Brand New Mediums of Art

A look back at the art of 1980s New York

The Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden concluded their recent exhibit, Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s (Feb 14–May 13, 2018), with a gala in honor of Jeff Koons. This retrospective, curated by Gianni Jetzer and Leah Pires, featured nearly 150 works by “a new generation of artists in 1980s New York who blurred the lines between art, entertainment and commerce.” Brand New is itself a great slogan for a particular ethos shared throughout the alternative art scene of the 1980s. With the rise of more sophisticated means of financing (that is, more money), the increasingly globalized art markets grew more self-conscious of how they could price works of art. Art wasn’t just created any more. It was financed, manufactured, and fabricated for the supply and demand of the market: now openly incorporating its marketing strategy as a part of its aesthetic appeal. 

A number of works in Brand New touched on artists and fame. A 1986 ad for an investment banking firm featured Warhol, sitting on a chair in front of his own self portrait, with the words, “I thought I was too small for Drexel Burnham.” Sarah Charlesworth's cibachrome Golden Boy (1983-1984) and Virgin (1986) are highly stylized photos of famous icons of the era, like David Bowie and Madonna, against a black backdrop, which formed an aesthetic strategy Charlesworth employed throughout her Objects of Desire (1983-1988) series. In 1985, the art magazine Z/G presented profiles on these “Art Stars: Out of the Studios and into the Glossies.” David Robbin’s Talent (1986), pictured below, took this intersection between artist as celebrity further in a series of 18 professional headshots of a number of the artists who would be featured in Brand New. MTV’s Art Breaks also interviewed some of these artists, like Jenny Holzer and Richard Prince, through 30-second promotional videos played in lieu of commercials.

 

David Robbins, Andy WarholFrom the left, on the wall: David Robbin’s Talent (1986), 18 photographic headshots. In the panel: “Art Stars: Out of the Studios and into the Glossies” (1985). Z/G magazine. From the right: Andy Warhol’s Self Portrait (1986). Underneath: Mike Bidlo’s Not Warhol (1984).

 

The pale-blue, disembodied faces of Andy Warhol’s Self Portrait (1986) loomed heavy over Brand New as the last in a series Warhol had produced throughout his career. When taken together, these portraits document the persistent self-mythologizing of, and by, Warhol, as they all bear his immediately recognizable print-screen aesthetic. A Self Portrait from 1964 shows a young, surprisingly square-jawed, Warhol with his short blond-grey hair swooped to the left side of his face, while the self portraits from 1978 reflect his highly publicized brushes with death. Warhol made his career by mining both the surplus value of other people’s fame and the ubiquity of name-brand consumer goods. In turn, Warhol became as famous as the subjects his art transparently reproduced.

So it made sense for Mike Bidlo to do the same thing to Warhol and his infamous aesthetic. Not Warhol (1984) was the first in a series of recreations of famous contemporary artworks, which included “not”-ted versions of Franz Kline, Man Ray, and others. Mike Bidlo Presents The Factory at PS1 (1984) took this act of mimicry one step further by reproducing Warhol’s Factory in his own studio and getting his artist friends to play the celebrities who frequented it. Yet it was Jeff Koons who truly picked up where Warhol left off. Koons' art studio is “a gargantuan operation that has brought to mind Henry Ford’s factory in boom times,” as opposed to The Factory where Warhol once “fabricated” his art (at least in terms of employment practices).

 

Jeff KoonsJeff Koons, New! New Too!, 1983. Lithograph billboard mounted on cotton; 123 x 272 in (312.4 x 690.9 cm).

 

Koons' studio employs hundreds of artists to create his massive artistic spectacles. In 2008, Koons' 11-foot installation in high chromium stainless steel, Balloon Flower (Magenta) (1994-2000), with its sleek, transparent, magenta coating, sold for a record $25.7 million. Works like Puppy (1992) are notable for the hundreds of thousands of flowers designed and planted as a part of these glossy, massive, site-specific nods to Koons' signature Neo-Pop aesthetic. Yet in one year, the great recession would decimate the prices Koons' work could expect to garner in the current market. But Koons and his studio persisted in taking on more ambitious and “gargantuan” projects. The Gazing Ball (2014-2015) series, for example, included a painting department of more than 100 painters who painstakingly repainted 35 classical paintings, including Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa

