Re-Generating the 80s



A caveat given me by David Salle before seeing, Your History is Not Our History, the show of work from the 1980s he co-organized with Richard Phillips: “Journalism creates generalizations, and generalizations are  (generally) the enemy of art.” Which, to be generous to my own craft, seems doubly like a warning at the threshold of text and image at the heart of any curatorial project.

Salle foregrounds the works’ simplest qualifying criteria, that it have been produced in the 1980s, with the problematic that “any decade is somewhat arbitrary… and the 80s really start in the 70s—in the rather arid landscape where formalism and conceptualism had both laid out their forts and then went for a snooze.” He went on to speculate whether the decade began with Julian Schnabel’s plate paintings or Vito Acconci’s “Red Tapes,” both techinically from the 1970s, or the AIDS crises: “The end point is anyone’s call.”

The show’s polemical title refers to the fact he’s co-organized mixes and matches artists generally recorded in the historiography as belonging to separate and insular, often hostile camps. You head past security and up the elevator and enter Haunch of Venison and above reception there’s Julian Schnabel’s oil and tempera Rebirth I: (The Last View of Camiliano Cien Fuegos) (1988), with a flat, irregular Japanese-style floral foreground, depth-defying strips, knobby tree branches straight out of Carroll Dunham’s painterly vocabulary, and eye torn from a comic book. Look right and Jeff Koons’ seminal Buster Keaton (1988) from his “Banality” series, a figurative sculpture in wood, a knowing cartoon of a caricature. In short, these are not just the works you would have seen in the Metropolitan’s The Pictures Generation show, although works by Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, Laurie Simmons, and Salle himself appear here. That show clearly precipitated this one by the critical momentum it galvanized, although Salle says Your History… is “not a ‘corrective’ necessarily, so much as in creating an opportunity to look again,” to consider the work of someone like Levine against her proposed antithesis in Bleckner or Fischl.

During the decade in question Salle showed his paintings and installations widely; Phillips was in school in Boston, and then at Yale, and traveled to New York frequently before moving to the East Village in 1986. Now known as a figurative painter who depicts powerful images in explicit detail, during this period Phillips made sculpture about material in the trajectory of Blinky Palermo’s stoffbilder. It was not until 1992 that he resumed painting: “I ended up feeling like an upholsterer, not an artist.” Although Phillips admired Salle’s work and followed him from early pictures at Metro Pictures, they had not met before organizing this show.

When Phillips left Petzel for Gagosian in 2006, the former gallerist told the New York Times, “It’s beginning to feel like the good old 80’s, no?” It was a rhetorical question that demonstrated due skepticism over the power—critical power included—assigned the market  when money is plentiful and can take risks—a question that’s important even, maybe especially, during a contraction. The organizers walk a delicate line here that stands for the by-no-means impunious potential for commercial institutions to destabilize the critical hegemony of the museum structure.

Mostly, the show comes from the artists’ professed horror that their memories of a time period don’t match its most recent document. Both were in New York in the 1980s, making work and in dialogue with artists engaging from a variety of positions and levels of success, and they have collaborated on a show that isn’t meant to re-do was Salle calls a “journalistic narrative (whatever it is—something about the market or critique or whatever)” and which, “while not being totally from a different planet, might as well be from a different planet altogether, because it has so few points of intersection with anyone’s actual experience.”

Here Phillips discusses the neutral ground improbably provided by Haunch of Venison, a partner of Christies auction house, and the looming figure of Mary Boone:

GARTENFELD: The title seems provokingly directed at the history of the 1980s as depicted by the Metropolitan, but I imagine that Your History Is Not Our History refers, in fact, to many histories that have been woven around the era. Maybe you could unpack that a little. Are you referring specifically to the Pictures Generation show?

PHILLIPS: Yes, my basic response was that I can’t see one more show packaged as “Pictures,” “cultural critique,” or “regressive figurative painting” and “Neo-Expressionist painting,” or “Neo-Geo,” or any of that. None of those are what I experienced during that, and I was certainly here to experience it in real time, and see it move from one show to another. To me, the fiction of history, of curatorial enterprise, and of theoretical enterprise needed to be reset. We needed to get rid of the propaganda and the suppression and privileging of certain information over others, and look at things side by side.

GARTENFELD: The artists you’ve chosen are all, you could say, men and women who enjoy a privileged place, at least in the market.

