The new thing at Tate Modern, three rooms of mainly huge paintings from the 1980s, is timelier than it knows. These works are taken from the UBS collection, the investment bank that has funded the rehang of the Tate Modern permanent collection. As part of the deal, excerpts from UBS’ massive collection of works of art from the 50s to today are to be intermittently displayed to—this from the UBS website—”complement and strengthen the gallery’s own permanent collection.” UBS performed a similar feat in 2005 at the then just-opened MoMA in New York, displaying a large number of mainly huge paintings as the inaugural show in the top-floor exhibition spaces (to, it has to be said, a largely negative response). Now, not all of UBS’ collection consists of mainly huge paintings; it’s just that mainly huge paintings have of late taken on an unexpectedly affecting archaism, even anachronism. I walked around the three rooms of the display as though in a hall full of dinosaur bones. I overheard people saying, “Whoa – are those plates?” and “God, that’s a lot of paint,” much as kids say “Is that its head?” and “That was really alive once?”
It’s fatuous fun to play connect-the-dots between these stegosaurian remnants of a flush decade and the art of our own recent history, substituting Koons, Hirst, and Murakami for Paladino, Penck, and Salle. Yet there’s no doubt that textbooks written on the art of the pre-recession 2000s will use either a bejeweled skull, aluminum puppy, or Vuitton bag as its symbolic cover image. It’s also probably too much of a cheap shot to mentally relocate these vast works back to the boardrooms and corner offices in which they and works like them formed a splashy backdrop for billion-dollar deals. It’s not the art’s fault that it’s become, in the popular imagination, as inextricably linked with an idea of what the 80s were like as precipitous shoulderpads and stonewashed jeans. Potted versions of history hinder really looking at things, and art can’t be held responsible for its provenance nor be made to epitomize its epoch—one marked not by uniformity but by multifariousness in all strands of culture. All periods of time are cursed by history, doomed to be distilled into a succession of single moments, and the 80s always gets off worst. The UBS website neatly sums it up as “the decade of greed, hostile takeovers, rising share prices, and junk bonds.” Mental images are great for theme parties but a little misleading when it comes to art, and the 80s, more than any other decade, survives as a series of embarrassing stills, like a slideshow of a bad holiday.
The 80s revival of expressionistic painting must be the most maligned of all moments in art history. Its patron saint, Julian Schnabel, has managed to about-face his career to such an extent that new audiences will discover his output in reverse, which many people would say isn’t such a bad thing. Schnabel has received, and continues to receive, a critical kicking for his perceived (ok, actual) arrogance about the importance of his work, most notably from Robert Hughes (he still refuses to discuss Hughes, as seen in his tantrum on 60 Minutes recently). The Tate is showing Schnabel’s Humanity Asleep from 1982, one of the works in the display owned by the gallery, and almost certainly the first time it’s been dragged out of the storeroom since about 1986. (The works in the show owned by Tate—Christopher leBrun and AR Penck among them—were all acquired within a year of their making, perhaps to recompense for the timidity of British art buying in the first half of the century, and have rarely been shown since then). Humanity Asleep is a massive (get used to it) painting on a plane of smashed saucers, showing the head of fellow artist Francesco Clemente alongside an unidentifiable other floating on a raft beneath a hovering St. Michael. The reference to classic history painting (the raft/The Raft) is of a piece with the historical brassiness of its time. It’s an unlovely painting that doesn’t aim to be loved but to be as awesome and dynamic as a wall-sized Gericault. And it is exciting to look at, in a kind of irrefutable muscular way: it’s a piece of self-mythologizing on a par with Matthew Barney, taking as its source the flotsam of a restless historical memory. It’s a bit facile to see the shards of crockery as representations of the fragmented modern consciousness, as Schnabel apologists often do (regurgitating that TS Eliot quote every time). What Schnabel is doing is not introspective and “irony-inflected” but energetic and assertive, giving painting a workout, telling it to get down and give him twenty. I nearly did.
The show’s big flaw is its lack of any work by female painters, the few figurative painters of that time whose star appears not to have waned, at least not as dramatically as those of their muscle-flexing male counterparts. The absence of work by Susan Rothenberg, Ida Applebroog, and Elizabeth Murray leaves a gaping hole in the show’s claims to encapsulate its time, giving it a lopsidedness and portentousness that would have been leavened by these artists’ more tentative and playful approaches. Clemente’s hilarious 1984 Self Portrait—a portrait of the artist as pensive troll—does lighten the load somewhat, and Enzo Cucchi’s fiery Leone dei Mari Mediterranea from 1979-80 sets a beaming masklike face (a Demoiselle on a good day) hurtling over a tiny green horse in a boat on a crimson sea. It’s a piece of whimsical myth-making told with a fluttering brush that’s a world away from the ham-fisted Sandro Chia on the opposite wall. What they share, though, is an urgency: to reassert painting’s role as supreme storyteller, something rarely found within the avant-garde tradition.
Unfortunately, the rhetoric of the show takes a reductive approach, slotting these wildly divergent artists into a historical continuum as though all of them swore a solemn oath to react against minimalism by asserting the creepy-sounding “artist’s hand.” The brochure for the show (no catalogue, sadly) claims that “what these artists share, in spite of their age and geographical differences, is their reaction to the art that dominated the preceding decade…minimalism and conceptualism.” The UBS collection website sums up the work along similar lines: “Turning against minimalism, the eighties see a return to more expressive forms of art.”
The dialectic of action/reaction is the dominant one in discussions of 20th-century art, and it makes all artists look like angsty teenagers trying to wind up their parents. Of course, the physicality of painting—and physicality is very much in evidence here; it’s a bit like going into a gym after Christmas, all mad sweaty grunting—can be just as conceptual, just as ideas-led as anything hands-off and self-consciously intellectual produced under the banner of conceptualism. It’s an old argument, which goes back to da Vinci’s paragones, his sniffy separation of making and thinking which values ideas over production. And it’s one that dominates our (still) post-Duchampian expectations of what art should be about (a standpoint held in place by institutions like the Tate), which leaves artists who assert making and telling somewhat in the shade. It’s also what makes them worth looking at, now of all times.