As college students, we take pride in being “’90s kids.” It was, after all, the era of Pokémon, Tamagotchi pets, and “Hey Arnold!.” ’90s kids, for the most part, grew up in innocence and ignorance, untouched by the turbulent social issues of the decade. Safely cocooned in our pre-adolescent bubbles, we know nothing of the anti-gay tirades, the AIDS epidemic, or the rise in crime and homelessness that swept the country. The ’90s we know is merely the glossy surface of a complex decade, and we can’t help but wonder what this means for our collective identity.
The Whitney Museum of American Art attempts to answer this complex question in the exhibit “I, YOU, WE,” which opened on April 25 and focuses exclusively on artwork from the ’80s and early ’90s. This is the final step in the Whitney’s two-year project to update its collections before moving to its new location in the Meatpacking District in 2015.
The exhibit is grouped into five main galleries. The first is devoted to pieces based on the pronoun “I,” the next three feature pieces that deal with the pronouns “you” and “we,” and the final gallery displays artwork that focuses on the AIDS crisis.
“Prepositions are those things we use and overuse that are loaded with meanings,” David Kiehl, the curator of the exhibit, said. “I—‘Who am I? How do I define myself?,’ You—‘I am looking at you and I am reacting to you.’ And when you get to ‘We,’ you get the full brunt, the full meaning of the preposition involved with the preposition—they, we, our—negative and positive.”
When the elevator doors yawn open, I am faced with a wall of giant jugs, set against the stark white backdrop of the wall. Stepping closer, the words etched in Gothic script into each of the glass vessels become visible. Like the chemical stores of some mad scientist, the jars bear names such as “vomit,” “oil,” and “mucus.” I am thoroughly confused when I reach the end of the wall and prepare to round the corner into the main exhibit. Luckily, I catch a glimpse of the description, which announces that these jars are meant to represent the “fears about bodily fluids, contamination, and the transmission of HIV.” And, just like that, I am in the ’80s.
Each room of the gallery employs a minimalist setup: blank white walls, hardwood floors, and pops of color provided by the artwork. Jazz music is anachronistically piped into the exhibit on a constant loop. The back wall of each room bears the name of the exhibit with one word bolded. I begin my journey into the past with “I,” the gallery devoted to the representation of the self. I do a tentative lap around the room, pausing at Robert Mapplethorpe’s “Self Portrait,” in which the artist photographs himself in drag. His features are beautiful—including his manicured eyebrows, large blue eyes, and lips that remind me of Jessica Alba—and his gender is not immediately obvious.
“Work from the 1950s, it’s classic, we can admire it,” Kiehl said. “We all know [Jackson] Pollock is great and important, but I think a lot of these works are more intense.
The second gallery is devoted to how the artist connects with his subjects, and, by extension, how you as the viewer connect with the piece.
To my right are two photos of the same young boy, Jessie. On the left side, Jessie is himself, wide-eyed and innocent. On the right is Jessie as Madonna, lips painted, eyes squinting and gazing provocatively, clad in a skimpy tank top. The open and unencumbered expression is replaced by something harder, more practiced, and the little boy seems to disappear under the disguise of the music megastar. The idea of fluid gender roles re-emerges, but it is presented differently: This is an artist acknowledging, and accepting her son’s identity. In some ways, this is more liberating than Mapplethorpe’s introspective piece.
One of the best pieces in the gallery is a photograph of Bill Currey, a drifter on Interstate 40. Currey stands there, his arms crossed, his skin tanned and golden as he stares directly into the camera. There’s something about Currey’s expression that’s so exposed and open that it seems like the only thing keeping you from reaching out and touching him is the canvas.
I stand there for a few minutes, staring at the painting with the feeling that I know Currey just from its description. He has one of those faces that can be described as an open book: honest and unassuming, a man content with life.
The artwork of the late 20th century is on the brink of technology—and in a world quickly moving irrevocably toward glowing screens and digital voices, the artists of the ’80s rebel in a stunning fashion, presenting people in their raw forms, less encumbered and isolated than before. There seems to be nothing preventing you from reaching out and touching the subjects.
Another photo, “Monument to the Homelessness,” presents the socioeconomic reality of the ’80s in an evocative, but simplistic, fashion by depicting a flattened cardboard box, laid out in a field of straw. You cannot look at it without feeling a pang of remorse. Adjacent to this is “The Damm Family in their Car.” Again, the emotion in the subjects’ gazes is touching, and it is only after I speak with Kiehl that I learn the full story: The car is the Damm family’s home, with the parents and their two children living perpetually on the road. He tells me about how the children cried when they settled into a hotel room, knowing that they would eventually have to leave.
