In New York at the end of the 1970s, many people thought painting was all washed up. And if not washed up, it had to be abstract — the more austere, unemotional and geometric, the better.
Then came the 1980s and a generation of young painters, like Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Eric Fischl, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, and everything changed. With “Fast Forward: Painting From the 1980s,” an irresistible if flawed exhibition, the Whitney Museum tries to sort out how that happened.
The ’80s artists were initially called Neo-Expressionist, an insufficient term, given their stylistic diversity, but one that signaled their accessibility and flair. They drew from art history, the news, graffiti and pop culture. Their work embraced different forms of narrative, often with psychological or erotic overtones, and new kinds of self-awareness and worldliness. Even those who painted abstractly had it, in the form of humor or outside references. Across the board, many worked in large scale, often physically eccentric ways. Mr. Schnabel’s habit of painting on broken crockery became an emblem of the moment, but was only one variation on the bulked-up or expanded forms of collage devised by these artists.
In a sense, the painting that emerged in the early ’80s was mongrel and illegitimate. In logical art-historical terms, it wasn’t supposed to happen. The much-heralded Pictures Generation, a group of photo-based nonpainters, could trace its pedigree to 1970s Conceptual and performance art, and promised an orderly succession. But this divide is often exaggerated: I can imagine painters like Mr. Schnabel and Mr. Fischl thinking, if the Conceptual and performance artists, and their Pictures Generation progeny, can use figures and tell stories, we can, too.
The Neo-Expressionists were an instant hit. The phrases “art star” “sellout show” and “waiting list” gained wide usage, sometimes linked to artists you’d barely heard of. Appearances in glossy magazines became routine. And many people were not happy. The Minimalist sculptor Donald Judd wrote that “talent may strike” Mr. Salle and that Mr. Schnabel “may grow up.” Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, a leading art theorist, labeled them “ciphers of regression” — insignificant, backward daubers who would soon disappear.
For a long time, that seemed to be the case. Over the last quarter-century, ’80s painting has tended to be ignored, if not maligned for the macho persona projected by some of its practitioners, and for reheating the art market after the relatively quiet, supposedly pure ’70s.
The Whitney show is the first attempt by a New York museum to survey this period, to feature the art stars of Neo-Expressionism but also to include lesser-knowns and to demonstrate — as with any period — that there was much more going on.
The heady sense of the 1980s is felt right off the elevator in three works rooted in street art and graffiti, each presenting a complex world in a distinct style. Kenny Scharf’s mural-size “When the Worlds Collide” (1984)
is a cartoon-graffiti outer-space fantasy, mostly in red. Basquiat’s 1982 painting “LNAPRK” (for the Luna Park outside Milan) — half turquoise, half black, with an idiosyncratic use of stretcher bars — presents a bristling stream-of-consciousness overlay of cartoon faces, a bull’s head scavenged from Picasso, the phrase “Italy in the 1500’s” and “essen” — eat in German — repeated three times. These works are hung on walls covered with Haring’s black-and-white graffiti figure patterns — as well known as Mr. Schnabel’s plates — along with an untitled and unusual Haring piece. Rendered in felt-tip on synthetic animal hide, like a jazzed-up prehistoric work, it presents the implicitly moral Haring universe with figures and symbols signifying love and war, life and death, the satanic and the religious, all interlocking.
Drawn from the Whitney’s collection, “Fast Forward” has great moments, in individual efforts and the groupings worked out by its organizers, Jane Panetta, an associate curator, and Melinda Lang, a curatorial assistant. They allow the paintings to complement, but also challenge, one another.
In the first gallery, we can compare the different styles and emotional urgencies in three big paintings by Mr. Fischl, Mr. Schnabel, and Leon Golub. The 1983 Fischl diptych “A Visit To / A Visit From / the Island” contrasts frolicking white people and struggling Haitians on different tropical beaches, starkly raising the issues of the world’s refugee crises and what is now called white privilege. Its loosely painted realism owes something to both news photos and the Ashcan School.
Opposite is Golub’s “White Squad I,” from 1982, in which three mercenaries or soldiers (who are not all white by the way) stand over the prone bodies of a brown-skinned man and woman who seem to have been beaten. All the figures float against a background stained rust-red, evoking heat, violence and blood but also the heroic color fields of Abstract Expressionism. The huge canvas, unstretched, and flat to the wall, has the grandeur of a Renaissance fresco.
