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Revisiting the Art of the Eighties

GEGENWART / 29.09.2005–11.02.2006 / Commissaire : Philipp Kaiser

When the Museum für Gegenwartskunst opened its doors in 1980, it was the first museum in Europe to be devoted exclusively to contemporary art. To celebrate its 25th anniversary, the museum will look back at the art of the eighties. Flashback - Revisiting the Art of the Eighties represents the attempt to take a critically discerning look at what is known as the decade of painting and the boom in the art trade.

Thinking back to the 80s apocalyptic scenarios inevitably pile up in our mind’s eye: Bhopal, Schweizerhalle, Chernobyl, waldsterben, ozone hole, atombombs, AIDS, the Cold War, Reagan, Thatcher, Breshniev and Kohl. The alleged end of history had been reached, the abyss seemed to be forthcoming. Thinking of the 80s we also think nostalgically of Madonna, Michael Jackson, Freddy Mercury, personal computers and blow-dry hairstyles. Reflecting of the art of the 80s, even today many think of the decade as being especially marked by painting. But has there really been a paradigm shift in the late 70s which would justify to talk about an art of the 80s? The preglobalized art scene of the 80s was clear and first of all reflected the geopolitical postwar order, with the art market focussing on North America and Western Europe, i.e. New York and Cologne, and Germany, Italy, England and France as well as the Netherlands and Switzerland. Some years before, the explanatory model goes, pop art, minimal art and conceptual art had been predominant. Seen from today, it seems instructive that, especially within this international formation, a media and city-geographic distinguishing-out has occurred. The artists now came from West-Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne or Düsseldorf, as also here a national art found its identity only during these years. The attempt at emancipation - to escape the postwar order within the narrow limits of the West – has implied many misunderstandings and further strengthened the belief in the paradigm shift of the 80s.

The exhibition Flashback – Revisiting the Art of the 80s sees itself as an essayistic, open test arrangement and wants to critically look back in order to draw a picture of the 80s which, in a sense, is representative of the art of this period, without falling prey to an anything goes pluralism. Without a doubt such a view can and must remain fragmentary and subjective, if it does not want to argue in an encyclopedical way. In this sense, revisiting means two things: on the one hand, the art of the 80s is being sorted anew, on the other hand, corrections are being made and main emphasisses shifted. Flashback, the cinematic technique of montage formulates a point of view in the here and now, and at the same time asks questions about the artistic sustainability. An exhibition on the art of the 80s at the present moment seems to be particularly useful because the effectiveness of mechanisms, of art and its operating systems, for the better or the worse still is exceedingly present. On the other hand, the 25 year jubilee of the Museum für Gegenwartskunst Basel, which opened in 1980, actually is reason enough to conceive an exhibition on the art of its first decade.

Of course, art cannot be classified according to decades, and so Flashback first of all wants to be a concise inventory of a then new generation of artists, but on no account the claiming of an autonomous time cosmos. Nevertheless, Flashback wants to make a re-perspectivating: so first of all a frequently spread definition of the situation has to be radically called into question. For, in Western Europe of the 70s, has there really been a hegemonial conceptual art worth mentioning, against which one had to stand godfather to a new movement like Transavanguardia or the Neuen Wilden? The phenomenon of figurative painting which caused quite a stir, first in Italy, then in Berlin, Cologne and Hamburg but also in Basel, in most cases didn’t last very long. Still, the myth of a predominance of subject-centered, anti-conceptual gut painting continues to be persistent in the consciousness of many. On the opposing side, there is a whole army of American critics, whose disgust with regard to painting felt to be regressive couldn’t be greater. So the formula neo-expressionists versus conceptualists became discourse-forming even though, through this very opposition, figurative painting as seen today was given incomprehensible power. It was apparently therefore that polemics then reached its peak so that without exception all painting, be it neo-expressive, figurative or abstract, seemed to be suspect. Douglas Crimp’s meanwhile legendary exhibition at the alternative Artists Space, 1977 in New York, named – with Picture Generation – the alternative model. These artists, for the most part used photography in order to lay open, by means of appropriations and stagings, the most varied layers of massmedia stereotypes and to formulate, with it, a critical dealing with their own reality of life. After this, there is no picture without a before-picture. It’s a fact that the binary formula doesn’t really apply, that it suggests national phenomena and sets New York – as the only art center in North America so far - against Western Europe.

In this sense, the exhibition Flashback pleads for imagining the conceptual without the heroic expressive and to respect both the break of decade of the late 70s and the non-explicitnesses, blurs and continuities of art. This means that conceptuality, as well as pop, have never been given up, but rather re-formulated from the seventies through the eighties up to the nineties, and that time has come to finally say goodbye to the legend of the retrogressivity of the 80s. Art in the 80s really was utterly varied, only think of the new Becher School, of neo geo, simulationism, of feminist and actionist strategies, of the so-called model-makers and all the other art labels in discussion. The exhibition Flashback, however, doesn’t re-stage non-committal multitude, but tries, on the other hand, to polyphonically carry out a focussing of artistic positions still virulent and relevant today. In order to do approximate justice to a decade’s fleeting reality a comprehensive round-table discussion has been hosted with exponents of the 80s for the catalog. The exhibition will be accompanied by a high-calibre supporting programme.

Artists involved:
John M Armleder, Scott Burton, Werner Büttner, Miriam Cahn, Francesco Clemente, James Coleman, Walter Dahn, Helmut Federle, Eric Fischl, Peter Fischli, David Weiss, Günther Förg, Katharina Fritsch, Robert Gober, Jack Goldstein, Group Material, Peter Halley, Georg Herold, Jenny Holzer, Ilya Kabakov, Mike Kelley, Martin Kippenberger, Jeff Koons, Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, Robert Mapplethorpe, Allan McCollum, Reinhard Mucha, Cady Noland, Albert Oehlen, Richard Prince, Charles Ray, Tim Rollins + K.O.S., Thomas Ruff, David Salle, Jean-Frédéric Schnyder, Thomas Schütte, Cindy Sherman, Haim Steinbach, Franz West, Krzysztof Wodiczko.