When we think of art in the 1980s, it’s difficult not to be distracted by the garish and the gawdy. Art that was the equivalent of the women’s business attire at the time, all exaggerated shoulder pads and lacquered hair. It’s as if the only thing that decade managed to give us was Jeff Koons, all spectacle and surface, and endless episodes of Dynasty.
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And yet. The decade opened with the revelation of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, a crafty and meditative work of feminist art that literally struggled with the idea of how to give women a seat at the table. The massive installation, with figures from Virginia Woolf to Ashere (the Hebrew God’s original wife) given their own plate—usually with strange, vulvic patterns fired into the porcelain—at a triangular table.
The installation opened at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1980, and yet when we think of ’80s art, it tends to be skipped over. In her introduction to This Will Have Been: Art, Love, and Politics in the 1980s, Helen Molesworth attributes this to the piece being totally out of step with the art of the ’80s mainstream market.
Molesworth writes, “Its affect of sincerity was out of step with the growing pervasiveness of Warholian irony, and its central strategy—of insisting on the equality of women’s place at the table of “greatness”—placed it precisely on the side of the humanist divide that postmodernism sought to unravel.”
And what Molesworth and the other contributors of This Will Have Been: has given us, then, is a secret history to the 1980s. It’s the AIDS protest underground and the feminist response to being kept out of the mainstream for so long. It’s the art of political activism and the art of punk rock album covers. Koons’ Michael Jackson sculpture might be in there, but it’s shouted down by the art of David Wojnarowicz, Candy Jernigan, Keith Haring, Nan Goldin, Sophie Calle, Hans Haacke and David Hammons.
This Will Have Been: is the catalog for the exhibition of the same name, currently at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. The real work of the art catalog should not simply be to reproduce the exhibition for those who can’t find their way to Chicago in the allotted months, it should be to give context and insight into the work.
The contributions of writers like Johanna Burton, Elisabeth Lebovici, Trevor Stark and others do vary a bit in quality. Some get choked with academic-speak, strings of incomprehensible, hyper-syllabic words all in a row. But taken as a whole, the book offers a variety of voices to help you dig into the material. If I do have a criticism of the book it is that the writing does not match the intensity or raucous nature of the visuals. It remains staid, striving for importance and detachment, occasionally weighing down the incredible art.
You are misremembering the 1980s. It was a decade of violence and anger, protest and boundary breaking. This Will Have Been: reminds us that it’s important to revisit what we have forgotten.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.
Lari Pittman's The Veneer of Order, 1985 oil and acrylic on mahogany panel 80 x 82 x 1 3/4 in. (203.2 x 208.3 x 4.5 cm) The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica Photo: Douglas M. Parker Studio, Los Angeles, appears courtesy of the Yale University Press.