Like Koons, much of the work in Brand New is self-serving for the artist. Their courting-as-critique of art-world fame and name brand recognition would, in turn, help to bring them fame and success. Yet to dismiss the artists in Brand New as entirely self-serving and parasitic would be a disservice to what their art communicates about the nature of capitalism. The two pieces by artist collective The Guerrilla Girls, for example, had anonymously called out both the gallery spaces that represent 10% or less of women artists and all the male artists who were complicit in their exclusion by continuing to work with the galleries. These artists expanded the possibilities of photography, film, and conceptual art as they employed them to reflect on the nature of art and commodity. Their reaction against the mindlessness of consumerism demonstrated art’s potential as a means of effective activism.

To what exactly were these “alternative” artists responding? Jetzer clarifies in the catalog to Brand New:

 

[In February of 1979,] twenty-nine year old Julian Schnabel has an extremely successful sold out show at Mary Boone Gallery on West Broadway in Soho (in the same building as the legendary Leo Castelli Gallery) followed by another in October. His Neo-Expressionist broken-plate paintings creates a stir and opens up a new market for contemporary art.

 

The neo-expressionism of Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Francesco Clemente dominated both New York and international art markets during the 80s. These artists framed their paintings through formal developments in German and Italian abstract art. The following works of art, however, exhibit alternative, divergent narratives to the predominant one of painting as fine art: of which Neo-Expressionism was, at the time, its latest iteration.

 

Guerilla GirlsGuerrilla Girls, These Galleries show no more than 10% women artists or none at all., 1984-85. Offset lithograph; each 11 x 17 in.
General IdeaGENERAL IDEA, The Boutique of the 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion, 1980. Galvanized metal and plexiglass, prints, posters, publications: 60 1/4 x 131 7/8 x 102 3/8 in.

If this was the kind of art the most prestigious galleries in New York were interested in representing, then these marginalized artists needed to create new spaces for showcasing their conceptual and mixed-media work. These spaces were not limited to formal galleries either, like the influential, yet short lived, galleries that popped up in the East Village, like Patti Astor and Bill Stelling’s FUN (1981-1985) or Peter Nagy and Alan Belcher’s Nature Morte (1982-1988). They also included the non-profit exhibition spaces of White Columns (1970), Artists Space (1972), and Fashion Moda (1978). New markets were developed both through and as a function of their art, as they infiltrated and subverted existing forms of media. These works were themselves exercises in artistic self-branding.

Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal and AA Bronson, for example, were three Canadian artists who comprised General Idea: a pioneering queer art collective that explored the era of kitsch, which preceded the coming tragedy of the AIDS epidemic. General Idea reached out to 16 male and female artists by mailing them a brown taffeta dress with their logo, business card, and application to apply for The 1971 Miss General Idea Pageant. This pageant was a massive undertaking with a red-carpet and live-television broadcast. The subsequent staging of the pageant turned into an ongoing conceptual/performance art hybrid, as General Idea leaned more and more into its own self-reference and kitsch.

The Boutique from the 1984 Miss General Idea Pageant (1980), featured in Brand New, now stands as a deserted “artifact” from the continuous “rehearsals” they had staged for years, in which they actively destroyed the pageant as they exhibited it through a number of different sites. The Boutique parodied gift shops and trade show pavilions, while embracing its business model as a way of generating revenue through branding and merchandise.

 

Pictures and the Art of Appropriation

One of the most iconic images featured in Brand New is Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am) (1987). “I shop, therefore I am” is the secularized version of Rene Descartes’ “Cogito, ergo sum.” With “I think, therefore I am,” the mere act of doubting one’s existence immediately reaffirms that existence as, at the very least, something discrete and particularly worthy of questioning. To think about and doubt ourselves through skepticism and existential dread is what reaffirms ourselves as rational individuals whose actions matter. Descartes’ cogito operated via a form of circular logic that assumed the benevolence of an omnipotent God. Why would God create thinking beings and endow them with specific capabilities in order to purely deceive them? This God, in Her benevolence, would not have created mankind to experience reality one way unless reality itself naturally corresponded to the images of reality that we perceived.

 

Barbara KrugerBarbara Kruger’s, Untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am) (1987).
Ashley BickertonAshley Bickerton’s Tormented Self-Portrait (Susie at Arles) No. 2 (1988).

