The MCA’s “This Will Have Been” and the Subjectivity of History


General Idea. "AIDS Wallpaper," 1989. Image courtesy AA Bronson.

Where Cupola Bobber turns deluges of impersonal information into gradually unfolding epic explorations, guest curator Helen Molesworth’s stunning show of 1980’s art at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s, shows the power of an unabashedly partisan approach to history, research, and framing of the past. (Molesworth is Chief Curator at the ICA Boston).

It’s immediately apparent that Molesworth’s dynamic, vibrant, deeply affecting show of political (in its most inclusive sense) art in the 1980’s has uncanny reverberations today. From the first moment of entering the space, viewers come into contact with a flatscreen television on which appears newly-produced, filmed interviews of artists talking about what they were up to more than thirty years ago. Many of them cite Reagan’s refusal to recognize the AIDS crisis, Thatcherism and the beginnings of neoliberalism, and most of all the political indifference to unfairness around them as the inspiration for some of the most ambitious activist art made in America to date.

Other artists featured in the video program cited the “real” end of modernism (Tony Tasset wryly remarks that the conceptualist/minimalist model of the artist as critic and art as philosophical criticism “failed, frankly”), giving rise to appropriation art, practices across media, and true postmodernism pastiche as we recognize it now.

But most of the artist interviews cite their sense at the time that, as Molesworth herself articulates, “culture is really capable of changing society.” Of all the moving art in the show–and my eyes watered more than usual, as I’ll no doubt get into soon– what’s most remarkable is how much the artists in This Will Have Been truly made work as material for democracy.

Donald Moffett. "Call the White House," 1990. Courtesy the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery.

A show like this is nothing if not ambitious. Beginning with the emergence of punk in the 70’s and ending with the election of Clinton in 1992, Molesworth’s show (and I keep calling it Molesworth’s show because this is so deeply and obviously a show curated by one particular subjectivity) has so much breadth and depth to work with that it’s easy to imagine the curator feeling drowned in material. Even so, it’s noteworthy that what gets out points to Molesworth’s own political agenda. Most obviously, in a show overtly concerned with politics (rooms are divided into the thematic headings “Democracy,” “Gender Trouble,” “Desire & Longing,” and “The End Is Near”) there’s almost no reference to the fall of communism. This isn’t just a squarely American show at heart; it’s an exhibition with an unmistakable touch of personal history.

Mike + Doug Starn. "Christ (Stretched)," 1985-86. Collection of Stephen Mindich and Maria Lopez.

What is included is such a giant Who’s Who of important beginnings in contemporary art that it’s impossible to fully list here: Jeff Wall’s early, groundbreaking Picture for Women; Jenny Holzer’s 10 Inflammatory Essays; and an encyclopediac collection of work from pioneering feminist artists, from Barbara Kruger to the Guerilla Girls, who remind us of how exceptionally bleak the art world was for women artists so recently in our history.

Guerrilla Girls. "The Advantages of Being A Woman Artist," 1988. Courtesy of the Guerrilla Girls. © Guerrilla Girls, via

Some more representative samples: Leon Golub and Alfredo Jaar confronting the hypocricies of political freedom; Donald Moffett’s Call The White House (pictured above); selections from Robert Mapplethorpe’s The Black Book (refreshingly, no warning signs beforehand provided to unsuspecting families about the contents of their own reactions and desires they will confront).

Robert Mapplethorpe. "Derrick Cross," 1983. © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

A Richard Prince piece reminds us of the impact of appropriation art and detournement, while David Wojnarowicz marks the culture wars. There’s even the (obligatory?) Jeff Koons bunny.

Richard Prince. Untitled (cowboy), 1987. Rubell Family Collection.

To put it glibly: Molesworth does justice and then some to the era, its fears, its ambitions, and its energy. I thought more than once while wandering through the show that where I had always seen 60’s conceptualism as the prehistory of contemporary art, almost all of the practices we rely on to make critique now emerged during the 80’s: mass media interventions, the aesthetics of spectacle, participatory art using a rhetoric of democracy, and particularly the new formalist tableau photography–all are found here.

Even the sheer number of artists involved–besides those already mentioned above, the show includes Nan Goldin, Sherrie Levine, Gerard Richter, and the list goes on–seems to defy cataloguing. And yet it is impossible to walk through This Will Have Been feeling at all objective about the decade’s art, or about Molesworth’s relationship to it. While the eruption of social issues all converged on the art scene of the decade, the particular way that Molesworth frames the aesthetic and political disposition of the decade is so personal that another layer–that of the reason we attempt to explore and order the past at all–is gradually unveiled. In fact, the show feels a bit like listening to someone’s old mix tape, or looking through an old scrapbook. For all the postmodern agenda of the last room (“The End is Near”), what stands out most in memory are documentations of scenes, LBGTQ and otherwise, and the vulnerable human beings who composed them.

Peter Hujar. "John Heys in Lana Turner's Gown," 1979. © The Peter Hujar Archive, courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York.

James Elkins famously wrote a book about people who have cried in front of paintings. I’m not a crier, so when I found myself tearing up over Mike Kelley’s More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid, it was difficult to discover why, particularly why in this show and not others in which I’ve seen Kelley’s work.

Mike Kelley. "More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid" and "The Wages of Sin," 1987. Stuffed fabric toys and afghans on canvas with dried corn, wax candles on wood and metal base. Photo by Sandak/Macmillan Publishing Company, photograph copyright © Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

After a few more laps of the four galleries, I realized it was not the artist’s recent death, nor even the masterpiece of the work itself (a research project of its own on loss and love’s demands), but the way that the show created a space in which the viewer is allowed to react subjectively to the work–and not in a weak pseudo-participatory way, but in the way you only can when the original curator invested personally in it.

To return to the the first comparison I made between the critical work of information in Cupola Bobber and the critical work of curating a historical moment here, I want to suggest that research itself, by which I mean an intellectual coming to terms with any large (maybe necessarily so large that it at first seems impossible to comprehend) body of material, is an all-too-overlooked real art practice of its own. At a time when everyone is an armchair curator with a Tumblr account, and the cultural cliche is that we’re overwhelmed with images, communicated ideas (like this blog), and general stimulation, we might consider how our daily work to cull significant, coherent meaning from the present and past is its own constantly-refined lifelong aesthetic project.  Subjectivity fights cynicism, just as research fights ahistoricism.