PHILLIPS: There are no surprises in terms of the artists we selected for this show. It’s not about diamonds in the rough and showing obscure situations. The show is meant to demonstrate the vitality of the major positions in a constellation that was very vibrant and very much set against power.

GARTENFELD: What was your reaction to the Met’s The Pictures Generation? Did you feel it demonstrated a definitive set of conditions about the social and material circumstances of the time?

PHILLIPS Part of the reason why we undertook the idea of making this show was to get away from these groupings, which are fiction. They were convenient ways of labeling these paintings together, and, especially now, and in the context of the current Biennial, it is about looking at works that do not agree with one another. Naturally that couldn’t have happened in the Pictures show, because its premise was just the opposite.

GARTENFELD: Do you propose your show as somehow inherently in opposition to the museological structure, as represented by a type of outdated, complicit and simplistic agenda?

PHILLIPS: Well, We were thinking about the authority of institutions. I think back to standing in the rotunda of the Guggenheim at the Giorgio Armani exhibit, I do wonder about the custodians of meaning and art history, and their power to influence the public. The show is meant to speak to academies, media outlets and industry periodicals, and their assessment of the time and how things are bracketed off and packaged and sold as meaning-products to consumers.

GARTENFELD: Is there then something about the space of Haunch of Venison that allows you to recharge the works? Because of its ties to Christies, are there particular moments in the show or in the architecture where Louise Lawler would say, “I’d photograph that there” as a critique of the gallery’s economic power complex.

PHILLIPS: The space is a very unusual one. It is oddly neutral ground. I know that they said that in the press release, but the gallery’s relationship to Christie’s prohibits it from certain market participations. People don’t like the relationship. Yet the space itself is kind of an old school uptown museum space where you can walk around and see things in context.

GARTENFELD: You were living in the East Village, but it seems in this show where you identified Uptown and in Soho. What were there social spaces that you located yourself that you feel have been excluded from the narrative?

PHILLIPS: I was an East Village person from the get-go. There are relatively few references to that in the show other than the fact that some of these artists started out in East Village galleries. There’s no representation of the scene, per se; in a lot of ways that has to be demonstrated in a broader. I identified with the galleries like Nature Morte, International Monument, 303, and American Fine Art. But interestingly enough, Mary Boone Gallery figures prominently in the show. She coalesced a position that was alternately very popular at that time and very unpopular at that time. She became a target because of the success the artists were having in the market place and the inversion of the idea that male artists would be the purveyors of sensitivity and narrative and the things that were typically assigned to female artists prior to the 70s and prior to the Cal Arts feminist program, which, you know, David is a product of.


GARTENFELD: To this day, Mary Boone is a spectral character, and she seems to be a locus of frustration for a lot people criticizing the excess of the age as a rising bourgeois, and the rise of a clearly sexualized woman who wasn’t in turn particularly maternal.

PHILLIPS: One of the really great conversations I had prior to this show was with Mary Boone. So many of the controversial shows I remembered, both positive and negative, happened at her space. I was speaking to her about Barbara Kruger, and she had an absolute photographic memory for every detail of those shows and the people that were involved, and where the work went, and what the effect was at the time. That was pivotal because when Barbara and Sherrie joined the gallery it was the first time of absorption of the critique artists into the economic superstructure.

GARTENFELD: I imagine these are issues you have faced in the reception of your own work.

PHILLIPS: Yes. Some of the depictions in my work point to rather extreme productions of imagery, whether in using quite negative imagery as a gatherer for a large amount of image production in this country in general in popular culture… But what’s interesting is that when you look at David’s work, and the criticism at that time and the criticism his work was receiving at that time, it itself was a backlash. I mean a lot of the criticism at that time was a misreading of his work.

GARTENFELD: How did you think the meaning of your work changed when you moved from Petzel to Gagosian in 2006.

PHILLIPS: Context, in one way, is everything. You’re in a position of speaking to power from the outside-or from a less centralized, but conventionally critical position-and your relationship is set in one direction.

GARTENFELD: Your last show at Gagosian was called New Museum, and significantly combined imagery from pornography with the logos of non-profit cultural institutions. Without anesthetizing their impact, it seems that the paintings meant to demonstrate with the time that the gallery was a structure that had absorbed some of the integrity of a public institution.

