Review: The Whitney Showcases The Painting of the ‘80s

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"A Visit To / A Visit From / The Island" by Eric Fischl, a part of "Fast Forward: Painting from the 1980s" now at the Whitney Museum.

When the Whitney Museum of American Art re-opened in 2015 with a humongous and fascinating survey of its permanent collection, there were, inevitably, some omissions. Where was Ross Bleckner, for starters? And where were Eric Fischl and Terry Winters? A generation earlier, each of them had been honored with a full-dress, much-ballyhooed retrospective at the Whitney. Their absence from the inaugural show at the downtown building was hard to ignore. It made you wonder whether a new generation of curators felt that the art of the ‘80s was overexposed and undeserving of a fresh look.

Thankfully not. “Fast Forward: Painting from the 1980s,” which opens today at the museum, is an absorbing group show that brings together about 40 paintings by as many artists. All of them made their reputations during the money-drenched, market-driven Reagan years, a time when painting, preferably of the figurative sort, returned to favor after a decade of Minimalist rule. A key concept was appropriation, a fancy word for theft. Painters ransacked old art for images and argued that originality no longer existed. The period is due for a reassessment, but this show isn’t the one to do it. “Fast Forward” is drawn entirely from the museum’s permanent collection and is simply too small to broaden our view of the era. Instead of rewriting history, it affectionately revisits it.

To be sure, the show does make an effort to add new names to the mix. It includes a handful of paintings acquired just last year, including Louisa Chase’s ominous landscape “Limb” (1981), a green-hued view of treetops in which dark body is visible through the foliage. Walter Robinson’s “Baron Sinister” (1986) – a scene swiped from a pulp paperback cover and rendered in acrylic on an actual floral bed sheet – has a folk-art directness, and proves that appropriation art doesn’t have to be nasty.

You don’t want to miss Fischl’s “A Visit To/A Visit From/The Island,” (1983), a horizontal diptych that brings together two wholly disparate images. On the left side, a man, a woman and a teenager who are presumably on a family vacation linger on a tropical beach, oblivious to each other and to their radiant surroundings, all blue sky and turquoise water. On the right side, beneath a cloudy sky, a group of Haitian immigrants struggle for dear life in the water. Although the painting was done more than 30 years ago, it captures with almost harrowing precision our current political situation – an America that remains deaf to the anguish of immigration. As the news out of Washington keeps worsening, it is great to have this painting on view and to recall that American art has its own history of passionate political masterpieces.