Kruger’s “I shop, therefore I am” is far more nihilistic in its reformulation. God is dead under the logic of late-stage capitalism. The only remaining truths are the ones that can be capitalized on and sold back to you through the promise of consumer goods. It becomes increasingly doubtful whether the concept of the self can even exist outside of the things we buy and consume. What if there was no God to ground us to reality and reality was never absolute and given over to us in a “rational” or “natural” way (per the promise of Enlightenment thought)? Instead our reality is always being manufactured in real-time by marketing, special interests, and competing ideologies. Ashley Bickerton's Tormented Self-Portrait (1988) is “tormented” by this alienation, as reflected by this disembodied self-portrait, pieced together solely by the brands that Bickerton consumes the most.

You Rule By Pathetic Display (1982) reflects Barbara Kruger’s early work in advertising, as its observer asks, “Who rules by pathetic display?” Is it the woman who wields the knife, or the advertiser that displays the false promise of their goods? Female artists like Sherrie Levine and Cindy Sherman restaged everything from classic paintings of male artists, still-images of films, and magazine centerfolds through their photographic reproductions. Sherman’s Untitled #121 (1983), in which she posed in place of its original subject, could be a restaging of a Penthouse-style centerfold or a still from an old Western. With each restaging, the audience had to grapple with what it meant for the artist to transform herself as the object of the work she restaged.

These artists, usually grouped together as the Picture Generation, were instrumental in establishing photography as conceptual art (and conceptual art as photography). They staged interventions into mediums like photography, by (re)appropriating existing images to undermine photography’s presumed function as a mirror to the reality it claims to be able to reflect. The once presumed static and mechanical representation of photographic subjects had–framed by the light around them and “captured” through the lens of a camera, onto a roll of film–splintered into the various degrees of context-dependency entailed by their staged re-presentations of images and photographs. Moreover, these artists smashed the glass ceiling for female artists trying to break into the male dominated world of art.

 

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The bleak, abstract paintings of the neo-expressionists failed to reflect the present landscape of mass media. Perhaps this was what Gretchen Bender was trying to declare in her 1982 Untitled (The Pleasure Is Back). In a similarly ironic gesture, a postcard by Louise Lawler and Sherrie Levine read, “His gesture moved us to tears,” as it announced their upcoming 1981 exhibition: A PICTURE IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR ANYTHING. They demonstrated how a picture is no substitute for its context, which is subtly reproduced by its observer in real-time, based on their ability to recognize its visual cues through corresponding social and cultural shorthand (e.g. text, iconography, pattern repetition, etc.).

Lawler’s Who Are You Close To? (Red), for example, photographed a collection of S&H stamps that Andy Warhol had rendered blue via silkscreen. For nearly a century, these stamps were given out by retailers in exchange for purchasing their goods. This functioned as a rewards program, in which stamps could be redeemed for items listed in their catalog. These were so popular that by the 1960s, S&H claimed that they issued three times as many stamps as the US Postal Office. And so without this context, Levine asks what they, the observers, are closest to: is it Warhol’s silkscreen of these stamps framed above a fireplace; or is it the two porcelain statuettes of blue horses standing on opposite sides of its mantle; or is it something else? For most, without this context, the answer will be the massive field of red that frames both the stamps and the fireplace.

Adrian Piper is considered a pioneer in conceptual art, yet Brand New chose to feature instead a poster for a 1978 exhibit in which she participated in with Lawler and Sherman at Artists Space. For this exhibition, Piper re-presented a black and white photograph of a group of black men, originally taken by National Geographic, as they walked towards the camera: three of whom are clearly visible; all wearing suits and bowler hats; the man closest to the lens has his thumb sticking out, but his gesture seems more defiant than a friendly thumbs up. In a corresponding, taped monologue, Piper asked its observers in real-time,

 

How do the images in this picture relate to each other? How is the two-dimensionality of the picture plane treated? How are receding spaces signified? How are the tonal contrasts distributed across the picture plane? Does it matter? Are these the right questions to ask about this work? Why use a photograph instead of really creating something original?

 

Not only is this one of the earliest and most concise statements on the use of appropriation in photography, it is also a statement on the role of race in the appropriation of images.

