New York is a phoenix: in death it is reborn. During the 1970s, after years of white flight, landlord-sponsored arson, and systemic government disinvestment cozily termed “benign neglect,” the city teetered along the edge of bankruptcy and nearly collapsed. Though naysayers cried, “New York is dead,” they were wrong. The city arose from the ashes in the 1980s, stronger than ever before.
In Ronald Reagan’s America, greed was good and gauche was chic as the lifestyles of the nouveau riche and famous set the art world ablaze. Art became the ultimate commodity, the status symbol that telegraphed not only a sense of worldly sophistication but business savvy among the emerging neoliberal elite. Investors flocked to the world’s only unregulated industry, transforming the art market into a luxury exchange.
All things considered it was the logical extension of Andy Warhol’s veneration of “the object” that fueled the creation of his distinctive brand of Pop Art. In creating an instantly recognizable iconography centering the mundane matters of everyday life, Warhol not only elevated the commonplace into the sacred realm of art but also transformed the artist into a brand. Like any heritage brand, Warhol understood the way to keep current was to mix it up with the youth. A mission that put him on the path to socialize and collaborate with Jean-Michel Basquiat, an artist fueled by an ambition and a savvy all his own—to infiltrate New York’s highly exclusionary art world.
In late 1982, Basquiat’s dealer Bruno Bischofberger arranged a lunch, which Warhol recorded in his October 4 diary entry: “[Bischofberger] brought Jean-Michel Basquiat with him. He’s the kid who used the name 'Samo' when he used to sit on the sidewalk in Greenwich Village and paint T-shirts…he was just one of those kids who drove me crazy…. And so had lunch for them and then I took a Polaroid and he went home and within two hours a painting was back, still wet, of him and me together.”
Seizing the moment Basquiat understood that a partnership with Warhol would launch his career to stratospheric heights. Warhol in turn understood the value the young artist brought with his radical approach to image making that pushed Warhol into new creative grounds. Theirs was an incandescent relationship that would continue until Warhol’s untimely death at the age of 58 in 1987, just months before the stock market crashed.
Both events were a tremendous shock to the art world, which had reveled in rule-breaking excess as collectors rapaciously consumed gallery offerings. In some ways this extremism matched the world in which they lived, as the city waded knee deep through the valley of death. AIDS spread rapidly as the government turned its back on the people of New York once again.
Within this harrowing landscape, a profound sense of community took shape in the downtown art world. Soho, formerly an industrial center, was being remade by artists and galleries, who moved into the light filled lofts to create their own magical worlds. Across town in the East Village and on the Lower East Side, a new generation of radical artists sought refuge among the long established working class immigrant community. Artists opened their own storefront galleries and engaged in new forms of experimental art, creating a movement based not on aesthetics but on location, a truly New York idea. It was a conceit that fueled the equally rapid expansion and collapse of the scene, for a brief shining moment launching extraordinary talents like Keith Haring, David Wojnarowicz, Kenny Scharf, and Jeff Koons to the world stage.
In some ways, Ingrid Sischy’s tenure as editor in chief of Artforum best encapsulated the 1980s New York art scene. In 1979, at the age of 27, Sischy took the reigns and reimagined the esoteric publication into a glossy “art world bible.” Understanding the nature of industry, Sischy applied the rules of fashion to the realm of art, positioning herself as tastemaker, gatekeeper, and icon who ultimately earned the name “A Girl of the Zeitgeist,” in a feature by Janet Malcolm for The New Yorker.
“The point was to use the page as a primary ground for art. As a non-proscenium stage, even. Take, for example, the February 1982 special issue, when we put Issey Miyake’s bamboo cowboy dress on the cover,” Sischy said in the September 2012 issue of Artforum. “Laurie Anderson created a special flexi disc of let X = X, which became her famous record, Superman….Andy Warhol did a big centerfold pullout of dollar-sign paintings; and Christopher Makos was commissioned for a very prescient drag photograph of Andy. We centered this issue on a topic that many artists seemed to be thinking about at the time: the increasingly invisible boundary between high art and low art.”
In doing so, Sischy followed Warhol’s lead, taking a hand in creating the highly stratified world we are living in today. Critical thought became a pose that could be bought or sold, a position brilliantly illustrated by Barbara Kruger’s 1987 silkscreen Untitled (I shop therefore I am) — an iconic, ironic interrogation of consumerism that still resonates, even and perhaps especially as the retail of yesteryears has been replaced by the visually-driven e-commerce platforms of the day.
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