By Jonathan Stevenson / At first blush, if you were born in 1959 – two years after Sputnik, just beyond the outer fringe of the baby boom, but before Gen X kicked in – you could be forgiven for feeling a little left out. You’re too young to have felt the thrill of 1960s radical outrage over Cold War excesses and civil rights during a hormone-charged adolescence, too old to have taken straight to heart the grungy truth that youthful angst wasn’t just sourced in big national and international issues but flowed just as generously from the hovering existential rot of late capitalist democracy. You were too young to fight (or refuse to fight) in Vietnam, too old to do so in the Gulf War. Your coming-of-age center-cut is roughly 1972 to 1987 – from Watergate to Iran contra, from the malaise of flattened idealism through the heedlessness of hedonist establishmentarianism. Are you really generationally challenged?
Not so much. The seventies were actually pretty cool in a kind of washed-out, subliminal way, like a slightly bleaker Portlandia, a town you might reach at the end of the mythical two-lane blacktop, with Warren Oates’s GTO yakking at you in jaunty desperation. An enervated counterculture retreated from the political frontlines, but, notwithstanding Altamont and Charles Manson and the Silent Majority, it hardly died. Rather, it became more embedded and knowing and cynical after Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated. It was a superb decade’s worth of cinema as the New Hollywood came into its own (Altman, Ashby, Cassavetes, and Scorsese were in their glory), sustained by artists and hipsters who proved that the idea of a loyal socio-cultural opposition hadn’t perished but was just retrenching in places like Soho (see Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers). There was disco, yeah, but, though sequestered in Memphis, there were also Alex Chilton and Big Star, whose mordant influence permeated 1990s alt rock, not to mention Lou Reed and Patti Smith and punk in general. Only now was feminism, the last big protest movement of the sixties, finding real traction. In retrospect, anyway, it was not a terrible time to embrace puberty in earnest.
The 1980s, when you started to turn into a real adult, presented a dauntingly ugly zeitgeist but, dialectically, it yielded some victories. Overall, swagger and aggression might have prevailed over wit and guile. Reagan left détente behind and turbocharged the Cold War, while AIDS appeared and afforded him another area in which to trample humanism. And it became cool to be, or at least seem, square (except for all the coke). Yet the pervasive decadence gave idealists, including artists, a big, hard target. Tom Wolfe took down self-conceived “masters of the universe,” bands like The Replacements mocked the vanities and extolled Chilton. In painting, after a decade of reductive serial-based approaches and flat pop imagery, expressionism in terms of both image and materiality made a comeback. Neo-expressionists recorded and bolstered the partial resurgence of political protest, now against American intrigue in Latin America. Gay painters captured the reality of a devastating epidemic facing cruel government negligence. Women like Elizabeth Murray brought both nuance and panache to feminist content. The culture wars – Mapplethorpe vs. Helms, to mention just one battle – started and perpetuated piquant public conversations. In fact, the eighties presented a remarkably eclectic and dynamic cultural scene – ideal for a young painter looking to find herself.
By the 1990s, the most footloose decade of your lifetime, you might have felt satisfied, even a little blessed, to have been born when you were. The Cold War was over, the specter of nuclear annihilation had lifted, and the government had begun to address HIV/AIDS. Liberal democracy seemed to have left other ways of political being in the dust. Although critics and collectors were bored with painting and postured that it was a spent force, painters, in the relative darkness of unknown neighborhoods like Williamsburg, were thriving. Sure there was doubt, but that’s what informed the new canvases. Even Republicans couldn’t find anything other than a consensual blow job to investigate, Seinfeld made the case that contemporary Western life presented literally nothing of major concern. And you were still in your thirties. There was, to be sure, some fin-de-siècle ennui, but, this time around, against the backdrop of the scabrous twentieth century, it was relaxing rather than depressing, while the grunge-meisters of Washington State at least reminded you that all was not enduringly well with the species. Bad painting was good and no one cared about the art market. Some of you had kids, many left the city, some stayed, and most continued to paint. This interregnum, so blithely aimless, was nice while it lasted. Simmering problems would boil over soon enough with the September 11 attacks.
They changed the world as much as John F. Kennedy’s assassination had when you were four years old. The naughts, your forties, were troubled times. 9/11 transmogrified American exceptionalism from a precious conceit into a lethal weapon. Your country invaded, it occupied, it tortured, it snooped. At the end of the decade, deliverance seemed to arrive in the form of an inspiring “post-racial president” – received by the hopeful as a symbol of broader postmodern enlightenment – but this turned out to be a cruel tease. As great a man as Obama is, insular nativism surfaced, harnessed to sanitizing nostalgia for the eighties, at any rate, if not the fifties or even the twenties. Americans are at one another’s throats again, as polarized as they were in the sixties. Artists broadly embraced Obama and may still be relatively unified, but even they have conjured ways to fight among themselves about politics and aesthetics. The art market spun through abstraction, then figuration. The controversy over Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till may seem to you, who witnessed the first culture wars firsthand, like an unfortunate product of wily political sabotage intended to divide and subdue.
You might have wondered: why can’t everyone get along and work together? Yet the larger picture emerging seems to be one of liberal conciliation. In the next five years, before retirement age, you may well see the end of Trump, and, however fraught, a new beginning. The cycles of your life, it turns out, have enjoyed impressive amplitude. Don’t despair, and don’t rejoice, either. Not yet.
Please join us for “1959: Spirit of the Void,” a celebration of artists born in 1959 during DUMBO Open Studios, Saturday, April 27, 4-7 pm, for a toast and some birthday cake.
Curated by Sharon Butler and Stephanie Theodore (of Theodore:Art) Artists include Markus Baenziger, Sharon Butler, Elisabeth Condon, Dionisio Cortes, Catherine Howe, Dion Kliner, Robert Lansden, Xanda McCagg, Joseph Salerno, Mary Schiliro, Jane Swavely, and Amy Yoes.
The show will on view Saturday and Sunday, April 27 & 28, 1-6pm. Read more.
Dumbo Open Studios, Brooklyn, NY. April 27-28, 1-6 pm.