Brand New exhibited Piper’s Vanilla Nightmares #8 (1986), which was created as part of a series of charcoal drawings done over existing pages of the New York Times. A glamorous white woman, in a monochrome advertisement for Bloomingdales, is now enveloped by five shadowy, drawn in figures. With her eyes closed and an arm stretched above in ecstasy, these shadowy black men embrace her from behind, as one bites into her collarbone like a vampire. The name of the brand being advertised reemerges over the forehead of one of these men as “POISON.” Notice how the word “poison” later reemerges in Piper’s essay, “On Becoming A Warrior” (2001):

 

Can I see such people and their actions clearly without dehumanizing them–and thereby dehumanizing myself? Can I see them clearly without demonizing them–and thereby poisoning myself? Can I see them for what they are without poisoning my perception of everyone else (the paranoia extreme)? Most important, can I see them clearly enough to actually understand and feel compassion for them, and for the pain and fear and rage and despair that ultimately motivates all human injustice?

 

In contrast, Canadian-Chinese artist Ken Lum’s Alex Gonzalez Loves His Mother and Father (1989), seems downright wholesome in the way it subverts the potentially racist expectations of its observer. It pairs the text next to a young, shirtless latino subject, who looks directly into the lens with his arms crossed and head slightly cocked to the side. Taken from Lum’s Portrait-Logo Series, these works paired a photograph taken by Lum next to stylized text that branded their identity through a corresponding slogan. Other examples included: a picture of an older Native American woman with the text “NATIVIDAD CASTILLO WANTS RESPECT!” and a young Asian woman sitting in an office, as she turns away from her typewriter and toward the camera, with the text “MARY SHUM HATES HER JOB.”

This series did not limit itself to commenting on race, which is to say that Lum also photographed white people engaging in their own kind of branding: like a hair metal band that announces “WE ARE sacred blade”; and a photo of a poor family gathered around a dumpster, stating “GARBAGE PICKERS,” with little stalks of grass around the text.

Ken LumKen Lum, Alex Gonzalez Loves His Mother and Father, 1989. Chromogenic print on sintra, mounted on acrylic sheet with screen printed ink text.
Julia Watchel, Love Thing, 1983. From the Brand New catalog.

 

If Piper and Lum served as examples that effectively used appropriation to comment on race, then Julia Watchel’s Love Thing (1983) did not. It is the only work in Brand New that included an artist statement written in advance of its showing, in which she explained her intentions in appropriating existing images from greeting cards “that carried racist, sexist, and classist messages.” Watchel stated, “by putting the two images of the objectified women next to each other, I was attempting to show how we are positioned as voyeurs to these images and perhaps become unconsciously complicit in our gaze.” But by repainting these two disparate images together, within the same painting, Watchel risks equating the cartoon image of a frowning Native American woman, dressed in stereotypical garb and headdress, as an arrow sticks out of her ass, with the 1950s style cartoon of a pretty, domesticated white woman holding a pair of scissors while her cat stands behind her. Both figures take up equal space in Love Thing.    

 

Reconceptualizing Capitalism  

Peter Halley’s Glowing and Burnt-Out Cells with Conduit (1981) resembles the abstract geometrical figures of Piet Mondrian, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman. Yet Halley pushed their abstraction towards the soft geometries of post-industrial capitalism. In his 1986 essay, “Response to Barnett Newman’s The Sublime Is Now,” Halley argued, “the grid is without memory. On the grid, there is only numerically determined position and temporally calculated speed. Once an event is removed from the grid, the grid's relentless structure swallows it up, leaving no hint of its existence. On the grid, there are no monuments. Only the grid itself is a monument to its own endless circulatory nature.”

Peter Halley, Joel Otterson, B. WurtzLeft to right: Peter Halley, Glowing and Burnt-Out Cells with Conduit, 1981; Joel Otterson, Devil/Jesus, 1986; B. Wurtz, Three Orange Mops, 1986. Photo: Cathy Carver.

 

The two cells in this painting are equally sized and similarly textured with bumps: one is painted a vibrant red that pulsates, while the other resembles a bubbling pit of black tar. Beneath these glowing and burnt-out cells runs a conduit that frames both as a visual representation of their “numerically determined position and temporally calculated speed.” Without this context, these glowing and burnt-out cells become the geometrical expression of the 0s and 1s of binary code, the on and off function of circuits, and the carved out and tightly regulated spaces of urban landscapes.

