October, 2008, Totally Rad @ Paul Kasmin Gallery

Paul Kasmin Gallery

Totally Rad: New York in the 80’s

July 10, 2008 - September 6, 2008


From July 10 2008 through September 6, 2008 the Paul Kasmin Gallery presented Totally Rad: New York in the 80s. Featuring artists like Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, and Julian Schnabel, this exhibit honors the time when, in the words of Sammy Hager, “underground ideas became marketable commodities, blatant careerism was in fashion, and young painters were rapidly replacing rock stars at the forefront of youth culture.”


The 1980s hold a special place in the history of New York. Manhattan was a city of extremes; while money was flowing and Wall Street was booming, homelessness was at an all-time high and racial tension ran rampant. The entertainment scene was changing with the introduction of computers and videogames. Music shifted its entire structure with the debut of MTV and music videos. Fashion went all over the map with trends like neon colors, headbands, shoulder pads, designer sneakers, denim, big hair, big sunglasses, and even bigger jewelry. Ronald Regan was elected president and the entire country watched as the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart in the sky killing all crew members aboard. Overseas the action made waves that traveled to our shores with such historic events as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disaster at Chernobyl. These societal changes and events were reflected in the art that was produced during this time.

Paul Kasmin Gallery’s exhibit Totally Rad: New York in the 80’s captures the various artistic forms and prominent messages of the era. The show features seventeen pieces, all by different artists exhibiting diverse styles. One of the largest paintings in the show is a work by Frank Stella called Talladega (1980- .) It utilizes some neo-expressionist techniques with its frenzied brush strokes and dominates the room with its bold swoops and curls, forcing you to follow its erratic movements. Constructed with alkyd and magna on etched mag, this piece features layers of active forms and bright hectic patters. Talladega captures the exuberance of 1980’s culture, and is a far cry from Stella’s other works, which usually features dark minimalist canvases. The painter’s break from his normal style is in itself an expression of 80’s splendor and impulse.

To the right of Talladega hangs Gothic Run Riot or Kathy Painting (1986) by Julian Schnabel. Schnabel’s work emerged as one of the most popular and prominent of the 1980s. He became a bold celebrity personality, and was known for his Neo-expressionist pieces. Gothic Run Riot or Kathy Painting is done on a twelve foot tall canvas and displays a house roped off by gates and what looks to be baguettes. The painting feels brazenly confident in its static imagery, and viewers can almost feel Schnabel’s assurance pushing through the canvas.

Parallel to Schnabel’s work is a piece by Haim Steinback called Charm of Tradition (1985.) Using a plastic laminated wood shelf, Nike high-top athletic shoes, and a deer hooves lamp, Steinback expresses irony in his simple display. The sneakers placed carefully and precisely next to the kitschy lamp showcase elements of a culture that is leagues apart, but still present in the same space. There is a separation between the idea of home/older culture and the outdoors/younger culture; the piece seems to play with the idea of the stationary versus the active. Placing this work in the same space as the bold paintings by Schnabel and Stella allows the viewer to really grasp the minimal nature of the piece, and appreciate its simplicity.

Sex in the 1980s had a big affect on the art that was created. Cindy Sherman’s chromomeric print titled Untitled (Safe Sex) (1987) is one of the few photographs in the collection, and by far my favorite piece. In the print the artist’s leg and back can be seen surrounded by open condoms and phallic vegetables. She taps into the promiscuity of the time, and the sudden importance of safe sex. With the Aids epidemic flourishing and so many new fears being realized, Sherman’s condom littered floor displays the need for sex and sexual expression, while also identifying a growing issue. In the 1980s Aids and HIV began to suddenly affect people in all walks of life, and everywhere you looked you saw the fear of this new disease. One of the most famous New York artists of the time is also one of the most well known Aids casualties of the era, Keith Haring. You cannot have a New York art show without displaying a piece by Haring. The Paul Kasmin Gallery placed Haring’s Self Portrait (1989) in the center of the main room, visible from the street. The green aluminum running man is typical of Haring’s graffiti style, and manages to capture the essence of the 1908s with its simple and small presence.

 The pieces in Totally Rad: New York in the 80’s are displayed with care; the gallery is larger than can be assumed from the outside, and each piece fills its own space with no crowding. The stark white of the walls and display shelves allow you to focus completely on the art. However, the exhibit lacks something electric that could connect all of the works. Each piece seems to stand very robotically and separately from the other, and there is no warmth in the items chosen for the display. I felt as if there should have been some more actual New York images, as the city has changed so much since then. It also would have been nice to see some indication of the music of the era, as this was such an overriding influence on New York youth culture and entertainment. The exhibit lacks some of the joy and indulgence of the 1980s, but the serves as a good taste of the artists, and is good collaboration for the end of the summer.

Gabrielle Sierra

Gabrielle Sierra is a writer in New York.

view all articles from this author