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Fort Worth’s Modern Museum of Art hosts exhibit of 1980s New York art

🕐 8 min read

Andrew Marton Special To The Washington Post

FORT WORTH, Texas — From a purely artistic vantage point, the exhibition, “Urban Theater: New York Art in the 1980s,” which recently opened at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, greets its patrons with two eye-grabbing works, each one of them signaling the show’s bold intentions.

On one wall is the green, glowing, saturnine self-portrait of Andy Warhol. That Warhol’s unsettling self-assessment is the exhibition’s lead salvo is no accident.

“Warhol is the clear godfather of this 1980s generation of artists living and working in New York,” observed Michael Auping, the Modern’s — and this exhibition’s — chief curator.

Immediately adjacent to the glowering image of Warhol is a mammoth photograph of one of Jenny Holzer’s Truisms Series neon slogans — “Protect Me From What I Want” — shining from a Times Square building. Here, Holzer is sending out a warning flare about the rampant nature of consumerism that exploded in the 1980s.

Both the Warhol and Holzer works suggest the no-holds-barred, visual-image obsession of the tight-knit group of artists working in a single era — the 1980s — and from a single place: New York City. Because it concentrates solely on 1980s art, formed in the crucible of New York City, “Urban Theater: New York Art in the 1980s” casts a much-needed spotlight on what one critic called the “feverish onslaught” of ’80s era art in New York.

Indeed, it was a gritty, raucous, glitzy and groundbreaking decade filled with a generation of baby boomer artists who derived their inspiration from everything from tenement walls and film, advertising and punk rock, and high and low-brow pop culture, all to produce some of the world’s most enduring and valued art.

Urban Theater not only has the scale (it comprises more than 90 works) to explore this rich decade but also the singular trait of being presented in only one American museum — Fort Worth’s Modern Art Museum.

“While in the past, there had been a couple of ’80s-art-era shows,” said Auping. “They were more about global art in the ’80s, but not concentrated on New York artists. So there was no doubt in my mind that the way to do the ’80s was to focus on New York.”

“Urban Theater” aims for nothing less than a comprehensive take on the disparate communities of New York artists that coalesced around the ’80s visual arts movement. The exhibition flows seamlessly from, among many others, the creamy black and white photography of Robert Mapplethorpe to the original Bad Boys of painting — Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Francesco Clemente, and Eric Fischl — to the self-referential photographic and charcoal pieces by Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo.

There is also the mural-wall-size graffiti art of Keith Haring, the elegantly scratchy paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat, pieces by feminist artists Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, the satirically promotional works by Jeff Koons, the abstraction of Peter Halley, the unflinching downtown scene photography of Nan Goldin, and an extended film excerpt of Drum Dance, from performance artist, Laurie Anderson’s, multimedia opera, United States.

A full 25,000 square feet of the Modern’s first floor is devoted to the show. One wall of the show’s largest gallery is dominated by a massive (106 inches by 274 inches) Keith Haring mural that seems plucked from a Lower East Side wall. And the Modern’s famous elliptical gallery hosts nine Mapplethorpe photographs, featuring an elegantly wrenching self-portrait of the artist suffering from the slow ravages of AIDS.

Yet another gallery highlights the “appropriation artists” who took Hollywood B-movies, often film noirs, as their jumping off point. For Sherman, her fascination with feminine roles meant that she would build an entire B-movie-noir homage around a version of herself as female stereotype. Meanwhile, Longo’s “Men in the Cities” series shows the artist riffing off of archetypal action scenes by first capturing mostly his friends in spontaneous twisting and dancing-posed photographs before shading them in charcoal.

“Sherman’s dark pop viewpoint,” said Auping, “in these works was stunningly individual: A woman looking at a man, looking at a woman.”

“Urban Theater” boasts rare artistic riches from the art laboratory of ’80s New York. Schnabel’s commanding “The Jute Grower,” with its carefully displayed, neo-Cubist mish-mash of fractured blue plates is not far from Kruger’s 1987 “I Shop Therefore I Am” photographic silkscreen — a neat summation of her existential commentary on how female consumers were a popular target for the rampant marketing campaigns launched in the ’80s.

“As women in a predominantly white male art world, Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer knew exactly what they were up against and they let everyone know through image and text,” said Andrea Karnes, a Modern curator who penned the exhibition catalogue essay, “Personality Complex.”