In contrast to New Media, the following conceptual works of art appropriated found objects. The closed-off, square or grid-like configuration of couches by Ken Lum, in the ongoing, Untitled Furniture Sculpture (1980-Present), foreclosed their potential use, as couches, by its observers who may have wanted to sit down on them. Their configuration into a grid like structure offers a projective no-man’s land that doubles as a meta-expression on the use-value of both these four peculiarly configured couches and the nature of couches and living rooms in general. This conceptual art piece was originally designed as site-specific. The couches were rented for the 1982 exhibition in Artist’s Space and then returned afterwards.

Ken LumUntitled Furniture Sculpture, Present (Hirshhorn)
Ken LumKen Lum’s Untitled Furniture Sculpture, 1982 (Artist’s Space).

The Hirshhorn, however, chose to buy the particular couches featured in this exhibition. Brand New thus transformed the conceptual nature of this work into a now stable, privately held commodity. How does the act of buying these couches affect their potential exchange-value? If the Hirshhorn were to resell them, its new price would reflect the “surplus value” imbued by its association with Lum, its exhibition at Brand New, and even this essay that discusses it.

The Israeli-born artist Haim Steinbach began working with found objects in the late 1970s by re-placing them onto different, corresponding shelves that he specifically constructed for each set of objects. In Shelf with Ajax (1981), Haim reconfigured segments of tree branches underneath a plastic shelf that resembles a real piece of wood: underneath the shelf, and behind its branches, is a floral wallpaper print; above stands a bottle of Ajax. In another piece, supremely black (1985), two black ceramic pitchers are next to three, largely red cardboard boxes of Bold detergent. The segment of the shelf underneath the black pitchers is alternatively red, while the segment underneath the red box of detergent is black. The shelf resembles the minimalist sculptures of Donald Judd, which he referred to as “specific objects.” This juxtaposition of the specificity of the shelves and the mass produced objects on top of them attempts to reorient its observer outside of their alienation under the logic of consumerism (i.e. function/pleasure).

Haim SteinbachHaim Steinbach, Shelf with Ajax, 1981.Wood and plastic shelf; Ajax cleanser can; 22 x 14 x 14 in (55.9 x 35.6 x 35.6 cm).
Erika RothenbergErika Rothenberg, Freedom of Expression Drugs, 1989.

 

Conceptual art frequently tries to transform some found object into art by rendering it useless in some way. The pieces by Lum and Steinbach, along with B. Wurtz’s Three Orange Mops (1986) and Alan Belcher’s Fence Posts (1987), are all doing a version of this. Yet the conceptual art of Krzysztof Wodiczko attempted to do the opposite. The Homeless Vehicle (1988-1989) series were intended to be mass-produced in response to the growing homeless population: following the Black Monday of October 19, 1987, when stock markets around the world crashed. These vehicles functioned as transportable, single occupancy homeless shelters. Not only could their owners transport their stuff around NYC, but they could also lie down and cover themselves with its retractable tarp. Wodiczko had also conceived of his original, 1988 projection in response to both the events of his time and to the particular architectural stage offered by the Hirshhorn, which had commissioned this as a part of their public work series.

Krzysztof WodiczkoKrzysztof Wodiczko, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC, 1988. Public projection at the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC, October 25-27, 1988.

The Hirshhorn decided on restaging Wodiczko’s 1988 public projection as a part of Brand New, but was postponed by its creator as it would have immediately followed the February 14, 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. In response to the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Wodiczko made the following statement, “…the 30-year-old projection appears to me today strangely familiar and at once unbearably relevant. More than ever before, the meaning of our monuments depends on our active role in turning them into sites of memory and critical evaluation of history as well as places of public discourse and action.” An invisible, shadowy figure stands in front of a podium that records and transmits his meaningless words. The man in a suit holds a freshly lit candle to the altar of thoughts and prayers, while the other hand worships the revolver it points at the audience. What was timely in 1988 has proven more timely in 2018.

