That's So '80s

It's deja vu in the art world. Amid a rash of current exhibitions and big auction sales, the power brokers of the '80s remain the powerhouses of today.

Twenty years after anything, a retro sensibility seems to kick in: The seventies were filled with curiosity about the fifties, and in the eighties audiences grew fascinated—albeit sometimes in a "What were we thinking?" kind of way—with the flower-child sixties. The nineties produced That '70s Show as well as a passel of hip kids running off to thrift stores for tight clothes in synthetic fabrics. So given all that, it's no wonder that inhabitants of the first decade of the 21st century are fixated on the painting and sculpture of the Reagan years.

But there's more to it than that. In today's universe we live in an age of powerhouse, headline-making dealers such as Larry Gagosian—the single most powerful being in the art world, according to the magazine Art Review last year. Collectors are spending mind-boggling amounts of money and artists are making noisy but feckless gestures about their work's radical political potential.

Hey, welcome back to the eighties.

Two decades ago Gagosian was brokering seven-figure deals, Si Newhouse paid $17 million for a Jasper Johns, and artists were partying like movie stars while proclaiming art's radical political potential. If you want one emblematic example of the umbilical cord connecting then and now, try this: Jeff Koons's Jim Beam J. B. Turner Train (1986), a ten-foot-long chrome-finish, stainless-steel blowup of a promotional tchotchke, was estimated to bring in an amazing $2 million to $3 million at auction last year. When the gavel hit the podium, a collector had paid a total of five and a half million.

Recent and upcoming shows devoted to the era are all around us. In 2004 the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles put up a display of works from its own considerable collection, Tear Down This Wall: Paintings from the 1980s. Crimes and Misdemeanors, a show at Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center, examined the decade's political pieces. Manhattan's New Museum of Contemporary Art just ended an extravaganza on New York's East Village eighties scene, and the Brooklyn Museum currently has a huge retrospective of Jean-Michel Basquiat's work. At the influential Museum für Gegenwartskunst in Basel, Switzerland, an exhibition entitled Flashback: A Revision of the Art of the 1980s claims to demonstrate that "the decade was not shaped solely by painting and a booming art market." And of course a few select artists are celebrities still: Cindy Sherman appears (shot by Juergen Teller) in a series of Marc Jacobs ads, and Richard Prince—once a prime candidate for a game of Whatever Happened to...?—had a gala opening at Gagosian's L.A. gallery attended by the likes of Pamela Anderson.

To understand the enduring allure of eighties art, consider the haircuts of that time's young male sitcom stars. Aiming, one gathers, to blend the hirsuteness of the sixties with a tonsorial suave useful in both boardroom and bedroom, the guys who wore this Elvis-meets-Descartes style hoped to be rebellious and cuddly, antiestablishment and, well, establishment.

Likewise, the art of the eighties. Heavily armored in intellectual camouflage, it was in fact also eminently marketable. It combined the pretentiousness of conceptual art with the accessibility of Pop. And the art appeared safe. Any weirdnesses were said to be merely borrowed—appropriated, to use the argot of the day—as they apparently offended no one the first time around, and they proved even more harmless the second. Soul-curdling "expressionism" was labeled "neo," which implied the same thing, and who cared that nobody really knew what David Salle meant with his painting that depicted, say, a bare-breasted woman in a dunce cap on one side and an abstract colored grid on the other? The point was that it appeared to mean something. And in any case, it looked as snappy on the wall as a brand-new Navajo rug.

Likewise, a "film still" photograph by Cindy Sherman. Or a creepy suburban gothic canvas by Eric Fischl. Whenever we gazed upon such works back in the day, we felt at once sophisticated (this wasn't just art—it was up-to-the-moment postmodern art) and comfortable (it was obviously created by those who had spent time in art school).

Bottom line: Art created by the stars of that decade still carries almost the same cachet it did 20 or so years ago. The decade that was once considered a Brave New Art World is now blithely accepted as the norm.

When Reagan took office in 1981, it was "morning in America." We had awakened from the sixties nightmare of Vietnam and the permissiveness of the seventies. In the galleries and studios, resistance to Reaganomics took the form of a resurgence of Pop, with craft racheted down and tastelessness racheted up, especially in the East Village. Although much has been made of the grungy rebelliousness of the scene, critic Gary Indiana, who was there, calls it an "insignificant hiccup in the long burp of art history." What really mattered was not rebellion but commercialization.

The eighties boom made stars of both those who made the art and those who sold and bought it. The patriarch of all dealers, Leo Castelli, was portrayed as the Casey Kasem of the collector set, and young gallery owner Mary Boone was immortalized in Life...painting her toenails. Their customers—among them Donald Rubell, Si Newhouse, Eugene Schwartz, and Eli Broad—were closely watched for what they would purchase next. Collectors' fervor, and the art press's fervor about their fervor, made contemporary art seem a pretty decent investment.

None of this was necessarily bad. Artists were living better, dealers were viewed the way other proprietors of high-end boutiques were, and collectors became known as savvy instead of eccentric. And some of the art was actually good. After the years of minimalism and the politicized postminimalism, colorful, adolescently figurative, and entertaining painting reawakened the art world to the liveliest part of its birthright. Whatever one thought of Jean-Michel Basquiat's manic riffs on Jean Dubuffet, or Julian Schnabel's crockery paintings, such works were suddenly interesting to look at and, more often than not, clever.

But nearly everything Schnabel created then—especially his public persona as a genius too big for the epicene art world—was clever. His sometimes profound cleverness à la Warhol helped him succeed later as a movie director. (Basquiat wasn't embarrassing, and his Before Night Falls was very good.)

However arch much of the art of the eighties seems now, the artists of that decade have proved remarkably resilient. Jeff Koons, for example, was a blandly handsome former futures trader who started out exhibiting floating basketballs and fluorescently lit vacuum cleaners. In a daring career move he married a Hungarian-born Italian porn star, Ilona Staller (a.k.a. La Cicciolina). From that union issued not only a son (a living sculpture, Koons called him) but also marble and glass statues and ink-jet paintings of the loving couple. Koons kept on truckin' with gargantuan pseudo-kitsch (remember the porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson and his chimp Bubbles?). Most recently he has cranked out saccharine photorealistic flowers, candy, ice cream, and the like, calling the series "Easy Fun."

Koons has not simply persevered; he succeeded grandly. Whereas a critic might say of Schnabel—as did Jonathan Jones in The Guardian—that he "cannot stop himself" and that "he never goes away; it's almost admirable," Koons's deadpan irony has kept him a kind of eternally emerging artist. If one artist from that decade is going to get big play in the art-history books of 2050, chances are it will be Koons.

As the art audience over the past 20 years has grown younger, more party-crazed, and more glamour-conscious, so has the artmaking. But except for sculptor and filmmaker Matthew Barney, nobody since the eighties seems to have combined designer good looks and unthreatening enigma with quite the scale and ambition of those eighties stars. That '80s Show still beats just about anything made today.


BEST IN THE SHOW

These five icons of eighties art made a splash at auctions in the past year.

1 JEFF KOONS Jim Beam J. B. Turner Train, 1986, $5,495,500 (Christie's)

2 JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT Offensive Orange, 1982, $3,032,000 (Sotheby's)

3 MARK TANSEY The Key, 1984, $1,240,000 (Sotheby's)

4 RICHARD PRINCE My Name (diptych), 1987, $747,200 (Phillips, de Pury)

5 BARBARA KRUGER Untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am), 1983, $601,600 (Phillips, de Pury)