Totally Radical: Art and Politics in the 1980s
By Jeff Katzin, Curatorial Fellow
When I started to pull together a list of artworks from the Akron Art Museum’s permanent collection for a show about art and American politics in the 1980s, I was amazed at what I found. A wide variety of our objects are directly connected to some of the decade’s biggest issues—the AIDS crisis, the intensifying feminist movement, ongoing calls for racial justice, struggles between corporations and labor unions, environmental preservation, and the tense climax of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Working on this exhibition has left me grateful to the curators who came before me and gathered together such meaningful works of art.
The pictures in Totally Radical: Art and Politics in the 1980s are meaningful, first because they collectively capture the restless political energy of their decade. While artists have used their work to express political views for centuries, in the ‘80s they did so more frequently than ever before, and with a new intensity and immediacy. If the idea that “the personal is political” arose in the feminist movement of the ‘60s, it had gained even more momentum two decades later. The artists in Totally Radical did not consider politics through disconnected theories or vague ideas. Instead, they made art out of immediate concerns that they felt very deeply. Their work is also meaningful because, years later, we still face many of the same issues that they did. As art museums and American society as a whole seek broader conversations about justice and equity in the present, we can look back and learn from the ‘80s.
The eye-catching prints of the Guerrilla Girls are some of the most impactful feminist artworks of all time. Seeking to prioritize issues over individual personalities, members of this all-female group wear gorilla masks during public appearances—the group’s name is a pun on gorilla (the animal) and guerrilla (a member of a small and unconventional military group). When they came together in 1985, the Guerrilla Girls channeled their fighting spirit by collecting statistics reflecting elitism and sexism in the art world, and then plastering them as posters around New York City. The group remains active and they have even made new versions of some of their ‘80s posters with updated numbers. Sadly (or better: infuriatingly), the stats aren’t much better now than they were years earlier, highlighting the ongoing need for museums, galleries, and audiences to reassess their collecting and viewing habits (to help us do just that, I’ve been working on a statistical analysis of the AAM collection in recent months). I also think that the Guerrilla Girls’ fantastic graphic design can sometimes go underappreciated. The images are wonderfully clear and bold, and they draw just as much attention today as they did in the ‘80s. The messages are powerful, and their artistic presentation is masterful.
While the Guerrilla Girls joined forces as a group, Robert Rauschenberg decided to see how far one committed artist could take their political objectives. In the midst of his own successful career, Rauschenberg chose to spend much of his time from 1984 to 1991 on what he called the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (or ROCI, pronounced “Rocky” after his pet turtle). Paying his own way, the artist traveled to ten countries: Mexico, Chile, Venezuela, China, Tibet, Japan, Cuba, the Soviet Union, Germany, and Malaysia. At each stop he staged an exhibition and created new art inspired by local cultures, hoping to stimulate international dialogue and promote freedom of artistic expression. The Soviet/American Arrays featured in Totally Radical include photographs that he took in both the Soviet Union and the United States, highlighting contrasts and similarities between the opposing superpowers of the Cold War. Through ROCI, Rauschenberg hoped to demonstrate the potential for an individual to act outside of government and promote international communication.
Ken Heyman gave himself a truly difficult photographic challenge in taking up a dire but often invisible subject: acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS. By the time he made a series of portraits of men coping with AIDS in 1984, the epidemic had taken the lives of thousands of people. The disease remained shrouded in mystery, fear, and stigma. Politicians and news outlets often avoided mentioning it because it primarily afflicted gay men, who faced an additional layer of prejudice. Through his empathetic portraits, Heyman hoped to give some of these men a voice through a book tentatively titled What I Want to Tell You Before I Die of AIDS. Though the book was never finished, the pictures and a number of interviews remain. One of them in particular speaks to the strength and perseverance that links many of the works in this exhibition:
“I don’t live to die. I don’t sit and wait for something bad. I do try to work, the little I can, for my head—to keep me thinking—keep my motor running. I try to enjoy whatever I can even though I may be doing it alone. I don’t want to sit and mope. I know that when that happens to you, you fall off the fence on the wrong side. I would like to stay alive as much as possible.”
Together, the works of art in this exhibition create a space for political reflection and inspiration, and it’s wonderful to see them all together in a gallery. But, if you’d like to get into a Totally Radical mood from home, check out this playlist that I put together. It contains some of the music that I listened to while selecting works and doing research for this exhibition; songs that helped me feel more connected to the socially-conscious side of the ‘80s.
And stay tuned for our next exhibition tour covering another aspect of the ‘80s through Totally Rad: Bold Color in the 1980s.
Totally Radical: Art and Politics in the 1980s is organized by the Akron Art Museum and supported by funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Ohio Arts Council, the John P. Murphy Foundation, Katie and Mark Smucker, and the Kenneth L. Calhoun Charitable Trust, KeyBank, Trustee.