 

Acting Up

Other artists in Brand New were interested in how art could inform how their audience thought about the nature of work and pleasure. The Offices of Fend, Fitzgibbon, Holzer, Nadin, Prince & Winters, for example, paid for a full page advertisement that promoted their “practical esthetic services adaptable to client situation.” The Offices operated as a hybrid advertisement agency and consulting group, for both public and private institutions interested in “suggestions for real action” that promised to meet their clients’ specific needs. They rented an office on Broadway, in downtown New York, which lasted for a year before disbanding. Peter Fend, for example, went on to establish Ocean Earth, which provided similar, albeit more technical, services to existing companies. They collected data on specific geological areas via satellite imagery, working with media organizations that reported on developing events like the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl.

Jenny Holzer left The Offices, however to curate Pleasure/Function in 1980, a Los Angeles based exhibition that featured the work of five New York based artists associated with The Office. Pleasure/Function was “an art show about how: to avoid useless work, work for yourself, and rework anything.” Holzer “reworked” this exhibition for an essay in Z/G magazine, arguing that both art and text “depend on the orientation of the reader. The 'morality' of an idea or statement lies not within itself but in how it is interpreted and the use to which it is put.” The title of this exhibit is intended to be interchangeable: pleasure/function or function/pleasure are endlessly reversible as the presence of one collapses into the other.

Michel Foucault had done something similar that year in Power/Knowledge (1980), in which neither power nor knowledge are truly able to speak for themselves. Power uses knowledge to maintain its control, and knowledge is conditioned by power in ways that allow for the continual maintenance of these power-structures as status quo. Knowledge is thus reduced to socialized norms that reinforce existing power structures; power merely reflects its own ability to control the reproduction of this knowledge as natural and legitimate. Pleasure is similarly conditioned as knowledge, and function is reduced to its power in pursuing this sense of pleasure. Individual objects are subsumed as commodities under consumerism, which renders each only in relation to its respective utilitarian function or ability to please both our existing and manufactured wants and desires.

The consumer becomes lost as they pursue the mere promise of pleasure. They forego both their own morality and mortality in this mindless pursuit. In response, art and text must reorient the audience towards their greater responsibility to both themselves and others. Holzer, for example, printed some of the following “truisms” onto condom wrappers in Survival Series (1983): “Men Don’t Protect You Anymore,” “Protect Me From What I Want,” and “In A Dream You Saw A Way To Survive And You Were Full of Joy.” These condoms served as a wakeup call to both the women who have unprotected sex—and then feel trapped into maintaining a relationship with the future father of their child—and to the men who contract AIDS through unprotected sex. 

Donald MoffettDonald Moffett, He Kills Me (detail), 1987. Offset lithograph; 23.5 x 37.5 in (59.7 x 69.9 cm.
Gretchen Bender, Untitled (People With AIDS), taken on April 27th, 2018, originally exhibited in 1986.

Brand New turned the Hirshhorn into a site of memory and critical evaluation by placing Bender’s 1986 video installation, Untitled (People With AIDS), directly in front of a wall with Donald Moffett’s black and white photograph of Ronald Reagan: paired next to an orange and black bullseye, as the words of its title, He Kills Me (1987), are printed in orange over Reagan’s suit and tie. Bender’s video installation, unlike her other installation in Brand New, comprises one small television playing a live broadcast of a local channel. The last time I saw this, the television was turned to a rerun of Family Feud as Steve Harvey and a young, queer Black man moved into the final round. “People with AIDS” is permanently seared right onto the center of its television screen like a frozen news chyron.  

Around this time, Moffett joined Gran Fury, an AIDS activist and artist collective associated with the greater ACT UP movement. In 1987, they created a window display for the New Museum with a pink triangle–once used to mark homosexuals in Nazi concentration camps–over a black background with “SILENCE = DEATH” written under it in huge white font. At the bottom of the poster they asked, “Why is Reagan silent about AIDS? What is really going on at the Center for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Vatican? Gays and lesbians are not expendable...Use your power … Vote … Boycott … Defend yourselves … Turn anger, fear, grief into action.”

ACT UP used any and all means necessary to publicize their cause. They created logos, posters, merchandize, and even a 1990 documentary. They shut down the FDA for one day in 1988. A year later, they chained themselves to the VIP balcony at the New York Stock Exchange to protest the high price of AZT, which was the only drug approved for AIDS at the time. Within a few days, its pharmaceutical sponsor, Burroughs Wellcome, lowered its per-patient-per-year price from $10,000 to $6,400. During Operation Desert Storm, in 1991, they disrupted the CBS evening news and shouted “AIDS is news! Fight AIDS, not Arabs!” while staging a similar protest on the New York subway.

