Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s

Feb 11–Jun 3, 2012

We live in a society saturated with mass-media images designed to fill us with desire. Artists during the 1980s were intrigued by the strength of such images. While some found them enthralling, others sought to dismantle them in order to critique the mass media’s relentless command to consume. Within this milieu, appropriation developed as a central artistic strategy of the 1980s, comprising various techniques such as re-photographing the work of others, using commodities or everyday objects in sculpture, and using photographs as the basis for paintings. By deploying the language of the mass media in a new context, artists hoped to both unmask and debunk the power of commodity objects and mass-media images. Ironically, in using such techniques, artists also exposed their own desires for uniqueness and individuality, Hollywood-style fame, artistic greatness, luxury goods, or sexual prowess, suggesting that such desires, however manufactured, are hard to resist.

The early 1980s witnessed a rise in the rhetoric of gay liberation, and artists produced increasingly explicit pictures of gay and lesbian desire for a culture almost exclusively devoid of images depicting the reality of gay life. By the end of the decade, as tens of thousands died of complications from AIDS in the United States, desire gave way to the fear and rage that fueled the activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), and a deep sense of longing—for days past, for loved ones gone, for a more just social fabric, and for a time before the AIDS crisis began.