Searching for Light in the Darkness of the ’80s

The New York Times
By Ken Johnson 

For contemporary art in America, the 1980s was an exciting if not lovable decade. Arguably it was second only to the 1960s for ambitious innovations of style and thought. Consider Julian Schnabel’s brawny Neo-Expressionist paintings, Cindy Sherman’s canny, staged self-portraits, Jeff Koons’s sumptuous sculptures of kitschy objects and Barbara Kruger’s suavely designed leftist agitprop: The ’80s abounded in eye- and mind-grabbing work.


In contrast to the future-oriented euphoria of the ’60s, however, the mood of art in the ’80s was retrospective and darkly rueful. With AIDS taking the lives of many in the art community and a conservative president, Ronald Reagan, in the White House, reasons for optimism apparently were few.

That downbeat feeling is stirringly conveyed by “Unfinished Business: Paintings From the 1970s and 1980s by Ross Bleckner, Eric Fischl and David Salle,” an exhibition of paintings and drawings by three artists who rose to stardom in the ’80s, at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, N.Y.

Mr. Bleckner, 67, Mr. Fischl, 68, and Mr. Salle, 63, have been friends since their student days at the California Institute of the Arts in the early ’70s, where they chafed under conceptualist prejudice against painting. All had moved to New York by 1978, and there they achieved the success that would eventually enable them each to acquire a home in the Hamptons, not far from the Parrish.


As painters, however, they went their own ways. Mr. Fischl took up a kind of psychologically charged realism indebted to Manet, in paintings depicting tales and traumas of childhood, adolescence and the nuclear family. Mr. Salle produced expansive, caustically satirical montages of art and design clichés haunted by ghostly images of nude and nearly nude women. Mr. Bleckner veered toward romantic metaphor in paintings that recycled decorative emblems and styles regarded as obsolete at the time, like geometric abstraction and op art, into meditations on loss and grief.

Painted with feverish, ham-handed bravura, Mr. Fischl’s images are like snapshots censored from an otherwise wholesome family photo album. Remember the time Mom passed out drunk in the driveway next to the station wagon and all the neighborhood dogs gathered around as Junior tried to wake her up? That seems to be what’s going on in “A Woman Possessed” (1981).