Fast Forward to the Eighties at The Whitney

Kenny Scharf’s When the Worlds Collide, 1984, atop Keith Haring Pop Shop design

When the elevator doors open at the Whitney, you almost feel blown back by Kenny Scharf’s super-sized painting hanging atop Keith Haring’s busy black-and-white wall. So much action, color, and crazy coming right at you.

In the Whitney’s tribute to a decade of no-holes-barred life at full tilt, Fast Forward: Painting from the 1980s, closing May 14, the oversized, in-your-face welcome seems right.

For painters entering the world of the punked and burned-out East Village scene in the 1980s, their medium – paint on canvas — was supposed to be dead, eclipsed by performance, ephemeral, and trash-assemblage art. As this show demonstrates, painting indeed lived.

Close-up of Keith Haring felt-tip marker drawing on synthetic leather

What’s a curator to do with a vast archive of stuff that the Whitney collected in the Eighties? A brilliant solution: Give the superstars (Basquiat, Scharf, and Haring) top billing at the entrance and pull audiences back into the galleries that illuminate three themes – the heroic, the personal journey, and the abstract.

First, the mega-famous: Basquiat’s LNAPRK is a selfie-magnet, but the surprise is Haring’s felt-tipped-marker-inscribed synthetic leather hide. The Whitney snapped it up when they saw it mounted it in an early Eighties downtown gallery, and it hasn’t seen the light of day since. It’s everything that everyone loves about Keith – whimsical, meticulous, imaginative, mesmerizing, hand-drawn line interlocked with social commentary. How did he do it?

Close up of brushwork on Julien Schnabel’s 1982 velvet on velvet painting, Hope

Monumental history-painting-sized canvases by Golub, Fischl, and Schnabel dominate one gallery. Troubling topics are portrayed at a scale typically reserved for the Louvre. Getting up close to the Schnabel, however, reveals his sheer joy of paint, colorful swaths of brushwork swooshing across lush blue velvet. They could only have been painted with broad, heroic strokes. Painting, even in the rapidly transforming Soho, was not dead.

Salon-sized paintings and drawings dot the wall in the second gallery, evoking the roaring East Village art scene of the Eighties. Larger works hang on the surrounding walls, all personal narratives with a smattering of pop culture – a series evoking the troubles of Elizabeth Taylor, the internal journeys of Jonathan Borofsky, and the cultural conundrums that fueled crash-and-burn work by David Wojarowicz.

Detail of Moira Dryer’s 1988 Portrait of a Fingerprint

Abstraction rules the third gallery, personal and grand – the thick impasto of bio-inspired works by Terry Winters, Susan Rothenberg’s painterly eminences, and Moira Dryer’s fingerprint abstractions.

For more about the painters’ personal journeys, listen in on the audio tour of this satisfying trip back in time. To see the brushwork, go up close on our Flickr site.

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