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This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics In The 1980s Opens At The Museum Of Contemporary Art Chicago

By Amy Cavanaugh in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 11, 2012 9:00PM

Jeff Wall, Picture for Women, 1979. Courtesy of the artist.
Whether you lived through the 1980s or just learned about them in history class, you know that the decade is associated with political upheaval, the AIDS crisis, and materialism. This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s, which opened today at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, explores how events that took place from 1979 to 1992 permanently changed the art world.

Arranged by Helen Molesworth, chief curator of the Institute of Contemporary Art/ Boston, This Will Have Been focuses mostly on feminism and the AIDS crisis, although the show is divided into four main themes: “Democracy,” “Gender Trouble,” “Desire and Longing,” and “The End is Near.” Overall, the show posits that desire—not strictly sexual longing or materialism, but also the desire for less corrupt government and better understanding of marginalized groups—is the driving force of the decade.

The show opens with “Democracy,” and Oil Painting: Homage to Marcel Broadthaers, a piece by German artist Hans Haacke that uses a red carpet on the floor to symbolically connect a traditional oil painting of Ronald Reagan with a blown-up photograph of a 1982 march in Manhattan against nuclear arms. The piece explores the idea of the public space, and how mass media is able to manipulate both the public and political spheres.

This section also looks at both political and artistic attempts to bring women, LGBT people, and other marginalized groups into a broader conception of “community,” and these groups’ belief that they were not being accurately understood. David Hammons’ 1988 piece How Ya Like Me Now? a portrait of Jesse Jackson with a white face, was initially displayed as street art in Washington, D.C. A group of black kids, viewing the piece as racist, attacked it with sledgehammers, which gave the piece more meaning—Hammons was exploring the evolution of black culture in the 20th century, from the Civil Rights-era leaders to the rise of hip-hop, and how, because of a homogenization of black issues, younger generations don’t connect to the past as much as they used to.

“Gender Trouble,” a title pulled from a 1990 book by feminist philosopher Judith Butler, explores a shift in feminist art. While the 1970s had women creating images of other women to subvert the traditional male gaze, the ‘80s had male artists realizing that they had to change too. In Jeff Wall’s 1979 Picture for Women, one of the most riveting works in the show, the artist and a woman are shown reflected in a mirror. We see Wall in the shadows looking at the well-lit woman, who stares out at the viewer—the piece is a play on Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, and the camera positioned at the back of the frame anticipates the coming age of constant surveillance and mass media.

“Desire and Longing” focuses on how artists looked at desire and fame, such as in Jeff Koons’ 1986 Rabbit. The piece, a three and a half foot tall rabbit sculpture made of Mylar and covered with stainless steel, looks like a shiny rabbit balloon. It fiercely demands to be looked at, and the shininess means the viewer can see herself in it—Rabbit draws on work by Duchamp and Warhol and plays with the excess and consumption present in the ‘80s.

The last section, “The End is Near,” has an apocalyptic feeling, with artists exploring the end of painting and history. Gerhard Richter has two pieces in this section, including Schädel (Skull) a photo painting that stands out for its art historical references and eerie image of an inverted skull. The piece, a photorealistic play on a memento mori, questions aesthetic conventions and where painting can be headed in the future.

With more than 100 works of art on display, and such provocative meaning packed into each work, This Will Have Been is a huge show to take in. The “Democracy” and “Gender Trouble” sections stand out with really thought provoking works on issues that are still crackling today. Overall, the show functions well as a primer to the art of a decade that deserves this sort of focused study. The art on display ranges from 20 to 33 years old, and the topics explored in them will make viewers both impressed with how much has changed, and aghast as how little we’ve come in all those years.