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Searching for Light in the Darkness of the ’80s
New York Times

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).

 

A diptych called “Dog Days” (1983) calls to mind the black comedies of the filmmaker Todd Solondz. It pairs scenes on the balconies of seaside hotels. To the left, two dogs gaze hungrily at a woman standing nude but for beach sandals; to the right, a pantless teenage boy with an erection stands before a girl who offers him her naked, pubescent body. To paint such intimate moments on such a big, public scale — “Dog Days” measures 7 by 14 feet — was a daring thing to do, and Mr. Fischl’s voyeuristic paintings are still thrillingly unnerving to behold.

 

Mr. Fischl’s works have rarely been politically overt, but a diptych called “A Visit To/A Visit From/The Island” (1983) is a great exception, a searing allegory of white guilt. To the left, a group of white vacationers of various ages and sexes, some nude, are cavorting, with a boat, a windsurfing board and other toys of affluence in shallow turquoise waters off a coastal resort. To the right, distraught black people tend to the naked, black bodies of drowned storm victims washed up on another beach. The message is as indecorously blatant and as urgent today as it was three decades ago.

 

While Mr. Salle’s disjunctive mural-scale compositions are more cerebral and puzzling, they convey feelings of unease similar to Mr. Fischl’s. Mr. Salle’s anxieties are embodied particularly by images of women rendered by brushy, layered lines of paint and as spectral gray figures. In “Fooling With Your Hair” (1985), the top half consists of images vignetted within sourly colored ovals: two ’50s-style designer lamps and two gnarly, Giacometti-style sculptures — a portrait bust and a jokey figure of a woman with prominent breasts. Across the lower register are three images in shades of gray of a woman unclad but for high-heel pumps and a short T-shirt lying on a metal table in awkward positions. Two on the right proffer feet first, gynecological perspectives that verge on the sadomasochistic.

 

Some critics have regarded Mr. Salle’s images of women as demeaning, but they are of a piece with a generally bleak vision of a modern world with a sick soul. This is what it might be like to see through the eyes of a depressed person whose most intense emotion is sardonic cynicism. To have such an acerbic mental state looming at you in billboard-size paintings is weirdly transporting, if not comforting.

 

The key to Mr. Bleckner’s concerns is evident in a painting from 1987 resembling a large, off-white, weathered tombstone with the number 27764 centrally rendered in Gothic-style numerals — the number of lives claimed by AIDS at the time he made the painting. In his most fully realized works — not in this show but hinted at by smudgy drawings of bouquets in vases — Mr. Bleckner would create visionary, darkly luminous spaces of mourning, populated by fluttering birds, ribbons, veils, chandeliers and funereal flowers in silvery vases. He became a poet of death, memory and a flickering afterlife.

 

Mr. Bleckner’s works in this exhibition, which was organized by David Pagel, an adjunct curator at the museum, show him on the brink of coming into his own. The best is “The Forest” (1981), a painting of soft-edge, dark stripes alternating with stripes tinted shades of green and blue on a 10-foot-tall canvas. It updates op art of the ’60s to gorgeous and ethereal effect. In other works from the same year, like “Tunnel of Love,” a brusquely painted, white, heart-shaped spiral on a black field, the synergy of illusion and metaphor that would characterize his mature work is yet to jell.

 

Animated by a kind of Victorian religiosity, Mr. Bleckner’s cannily postmodernist yet unabashedly sentimental art would seem to be equally far from Mr. Fischl’s earthy tragicomedy tragic-comedy and Mr. Salle’s bitter semiotic gamesmanship. What the three artists shared was a desperate urge to find meaning in and through painting, during a decade in which it seemed more was ending than beginning.