I, YOU, WE: Art on the Front Lines of the 80s Culture Wars

Les Levine mounted his poster everywhere in the subway in 1981, a tough time in New York. Source: The Whitney © Les Levine for The Museum of Mott Art, Inc.

Les Levine mounted his poster everywhere in the subway in 1981, a tough time in New York. Source: The Whitney © Les Levine for The Museum of Mott Art, Inc.

It’s not a comfortable art show, but the 1980s weren’t comfortable times. The Whitney Museum of American Art’s show I, YOU, WE resurrects art from a time when artists were protesting inequality and gentrification, the AIDS epidemic was raging, Wigstock brought gender shifting into the open air, and New York’s downtown community waited apprehensively for the next police crackdown on squatters, community gardens, and anyone flaunting an alternative lifestyle.

As it prepares to move to the High Line in 2015, The Whitney asked its curators to mine its permanent collection to see if there were periods of time that might have been overlooked in the shows of recent years.

I, YOU, WE is the answer: the difficult, searching, and searing work produced by the passionate and disenfranchised denizens of New York’s tumultuous 1980s and early 1990s.

No one could miss Alfred Martinez’s 1987 screenprint. Source: The Whitney. © 1986 by Alfred Martinez

No one could miss Alfred Martinez’s 1987 screenprint. Source: The Whitney. © 1986 by Alfred Martinez

Works feature the flip side of Warhol’s Interview magazine and Studio 54 – people struggling with identities, illness, injustice, and the consequences of Washington’s culture wars against edgy art.

The Whitney produced this video about the “WE” section of the show, when artists began protesting gentrification, how they used art as the lever to galvanize the East Village, and the battles that raged for the community. Other sections of the Whitney show focus on artists’ exploration of race, gender, religion, and the AIDS crisis.

Revisit the emerging street styles – graffiti, comics-inspired drawings, stencils, and posters – as Andrew Castrucci of Bullet Space leafs through one of the seminal art-protest pieces.

When you visit, make enough time to Nan Goldin’s 700-slide extravaganza that documents everything.  Scroll down here to see installation views and  other works in the show by Mapplethorpe, Basquiat, Currin, Wojnarowicz, and Ligon. Tough stuff, but not tougher than the lives these artists lived during that decade.

Congratulations to the Whitney for not forgetting, presenting this work to the next generation, and testing if the work still sticks 20 to 30 years later. The show runs through September 1.

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