The primary takeaway of Brand New at the Hirshhorn is its demonstration of how high the stakes of representation became during the 1980s, a decade of proliferating imagery and technology.
Barbara Kruger, “Untitled (I Shop therefore I Am)” (1987), photographic silkscreen on vinyl, 111 5/8 x 113 1/4 x 2 1/2 inches (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
WASHINGTON, DC — “We’re nostalgic for the ‘80s because it was a stress-free decade,” Steven Spielberg opined during a recent Q&A for his latest film, Ready Player One, a blockbuster packed with 1980s movie references. “Everything was sort of innocuous: style, music, it was great.” In a separate interview with the Los Angeles Times, the filmmaker described the period as “the most fun-loving” era he remembers.
Contrary to Spielberg’s assessment, the ’80s were not apolitical. They were merely sugar-coated. The age of MTV, a time-travelling DeLorean, and synth, also oversaw Cold War escalation, the Iran-Contra affair, the crack epidemic, and the AIDS crisis. The decade’s televisual and computational innovations — cable television, graphic user interfaces, VCRs, and game consoles — accelerated the rapid conflation and intermingling of images, values, and signs. The consumerist and entertainment booms that defined the decade offered a unique but fraught opportunity for its artists. How was one to navigate these monumental technological, perceptual, and economic changes? What was art in an age of rampant materialism and “brands?” Where were the boundaries between advertising, art, and entertainment? Could artists simultaneously commodify themselves and critique consumer culture? These are the questions raised by Brand New: Art & Commodity in the 1980s, an incredible collection of work curated by Gianni Jetzer at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
Brand New professes to offer an “alternative history” of ’80s art. While Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, and Richard Prince are all represented in the show, other blue-chip artists associated with the period such as Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and David Salle, are absent. In their place are renowned but lesser-known talents such as Julia Wachtel, Annette Lemieux, Erika Rothenberg, and Gretchen Bender. Brand New’s greatest strength is its spotlighting of women artists, whose work elevates and defines the show.
The exhibition opens with work by Richard Prince, Dara Birnbaum, and Jenny Holzer, artists who took their cue from mass media and advertising, probing the ways in which images and language could be reproduced and manipulated. Richard Prince rose to prominence with his “rephotographs,” prints of cropped, decontextualized details from advertisements. In works such as “Untitled (Hand with cigarette and watch)” (1980), the artist lays bare how specific visual cues — in this case, a pristine shirt cuff and an expensive watch — are used to convey masculine virility and power.
Jenny Holzer, “The Inflammatory Essays” (detail) (1979-1982), offset posters on colored paper, 17 x 17 inches
Holzer exhibited her work at Fashion Moda, the innovative art space founded by Stefan Eins in 1978. Located in the South Bronx, the space played a critical role in bringing together members of the downtown, hip-hop, and graffiti scenes. Many of its exhibitors were also involved with Colab (Collaborative Projects), the art collective behind landmark events such as the Real Estate Show and the Times Square Show. The friendships and collaborations fostered through Fashion Moda and Colab largely set the course of New York’s downtown art scene during the ’80s. Brand New professes to tell the story of the scene’s transformation — emphasizing its unique “Do-It-Yourself counterculture” — but relegates its coverage to two meagre vitrines of select artist miniatures and editions. It is the weakest part of the show.
A nearby monitor features Dara Birnbaum’s “Remy/Grand Central: Trains and Boats and Planes” (1980), a work commissioned by the French cognac producer Rémy Martin. Like Prince, Birnbaum simultaneously utilizes and undermines advertising processes. Her four-minute film depicts a young woman brandishing a bottle of the brand’s liquor, cannibalizing numerous ad tropes: sexualized close ups, prominently-placed logos, and an inane but catchy jingle. “Remy/Grand Central” obliterates the boundary between artwork and advertisement, prompting difficult questions about artistic agency, integrity, intent, and process.
Jenny Holzer’s “The Inflammatory Essays” (1979-1982) dominates the exhibition’s opening room. As with her “Truisms” series, Holzer’s printed proclamations, affirmations, and aphorisms, reproduce the cacophony of opposing voices conveyed through mass media. “YOU GET RESULTS FROM GUNS…GUNS MAKE WRONG RIGHT FAST,” reads one of the posters. “MANIPULATION IS NOT LIMITED TO PEOPLE. ECONOMIC, SOCIAL, AND DEMOCRATIC INSTITUTIONS CAN BE SHAKEN,” reads another. Although Holzer’s much reproduced aphorism, “Abuse of power comes as no surprise,” has recently been adopted as a slogan for the #MeToo movement (specifically by the activist group We Are Not Surprised), the artist’s practice has historically been one of authorial self-effacement. This de-personalization is a core theme of Holzer’s work. It prompts the viewer to consider whose interests a stated opinion might actually serve……………….