Between them, Mr. Schnabel’s vibrant “Hope,” from 1982, conjures a diffuse existential unease grounded in European motifs. A skull, a crucifix and the suggestion of a sorrowing Rubenesque nude press in on a naked man (possibly the artist) who may be leaving them behind. At once absurd and solemn, it is rendered in big splintery brush strokes of gorgeous colors on a patchwork collage of gold and blue velvet (the blue resembles an overheated Titian sky). On view at the Whitney for only the second time in 20 years, this painting is a breathtaking sight.
The second gallery groups together stars, like Mr. Salle, with others, including Joyce Pensato, overlooked until recently, who dallied in the images of popular culture, pulling its meanings in provocative directions. Mr. Salle’s harlequin figures, painted from color reproductions against tones of blue and orange, are splayed across the top half of his “Sextant in Dogtown,” from 1987. Below this elegant mix of old and modern are three inky renderings, indelibly contemporary, based on photographs Mr. Salle took of a seminude woman holding a garment in one instance and a Noguchi lamp in another. The work is an outstanding example of Mr. Salle’s visual sophistication.
In comparison, Kathe Burkhart’s blunt “Prick: From the Liz Taylor Series (Suddenly Last Summer),” from 1987, reprises a movie scene with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in exuberantly trashy paint, vinyl and fake gold leaf. Walter Robinson’s painting “Baron Sinister” (1986) places a heavy-breathing pulp-fiction cover on a demure field of white Rymanesque brushwork, and Peter Cain’s hyper-real “Z” (1989) reduces a gleaming ad-ready image of a car to a phallus on wheels.
The final gallery brings a welcome calmness with work tending toward a more anchored, inward feeling. It is reigned over by Terry Winters’s “Good Government” (1984), a large and beautiful painting of molecular forms adrift in a cream-colored space, whose title has suddenly gained new resonance. Mary Heilmann’s “Big Bill” (1987), a wide white band angling through a field of blue, gives abstraction an insouciant nonchalance, while the wavy green and red lines of Moira Dryer’s “Portrait of a Fingerprint” are hypnotically oceanic. The least-known artist here is Carlos Alfonzo, whose “Told,” from 1990, is a big burly form in dark colors. Its power is lessened by the sketchy figure at its center that may represent Mr. Alfonzo’s knowledge that he had AIDS. (He would die in 1991.) But the work brims with talent and ambition.
The Whitney show is quite satisfying — even revelatory — since many works have not been on view in years. But the exhibition’s unrealized potential is equally visible. To start with, the Whitney’s collection has some unfortunate gaps. Among the most glaring is the absence of one of Philip Taaffe’s burnished reprises of the ’60s Op Art paintings of Bridget Riley or Victor Vasarely, which operated in the gray area between the Neo-Expressionists and the Pictures Generation.
Also, “Fast Forward” has not been given enough room to even take advantage of outstanding ’80s paintings the museum already owns. Over a dozen artists are represented with small works mostly on paper crowded salon-style on one wall, which is insulting. But there are pleasant surprises here: early works by Andrew Masullo; a Nancy Spero collage; and a painterly, highly personal Glenn Ligon. With more space, some of these artists could have been represented by larger efforts.
The show reminds us that art doesn’t adhere neatly to decades; what we consider ’80s painting began in the 1970s and extended into the 1990s. Too bad the curators didn’t stretch the decade a bit more. They could have added Joe Zucker’s funny beautiful “Merlyn’s Lab,” from 1977, whose mosaiclike surface of color-soaked cotton balls presages Mr. Schnabel’s broken crockery. Elizabeth Murray’s great 1978 painting “Children Meeting” also deserves to be here. With its bold-scale, brilliant colors and grand biomorphic evocations of cartooning and Surrealism, this is among the first paintings of the American 1980s and would have given Mr. Scharf’s “When the Worlds Collide” a run for its money.
Nonetheless, “Fast Forward” reveals a complex subject crying out for attention by outlining how the Neo-Expressionists and their ’80s cohort broke painting wide open. Their legacy is a sense of freedom and possibility that infuses the medium to this day.
Correction: February 11, 2017
An art review on Friday about “Fast Forward: Painting From the 1980s” at the Whitney Museum of American Art misspelled the surname of an artist whose work is featured in the show. He is Peter Cain, not Caine.