"Untitled" (Perfect Lovers) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres
"Untitled" (Perfect Lovers) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres

Alas, first Michael and now Whitney. They represented two strains in 1980s pop culture: Houston, a child of the gospel tradition, and Jackson, the alien artist who took the music in directions nobody’d imagined. Not incidentally, that’s a tension that runs through the Museum of Contemporary Art’s powerful new “This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s.” Curated by Helen Molesworth of Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, the show presents artists at a crossroads between the classical and the radical—between political complacency and impatience.

“This Will Have Been” is divided into four sections: Democracy, Gender Trouble, Desire and Longing, and The End Is Near. The concerns that run through it are what might be expected inasmuch as the 80s gave us AIDS and Ronald Reagan. But nothing here weighs as heavily as time itself. That’s suggested by the future-perfect conjugation of the show’s title, which hints at some eventual revelation—what, exactly, will this have been? The phrase calls to mind Diane Arbus’s application for a 1963 Guggenheim fellowship. She wanted to make pictures, she said, “like somebody’s grandmother putting up preserves, because they will have been so beautiful.”

They will have been so beautiful. Nobody is making that claim for the 1980s, when artists—Nan Goldin, Gerhard Richter, Cindy Sherman, Robert Mapplethorpe, and scores of others are in this show—wanted to disrupt modernist notions about beauty with something more fragmented and challenging. They grapple with the end of painting, as augured in a 1981 essay by Douglas Crimp—the obsolescence of that most traditional art form in the age of mass media and easy photo reproduction. Subverting Frank Stella, Sherrie Levine put his stripes on chair seats so you could sit on them.

In a catalog essay for “This Will Have Been,” Frazer Ward revisits the early-80s discussion about whether photography would subsume painting. After considering the decade on a theoretical level, he pivots toward the personal and another kind of ending—the AIDS crisis—saying, “I also remember the eighties.”

That mournful memory, so fierce and deliberate, pervades the show. Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers) features two battery-powered wall clocks hung side by side. Initially set to the same time, they come to tick asynchronously as the weaker battery dies. The clocks, the artist said, represent him and his lover, who died of AIDS in 1991. Gonzalez-Torres died of the same disease in 1996. “The piece I made with the two clocks,” he remarked, “was the scariest thing I have ever done.”

The decade spills beyond its formal boundaries. One persuasive claim made here is that the 80s are still with us because so much of what defined them—HIV, the preoccupation with mass media, a conservative political class impelled by racial and sexual paranoia—is still with us. The street-protest aesthetic embraced by the Occupy movement recalls actions by feminists and AIDS activists, who became frustrated—no, furious and desperate—at outrages against their communities. In 1989 the artist collective Gran Fury created Kissing Doesn’t Kill, a series of bus placards showing a mishmash of couples—biracial, straight, gay—kissing. The punch line: “Greed and indifference do.” That same year a “public service message” from the Guerrilla Girls listed The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist; the lead entry was “Working without the pressure of success.”

During a recent gallery tour, Molesworth (who defines the 80s as starting in 1979, with punk rock, and lasting until 1992 and the election of Bill Clinton) said she wanted to take us through the exhibit the way she intended it to be seen, starting with the Democracy section and ending, of course, with The End Is Near. To narrativize the show like that makes it feel, ironically, incomplete. Have we reached the end yet? Of course not. In light of this chronicle of devastation I felt, not for the first time, unsure of my inheritance as a gay man born in the midwest in the 80s. My friends and I call ourselves “queer” because of the word’s radical political overtones. Some remnant strains of gay radicalism harken to the 80s, when AIDS-ravaged men requested and received open-casket funeral marches. But the gay rights movement has been, quite literally, domesticated. Marriage is the domestic privilege it seeks. Meanwhile, AIDS remains at the margins.

One of the most salient works I’ve seen about the 1980s is Alan Hollinghurst’s gorgeous 2005 novel The Line of Beauty, about a young gay man who lodges for a few years with a conservative member of the British Parliament and his family. The book begins in the heady days of the Thatcherite ascendancy—1983, the year I was born—and closes four years later. For the main character, Nick, the time goes by in a blur of cocaine and effortless sex. As the story ends he’s about to take an HIV test, which he suspects will be positive. There’s a scene a little before that, set on a rainy day, in which Nick and the MP’s daughter, Catherine, await the results of the latest parliamentary election. “‘Well, it’ll soon be over,'” Nick says.

“‘What? Oh, the election, yes.’ Catherine stared out into the drizzle. ‘The 80s are going on for ever.'”