990 and juxtaposed the infinite symbol within an exploration of a dark world. The Whitney wrote that Alfonzo included the infinite symbol to strongly suggest life after death.

Room 1 was strong in the presence of pure shape and (in)audible sound. Shapes were big in the 1980s, as art deco reemerged in blocky shapes that took cues from 1960s mod and in colors pastel pink and turquoise. This was especially clear in the Miami club scene, shows like Miami Vice and Patrick Nagel visuals.

Room 2, the unofficial star of “Fast Forward” was where the artists induced by popular culture and city life were grouped. Kathe Burkhart‘s Prick: from the Liz Taylor Series (Suddenly Last Summer) (1987) was a favorite for social media pictures and selfies. Burkhart painted a scene from the 1959 film Suddenly Last Summer, starring Elizabeth Taylor, and when she was moments away from receiving a shot. Burkhart is a huge Taylor aficionado. She has amassed “an extensive archive of Taylor film stills for an on-going series on the actress. Plenty of Whitney visitors were amused by the bold, brash font of “PRICK” above a staring into space, violet-eyed Taylor.

The year 1987 was featured prominently in room 2, as three other memorable works from the year were nearby such as “Souvenir” by Meyer Vaisman, a caricature that vaguely resembled Bette Midler. “Sextant in Dogtown” by David Salle, a terrific 6 square grid that felt extremely noir-ish and adjoined circus follies with late night intimacy in some kind of underworld within a city. On one wall was a collection of smaller artworks, and one had an air of feminism for sale, “Concrete Crisis: A PADD Project”, a joint effort by two artists. “Concrete” contained cut and paste text and one phrase stated: “the feminization of poverty.”

From 1986, a standout was “Baron Sinister”, a playfully romantic, and somewhat pulp comic inspired take on Bonnie & Clyde duos in action, hit and run settings, by Walter Robinson. Robinson painted his damsel and tough guy against a floral background that resembled a tablecloth or curtain.

And “Untitled” by Christopher Wool was another piece from 1990. Its slightly misplaced letters wanted to spell “underground.”

In the last and final room of “Fast Forward”, the paintings were considerably political and vivid in tone. 

“The Three Graces: Art, Sex, and Death” (1981) was straight out of a picture book for adults by Robert Colescott. On the large painting, Two of the women are nude, except for holding a dagger or hammer in their hands, shoes and a beret. The third on the far right was a Black woman wearing a matching red and white bra and skirt set and carrying the forbidden fruit of biblical Eve. The Whitney wrote: “Surrounded by a lurid landscape scattered with detritus, Colescott’s cartoonish figures satirize racial and sexual stereotypes to expose the dominant, European discourse from which they emerged.”

Julian Schnabel is finally featured (if you were very cognizant of artists during the ’80s or art history afterward, Schnabel is an important figure alongside Haring, Warhol, and Basquiat) and his “Hope” (1982) is a disaster film in painting. Maybe more specifically, the aftermath of destruction, both to buildings and spirit. Whitney described “Hope” as: “Here, a central figure–perhaps a self-portrait–stands amid a turbulent scene that includes a seemingly despondent figure and skeleton, whose pairing suggests struggle and death.” In view of it for several minutes, the central figure appears determined and not in shambles by the sight of bleeding of colors, representing what was once a vibrant world. I couldn’t help but imagine that “Hope” was like the ending to the battle the women of Colescott’s “The Three Graces” endured across the room. The man in “Hope” is literally the last man standing for whatever reason.

Lastly, Eric Fischl‘s “A Visit To/A Visit From/The Island” (1983) was an extremely powerful depiction of the differences between tourists that travel to “third world” countries or countries currently in disarray, and only witnessing the posh areas these towns or cities have to offer. It was also a reflection of what immigrant life is like for those escaping havoc in their homeland.

In a split-screen painting, on the left, White people are sunbathing and having a grand time on the beach, a luxurious hotel seen in the distance. On the right side, dark-skinned Haitian refugees are mourning the death of loved ones on the coast, while also running for what could be shelter and clothes as they have just arrived on Florida land. Incredibly emotional of the reality of immigrants in search of a better life while  sacrificing the comfort of their native culture or loved ones and friends, it really puts the whole college students on spring break in Cancun in perspective.

“Fast Forward” was a breeze of an exhibit to physically walk through, but the images  powerful enough to stay with you. The 1980s are remembered for its flamboyance in style, more blockbuster films, and television shows in which theme songs were as iconic as any Madonna song. Yet in the art world, while flamboyancy was often expressed via color selections, artists were aspired to unveil the forgotten reality of the hurt and the wild. Art also attempted to find deeper meaning in popular culture’s icons, tropes, and the news in larger numbers. It was Warhol by the two dozen. This was the decade in which the past and present collided on brasher grounds as artists bravely asked “Why?” or “How” as vividly as their paintbrushes and imaginative use of materials would allow. This was New York City as its influential apex.

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