ACT UPACT UP (Gran Fury), SILENCE = DEATH, 1987. Neon sign, two colors; 48 x 79 in (121.92 x 200.66 cm).
Brand NewInstallation view of Brand New: Art & Commodity in the 1980s (2018).

Robert Gober’s Untitled (1985), featured in Brand New, resembles both the found objects of Marcel Duchamp’s The Fountain (1917) and the minimalist sculptures of the 1960s. Some viewers see the sink as a face, with its base resembling a square jaw-line and its two holes drilled in, resembling eyes. As one looks closer, these “sinks” reveal themselves as fake, constructed by Gober from wood and plaster. They were never intended to function as sinks and were made while Bober lived in New York during the AIDS crisis. These “sinks” were both literally and figuratively unable to clean the male body from the virus that decimated them from the inside-out. Gober sold this piece for a substantial amount of money and donated its proceeds to ACT UP. Many successful artists of the 1980s participated in exhibitions that benefited ACT UP, like The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (Dec 5-21, 1991) at Matthew Marks Gallery.

Yet the death-toll kept rising until 1995, which was when the FDA approved the first protease inhibitor for highly active antiretroviral treatment. Until then, the artists of Brand New would use their art as a way of remembering the dead. The Cuban-born artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (Perfect Lovers) (1987-1990) consists of two identical clocks, mounted on a wall, and positioned next to each other. Both clocks are synced to the same time as the movement of their hands parallel each other. Yet one of these clocks will eventually stop running before the other. Gonzalez-Torres originally exhibited this piece while his partner, Ross Laycock was dying of AIDS. After Laycock’s death in 1991, Gonzalez-Torres rented a public billboard and posted a photograph he had taken of an empty bed with two pillows that still bore the indentation of the heads that once rested upon them.

Gonzales-Torres would die of AIDS on January, 9, 1996 at the age of 38. The collaboration between the three members of General Idea ended when Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal both died of AIDS in 1994. Their surviving member, AA Bronson, would go on to create his own solo art as a way of remembering their friendship and legacy. 

 

Courting Death

Peter Nagy’s Entertainment Erases History (1983) was first printed as black and white photocopies, given freely to visitors of his Gallery Nature Morte, as postcards. Nagy appropriated an infographic from a textbook on communications he was required to purchase as an undergrad at Parsons School of Design. The titles of seminal works of art are stamped onto this pre-existing timeline, as they now correspond to major technological advancements in communication from 1885 to 1967. The works in Brand New had themselves served as continuations of this timeline. The technological advancements of the 70s and 80s, however, did not eclipse the concurrent advancements in art history. If anything, the coming advancements in entertainment will continue to merge seamlessly into the New Media employed by the artists of Brand New and beyond, as their work moves further from painting.

Entertainment would itself be impossible to reproduce as freely without the introduction of Xerox in 1960. The photography of the Picture Generation relied heavily on the chromogenic printing process introduced in 1942, by Kodak’s Kodacolor, which William Eagleston and Stephen Shore’s work during the 70s helped transform from amateur to fine art. The 13 video monitors of Bender’s Dumping Core (1984) utilized computer graphics developed in the late 70s. This aesthetic has been so thoroughly absorbed by popular culture that a current generation of musicians have reappropriated its style for their own microgenre (i.e., Vaporwave).  

Annette Lemieux, Louise LawlorLeft to right: Annette Lemieux, Courting Death, 1985; Louise Lawlor, Who Are You Close To? (Red), 1984/1990. Photo: Cathy Carver.

 

Gretchen Bender died of cancer at the age of 53 on December 19, 2004. In an 1987 interview by fellow Picture artist Cindy Sherman for BOMB Magazine, Bender argued, “that by the time a corporation has decided to buy my work, that it is a carcass. The effectiveness of the work has already left it and only the structure remains. It’s already been neutralized.” Bender continued, “Style gets absorbed really fast by the culture, basically by absorbing the formal elements or the structure and then subverting the content. You have to make some kind of break or glitch in the media somewhere else with a different style and shove your content into it there.” This remains true of the works featured in Brand New. What were once shocking appropriations of advertising culture–shown to subvert the stuffy and staid galleries of Downtown New York–now barely provoke a second take by the visitors in the Hirshhorn.

