Who? Today marks the final month of the Whitney Museum’s current exhibition, I, You, We. The display features a powerful selection of works, produced during the 1980s and early 90s, by a diverse range of artists – from Robert Mapplethorpe and Nan Goldin to Cindy Sherman and Francesca Woodman.
What? Taking the words “I”, “you” and “we” as its template – to respectively reflect the artists, their subjects and society at large – the exhibition offers an alternative view of the era through its art. Many remember the 80s as a highly prosperous time when the art market, like the stock prices, was booming. But equally, as the less privileged suffered the effects of rapid gentrification and disfranchisement, the period heralded a widening gap in wealth and ideology throughout America.
"The brash, confrontational approaches initiated by artists during this period have a stirring relevancy to our present day"
Visitors begin in an exhibition space devoted to “I”, chiefly comprising works that reflect upon shifting perceptions of personal identity (think Mapplethorpe and Woodman). Then onto “you,” where the perspective shifts outwards to consider the relationship between artist and subject – this includes Richard Avedon’s candid black and white portrait, Bill Curry, Drifter, Interstate 40, Yukon Oklahoma 6/16/80 (1980). “We” is the most extensive section with a focus on the fundamental ideologies of modern American society as the nation became increasingly polarised. This sense of isolation is encapsulated in Tina Barney’s enigmatic image The Landscape, (1988), where a group of figures stand together in an antique-decked sitting room, totally disengaged from each other and their surroundings. The exhibition also includes a harrowing section on the AIDS epidemic that caused wide-spread devastation at this time, despite being widely ignored by politicians (Reagan failed to acknowledge its existence until 1987).
Why? This period of American history threw up a number of important questions surrounding identity, in terms of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation and community, and in looking at various artists' responses to these issues, I, You, We not only looks to shed light on the past but also on its ongoing repercussions. As curator David Kiehl explains, “The brash and often strident, confrontational approaches initiated by artists during this period to address the personal, social, economic, and political concerns of these years have a stirring, thought-provoking relevancy to our present day.”
I, You, We is currently on display at the Whitney Museum, New York and runs until September 1.
Text by Daisy Woodward