PHILLIPS: The exhibition that I made was meant to focus on the context, and the relationship that the gallery has to institutions and how the institutions relate to media. New Museum wasn’t an attempt to try to predict or dictate a response to the show, but it was about looking at the constellation of specialized interests, and the propaganda that surrounds both. The subjects—from military propaganda to historical propaganda—related to the media and its promotion of itself. The reception was critical, which I fully intended it to be. There was negative criticism because there were negative images in the show, and there were consequences to putting up a show like that because there were consequential subjects that were brought up that weren’t about good feelings.


GARTENFELD: Three of Salle’s paintings are in the show. In your discussions, how did he articulate the way that context had changed the meaning of his work?

PHILLIPS: One of the works we’ve got, Fooling With Your Hair (1985) includes three depictions of nudes at the bottom in various gynecological positions with Giacometti sculptures and 1950s-era lamps. There is a very caustic analysis of consumption and sexuality. I guess it was quite shocking at the time. Later, it was so easy to set up an argument saying that it was of an entirely negative agenda. I think what we have here is a great opportunity to see whether that is really true. The show is far from being didactic.

GARTENFELD: Is this a show about medium, about reviving the role of painting in the context of the 1980s and after conceptual art?

PHILLIPS: Because we both use the medium of painting, and because of David’s position at that time and being in a community of artists who were painting, there is a fair amount of that.
We don’t have film and video in the show. But there was one piece I really wanted, and I couldn’t get it. It’s a television show called The Street from the 1980s, produced by the founder of MTV, Robert Hitman. It was a police show filmed entirely at night with handheld cameras. It was about the banality of cops sitting in patrol cars in Newark at night and it was one of the greatest television shows of all time. What it would have done for the show is actually set apart the idea that the 1980s was somehow a backdrop of wealth and privilege. People were starting to make money but it wasn’t yet filtering down to the arts. 

GARTENFELD: But wealth and power structures were growing around new centers of power in Soho, like, to use a convenient example, Mary Boone.

PHILLIPS: But that’s not at all mutually exclusive from the success in the market of any other strong position. Certainly, Mary Boone was on Broadway, directly across from Leo Castelli and Sonnabend Gallery. From Sonnabend, we have, arguably, one of Jeff Koons’ all time best works, the Buster Keaton wood-carved sculpture from the Banality show (1988), which in essence ended a certain trajectory of painting, as figurative, narrative, and expressive. You have to realize just how much of that there was at the time. There’s been a lot of discussion of Luxury and Degradation (1986) as the switching point, which I saw at International Monument in the East Village, but because of the focal position of Sonnabend, I see Banality as being the ultimate show for destroying the assumptions about art and recalibrating the way artists considered their practices.

GARTENFELD: What lesson do you think the “end of painting” trajectory imparted to the figurative painters you’re showing here. Of Wool’s you have Untitled (1988), a block-print painting of a decorative, wrought iron fence structure. How do you compare it with Eric Fischl’s beach paintings, which don’t seem to identify with the same tradition of adstraction or dematerialization?

PHILLIPS: When you look at Wool’s work next to Fischl’s psycho-sexual narrative painting, The Old Man’s Boat & The Old Man’s Dog 1981), you see opposite ends of the world. Wool’s decorative wall treatments are painted on aluminum with enamel, with radical painterly-ness and total refusal—I mean total refusal—of the structure that Eric is proposing in his work. At the same time, Eric was doing things utterly off limits by wedding narrative, figurative painterly realism to Freudian psycho-sexuality.

GARTENFELD: You mean using the tools of a radical feminist agenda, and inserting them in the traditional structure of oil painting.

PHILLIPS: Yes, a feminist agenda would aim to take down the patriarchal, phalli-centric, and heterosexist agendas that are often promoted in the mediated narratives of advertising and cinema. The radicality of Fischl’s work is that you have a distinctively heterosexual male perspective. And to me, that does compare with the argument that after 1911 Modernism failed in its trajectory toward radical thinking in art, and that Picasso’s and Picabia’s and everybody’s return to figuration was a regressive tendency. Set loose from a conceptual agenda, forms don’t carry inherent meaning, and cannot carry inherent critical positions.

GARTENFELD: Do you link this show at all to the contraction in the market, as an analog for a reassignment of value brought on by different economic demands?

PHILLIPS: I think that the gallery’s intention was to see this show against the backdrop of the contraction in the early 1990s. I reject that idea, because it isn’t important. Markets are constantly coming and going, and it’d be a disservice to the importance of the arguments the artists are putting forth in this show to say that how their work trades-all of them have traded quite well, if not in financial markets then in markets of meaning-is the sole determinant of their meaning.