On June 25, 2013, Sarah Charlesworth became the most recent artist in Brand New to pass away, of a brain aneurysm, at the age of 66. In a 2010 Q&A at the Guggenheim Museum, someone from the audience–who suspiciously sounded like Gianni Jetzer, the Swiss-accented curator of Brand New–asked Charlesworth about the perceived “disconnect” between her earlier work with appropriation, her later work, such as her 2012 series Available Light, which explores the formal possibilities and limitations of optics in photography. Charlesworth responded,

 

In the earliest work, I was directly taking a critical relationship to public culture–coming from a feminist perspective and political perspective more than anything–I was really trying to provide a tool to explore, examine, and critique representation and the various forms of the iconography of representation. But critique, to a certain extent, has a built-in limitation, in that you're always referencing something that already exists. And I felt, towards the end of the renaissance painting series, for instance, and some of the end of The Objects of Desire, I began to feel like I was interested in something that was actually more creative or more poetic. And I was turning away from more direct critique, and really wanting to explore something else, and that's the time I began making [my own] photographs.

 

A move toward the poetic is a move toward the uncompromising and unresolvable freedom of ambiguity, nonsense, and parataxis. This freedom entails a level of artistic and financial security that allows artists to create art without having to indicate how it coordinates or subordinates itself to the works of others. If parataxis is the placement of two or more things without the indication of coordination and/or subordination, then its opposite is distinguished by the directness of its critique and subject matter.

Younger and more insecure artists will, therefore, create art that reflects their own anxiety and lack of freedom in producing poetic art, which is indifferent to how it inserts itself into or critiques the established works before them. Instead, these artists become complicit in their critique of the same art market that they ultimately ingratiate themselves to survive as working artists. The word “complicit” comes from the Latin “complicare” or “folding together.” How these works of art bear on the art they attempt to critique will, inversely, determine its own degree of complicity, as it folds together and preserves both into the ongoing narratives of art history.

As art chases the cutting edge, it attempts to trace the phase-shifts in between present and future technological innovation. What once felt daring and brand new will come to be remembered as an index or footnote to a transitional period. Poetic art, which is borne of hard won freedom, will instead embody the potential of these phase-shifts through its resistance to spell out what both are trying to ultimately accomplish. Instead of dictating how its “intended” audience should feel, these works of art reflect their artist’s faith in the radical contingency latent between their work and some future observer. If anything, the artist will endure as the real work of art--in relation to how they used their time and resources to fight against the coordinating and subordinating forces of consumerism.

With its false promise of pleasure and its reduction of objects to a type of use-function it can then capitalize on, the hope of authentic, uniquely personal, subjective experiences will be entirely consumed by consumerism. The individual will be individuated solely by the algorithmic terms put forth by our overarching desire to consume more, as we further “maximize” our ability to process more and more stimuli as pleasure. The new medias of post-industrial capitalism will continue to evolve as artists search for ways to express what little freedom remains of the intangible and mystical realms, once presumed, of subjective experience.

Our only saving grace is to cultivate the capacity to see ourselves in the most disparate of places, objects, and organisms. If we can see ourselves stitched together in the animal skins of a Louis Vuitton handbag or through the diffuse nuclear radiation unleashed by the disaster at Chernobyl, then perhaps there is hope that we can stop “ourselves” from being consumed by consumerism. But first we must acknowledge how our consumption of something else entails the eventual consumption of ourselves. For everything else, there’s Mastercard.   

 

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The author would like to acknowledge and thank Rebecca Bruner, Jacqueline Protka, and the rest of the staff at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Library for their assistance in research; in addition to the general staff, including docents Raluca Iarosis and Nancy Hirshbein; and Gianni Jetzer and Peter Nagy for organizing their curator and artist led tour of Brand New.

 

Official images of the work featured in Brand New may be found here

 

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Omar Baig is an independent scholar who splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Charlottesville, Virginia. His research interests include Ethics, Critical Animal Studies, and Speculative Realism. Baig’s areas of specialization are Post-Kantian Continental Philosophy and American and European intellectual history.