The multimedia gallery also features a pitch-black corridor leading into the darkened movie theater, which is peppered with snippets of songs from the ’80s. The otherwise silent movie theater streams “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” a 45-minute slideshow showing ordinary people from the ’80s and ’90s.
While most of the images are candid, with people lounging around a living room or hanging out on the beach, some are truly terrifying. One includes a man leaning over a bloody bathtub, while an entire series depicts sexually graphic material.
What is most striking is how uncensored the art is—these are photographs of people taken at extremely intimate moments, and yet, this is given just as much playtime as the image of brothers with their arms linked around each other. There is something very natural about these images, and you feel connected to the subjects. After the film ends, I sit in the darkened room for a few minutes, taking in what I’ve just seen, nostalgic for a world I don’t really know, and people I’ve never met.
By the time I get to “We,” my anticipation was mounting. Set against the back wall is a massive painting depicting two scenes. An idyllic beach, with nude sunbathers enjoying the sunshine is on one side, with a scene of chaos and destruction on the other. The latter image depicts Haitian refugees screaming and yelling underneath a dark grey sky as they scramble ashore. For the first time, I am really struck by just how recent the ’90s were.
As a ’90s kid, though, there seems to be an unspoken dividing line in our history: Sept. 11, 2001. In many ways, the world as we knew it changed irrevocably on that day, and the world we came into as adults is drastically different from that of the ’90 s. While the ’90s may have been just two decades ago, it somehow feels much further away, an era of safety and security when we didn’t feel exposed and vulnerable to the whims of foreign enemies. “We” harkens back to what one might consider a more peaceful time, even if the artwork is anything but.
With renewed energy, I move into the final gallery, devoted entirely to the representation of AIDS. This one is, by far, the most emotionally stirring.
Hung on the left-most wall is a photo of a young boy wearing an adorably ugly shirt, his overly large front teeth in the very center as he flashes a huge grin. He stands before a backdrop of words, telling the story of his future: How he will be beaten and silenced, raped and persecuted, all because “he discovers he desires to place his naked body on the naked body of another boy.” It’s emotional, and reading the story is chilling. But this was the fate for thousands of young men in the late ’80s.
The last piece in this gallery is “Bed Pan,” taking up a majority of the back wall. The oil painting portrays a man laying on a bed, hooked up to IV drips, his back arched in discomfort and pain, his head facing away from the viewer. Standing by his bed is another man—be it a friend, partner, or caretaker—holding a bedpan.
Even in oil, you can see the pain and agony in his expression, powerless to help. All he can do is empty the bedpan, and he stands there with the white porcelain object clutched in his hands like a lifeline. The pathos of this painting is so palpable that it merits a few minutes of quiet contemplation, while ignoring the whirlwind of activity taking place around me.
All of us
The ’80s and ’90s are defined by extremes. For the United States, this was a period of unequal power and presence on the world stage. And for New York City, it was the beginning of the “Back to the City” movement, with people flocking from the suburbs to the urban jungle. This was a period of extreme wealth but also excessive poverty and racial tensions—a time “when the United States was at the top of the world—the Soviet Union collapses and the United States is incomparably the leading military and economic power in the world,” according to Professor Kenneth Jackson of the history department. “Who can hurt us? Nobody.”
While this mindset seems extremely idyllic and utopian in a post-9/11 world, it does not sufficiently describe a time when uncertainty lurked under the veneer of the American flag, and the Whitney acknowledges this. Amid the era’s social chaos, defining “I” and “we” isn’t as simple or clear-cut as it may sound.
While the exhibit as a whole certainly deals with heavy themes from homelessness, to gender roles, to the AIDS epidemic, its subdivisions makes the subject matters manageable.
I emerge from the exhibit back where I began—in front of the wall of jars. As I wait for the elevator, a little boy darts in front of me, begging his mother to let him push the down button. I smile at him as he dances around his mother in impatience, and I can’t help but wonder what he thinks of this exhibit—or if in 10 years, will he stand where I am, attempting to make sense of my childhood and the long-ignored realities of this fantasy.
“I, You, We” runs until Sept. 1.