Meanwhile, Fischl’s “Bad Boy,” a 1981 oil-on-canvas that is widely considered his most famous painting, is one of the show’s most important pieces. With its splayed nude woman, casually conducting a conversation with a young boy, who is nonchalantly stealing money from her purse — “Bad Boy” may be the show’s, let alone the era’s, most-provocative critique of the ongoing manipulative power struggle between men and women.

“‘Bad Boy’ shows the very dark side of an ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ or ‘Donna Reed Show’ scenario where things go badly wrong in the American suburban family,” said Auping.

As the exhibition makes clear, during the same ’80s epoch of the blossoming white-cube galleries run by such gallery doyens as Leo Castelli and Mary Boone, graffiti artists converted the walls of ’80s era buildings and dilapidated tenements into their canvases and galleries.

Holzer recalls the street as being inspirational to her art.

“I wanted to make art with a subject matter that could potentially be interesting to all sorts of people,” said Holzer. “And then to place that work in unexpected public places — like abandoned buildings around Times Square, or storefronts in the Bowery. Outdoors was never a sad alternative to being in a gallery.”

And when these ’80s artists weren’t roaming — or painting — New York’s streets and buildings, they were deriving inspiration from its ever-morphing punk rock and New Wave music scene.

Longo admits many of the contortions of his “Men in the Cities” subjects were partially inspired by the twisting, turning stage presentation of everyone from the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, to the Patti Smith Group, the Talking Heads, Television, and the Contortions.

“I remember in 1977 going to CBGB and seeing the Talking Heads and the Ramones and it was like a religious experience,” said Longo. “The spasmodic movements, and three-chord energy of those bands really was hugely influential on my art.”

When it comes to the “Urban Theater” painters on display — from Ross Bleckner, Troy Brauntuch and Peter Halley to Philip Taaffe and Christopher Wool — Bleckner is the only displayed painter to tackle head-on the scourge of AIDS. In his “Sanctuary,” a massive star-field of flickering orbs seems to float off into the vastness of space — clearly a metaphor for these lives cut short by AIDS.

“Urban Theater” sprung from the personal New York experiences of Modern chief curator, Auping. The 64-year old Auping spent much of his formative museum curatorial years, in the 1980s, in New York City, traveling there from his chief-curator’s post at Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

“I was old enough to be knowledgeable, but young enough to have the energy to keep up with the New York scene,” said Auping. “It was such an intense period of time. The reason I called this exhibition ‘Urban Theater’ is that in ’80s New York, it was as if you were living in a theatrical setting. The city was so dynamic. All the art, and artist personas, were about acting out.”

Auping had personal dealings with many of the show’s contributing artists. He specifically recalls the elegant leather attire of Robert Mapplethorpe.

“For me, Mapplethorpe’s death in 1989 really closes out the ’80s,” Auping said. “Mapplethorpe was in a way the generational bridge between Warhol’s time and the ’80s generation.”

Today, many of the artists exhibited in “Urban Theater” continue to work, show and sell.

When Holzer is asked to speculate on why her Truisms art still has relevance more than 30 years later, she modestly allows that “If the work still holds up, it must be that it has content that still means something to a wide variety of people. Sincerity wasn’t out of vogue back then, and it isn’t quite out of vogue yet.”

For others who were right in the middle of the roiling art market world of ’80s New York, the brash quality of the art has made a three-decades-old, indelible impression.

“That this art is still so fresh today,” observed Jeffrey Deitch, a New York-based art advisor and curator, who personally loaned the Modern’s show Jeff Koons’ One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank. “Speaks to how much it’s about bold expression. It is a total reflection of the theatrical atmosphere of New York, where your art had to be bold to stand out.”

That undeniable assertiveness is a quality that Auping thinks back on with fondness – though at a grateful remove.

“Of course, this exhibition makes me a little nostalgic for that time,” admitted Auping. “And yet, I’m quite sure I would not want to return to that place and time. It was so exhausting and intense – it nearly wore me out. But I certainly learned a lot from having been there. I now see it as the starting point for so much that has happened since.”

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“Urban Theater: New York Art in the 1980s”

Through Jan. 4 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 3200 Darnell St., Fort Worth, Texas. 866-824-5566 or www.themodern.org.

Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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