Celebrity and the Cult of the Artist

Artists such as David Salle, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Eric Fischl came to prominence during the 1980s and their influences still reverberate today.

Published On: Dec 12 2012 09:01:29 AM EST
From MOCA Jacksonville's curatorial notes by Ben Johnson -

During the 1970s, art became more fragmented, conceptual, ephemeral, and no longer restricted to the confines of galleries or museums. Economic recession, high oil prices, political apathy following Watergate, and a more freewheeling culture also defined that decade. The trends of the 1970s provided the underpinnings of what would come to dominate and define America in the 1980s: AIDS, the
drug war, Yuppies, and the emergence of celebrity culture.

Following a decade focused on video, performance, earthworks, and installations, painting made a vibrant comeback in the 1980s —particularly the abstract, figurative, landscape and expressionistic styles. Artists such as David Salle, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Eric Fischl came to prominence during the 1980s and their influences still reverberate today. Many already established artists, such as Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, David Hockney, and James Rosenquist, experienced career resurgences as influential tastemakers and mentors for the younger generation.

Throughout the 1970s, New York City was the hub of the art world. In the 1980s, the East Village became its epicenter. A surge of media and gallery attention thrust many of the decade’s rising artists squarely into the limelight, making art prices and reputations soar, and sometimes fall, overnight.

Movements such as Neo-Expressionism, New Image painting, and genres such as photography and sculpture reached zeniths of varying heights and vulnerability during the era. This fragility touched not only the art market but also the major artists and media stars of the decade. While they enjoyed great fame, Basquiat and Haring had their very public lives cut short by substance abuse or AIDS.

While observers hailed the movements of the ‘80s as a “return to painting,” what matters equally about the art of this era is the artists’ conscious and explicit role as celebrities and the manner in which the limelight allowed them to act as interpreters, mediators, and trendsetters of cultural, social, and political developments.

While New York had served as the acknowledged center of the art world since the days of Abstract Expressionism, in the 1980s, a thriving alternative art community developed outside the gallery and museum system in the downtown streets, the subways and spaces in clubs, and former dance halls of the East Village and the Lower East Side. Musicians, performance artists, and graffiti writers comprised this burgeoning art community.

A draw for artists from all over the country, ultimately, the energy and spirit of this scene became more widely recognized and many of the artists associated with the downtown scene became overnight sensations — in the public imagination as well as the teeming and lucrative art market, much like Jean-Michel Basquiat.


Keith Haring, circa 1988


Jean-Michel Basquia

Other artists who flocked to New York during this period and, for a time, epitomized the downtown scene included Jack Goldstein and Keith Haring. A performance and conceptual artist, California-based Goldstein made experimental films rooted in Minimalist sculpture. Shortly after his arrival in New York, Goldstein began to make what he referred to as “salon paintings” — works designed both for sale to wealthy art patrons and as a tool with which to secure a place for himself in art history.

While some accused Goldstein of “selling out” to a bull market in painting, he nevertheless produced an intriguing set of works during this decade, all based on photographic images of natural phenomena, science, and technology. As the 1980s continued and interest in the “salon paintings” waned, Goldstein returned to California where he lived out the decade in relative isolation.

Many of the younger artists of the 1980s benefited from the association with a more senior and widely known artist and art impresario — Andy Warhol. Prior to his death in 1987, Warhol enjoyed a re-emergence of critical and financial success, partially due to his affiliation and friendships with a number of prolific younger artists, who dominated the “bull market” of 1980s New York art, particularly Basquiat, Julian Schnabel, David Salle, and other so-called Neo-Expressionists.

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