The people who run the Brooklyn Museum have a new retrospective of work by Jean-Michel Basquiat, and they are doing their best right now to summon the spirit of the '80s. Basquiat, who died in 1988 at age 27, is the graffiti artist who personified certain dimensions of that decade as completely as his onetime girlfriend Madonna. So on a recent Saturday afternoon, a large area on the museum's fifth floor was given over to break dancers busting out moves. In a corner, a DJ fiddled with his turntable while a crowd of kids watched. A couple of guys in suits stood off to one side. Although they were probably just visitors, it was easy to imagine them as those other essential players in any '80s tableau: investment bankers.
"Basquiat" is one of the major museum shows of the year, a reminder that for all the mediocrity and repetition of his last years, when his heroin addiction overcame his gifts and took his life, Basquiat was someone who produced some irresistible work. After it wraps up in Brooklyn on June 5, the exhibition moves on to Los Angeles and Houston, bringing cross-country the Basquiat debate--Was he the last inheritor of the Modernist tradition? A puerile nobody? Something in between?--and its attendant recollections of the '80s. Meanwhile, a sizable show called "East Village USA" has just completed a three-month run at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in Manhattan. That one surveyed the moment two decades ago when that New York City neighborhood became the anti-SoHo, full of storefront galleries and artists who were thumbing their noses at the fancier dealerships around West Broadway. (At least they were doing that until they could get picked up by those dealers themselves.) And although the art world is a place of very diverse practices these days, two legacies of the '80s turn up everywhere in the work of younger artists: an adolescent obsession with pop culture--comic books, video games, Japanese anime, Goth music--and a very grownup dedication to career management.
What all this means is that Billy Idol isn't the only bit of '80s cultural flotsam that has floated back lately. The art of that moment is of the moment again. How does it look to us now that the hype has dimmed? Just as it is in music and fashion, in the realm of art, it's a decade that remains a sore spot. It introduced artists whose work has enduring fascination. Cindy Sherman's photographs of herself in the guise of indistinct movie heroines, Jenny Holzer's dream jottings on electronic ticker-tape signs, Elizabeth Murray's shaped canvases--all that arrived in the '80s. So did inflated reputations and a superheated art market that eventually crashed, taking some of the biggest names down with it. All the same, despite its frequent lapses into coarseness, triviality and crass merchandising--hey, because of those things!--it was the last time that stars of the gallery circuit were also famous in the wider world. The decade included not only the wild-style markings of Basquiat but also the slatherings on broken plates of Julian Schnabel, the lovable doodles of Keith Haring, the metallic metal bunny balloon of Jeff Koons--even your mother had heard about that stuff.