Much of the art on display in The Modern's newest exhibition doesn't belong in a museum. The very title, Urban Theater: New York Art in the 1980s, implies the art's original presence in the streets. Even today, after decades of moving the risky stuff off the streets and onto the white walls, the juxtaposition between some of the art and the expansive, pristine space it occupies seems disconcerting. And it's for just that reason that this is one of the best exhibitions you'll see this fall.
In the New York of the 1980s, before the sanitization of Times Square and Chelsea, artists weren't striving to be art stars or hoping for their big break with a commercial gallery. No, these artists were taking over abandoned warehouses, painting over subway advertisements, and using their art as social activism. It was rough, rebellious and raw.
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Certainly the exhibition contains big, recognizable images like Warhol's self portrait (a Modern permanent collection item) and a series of Cindy Sherman photographs, but this expansive show surveys so much more. You'll see Jean Michel Basquiat's narrative unfold, alongside Keith Haring's, as their street art was discovered by critics and buyers; then, you'll step into the Jeff Koons room and see an artist both critiquing and buying into the ideals of commercialism. If there were going to be buyers, count Koons in.
In this exhibition, you can see these artists shift from outsider to insider and through its delicate curation you get a sense of the rough transition. If you don't like the Basquiat or the Haring, you weren't really meant to. These are not the Impressionists bowing down to the aesthetics of pleasure, these were artists with something to say, even if that something was just a big "fuck you."
Today the art feels just as exciting. In the back room, next to the addictive cosmic cavern by Kenny Scharf, the artistic activism of the Guerrilla Girls is on full display. They were raising awareness about the underrepresented female and minority artist populations. But they were doing in a way that was artistic. If the art world was going to change, these artists were going to be part of that change. But when you're sorting through the messages of the Guerrilla Girls and running calculations of whether or not we're better today, you're reminded that the 1980s wasn't that long ago. We're still working through issues of art as commercial investment, white, male artistic dominance, and so much more.
Urban Theater: New York Art in the 1980s remains on display at the Modern Art Museum of Forth Worth through January 4, 2015. Admission is $10 for adults.