The 1980s were a pivotal decade in American culture. The Cold War raged. In Reagan’s third year, unemployment hit a post-war high of 10.5 percent and inflation still ravaged average Americans. With deregulation, financiers raked it in. It was the age of sharks. And with the ascendancy of sharks, minnows quivered. Predictably, the sharks did what they could to shift the American experiment from a culture of democracy to a pool of minnows.

One of those sharks was Donald Trump, who made his entrance as a real estate magnate with a “Blacks Need Not Apply” housing development in New York City. Yes, American culture of the 1980s is both now very dated and highly relevant.

Of course, in a capitalist society, the purveyors of fashion need the previous season to look dated. And with a culture keen on what’s current, trends in art will reflect that ethic. Even the discourse of the culture comes into play. In 1964, Arthur Danto published “The Artworld,” a seminal essay that laid out the institutional form of the American … well, art world. (Danto coined the one-word term in that essay.) With that institutional logic ingrained, the 1980s turned to “the art market” as its foundation.

“Under Pressure: Art from the 1980s” is a small but evocative show now on view at the Portland Museum of Art. Featuring works from the PMA’s collection, the intimate presentation and scale achieves an unexpected poignancy. “Under Pressure” not only brings the 1980s into view as a time of division and anxiety, but it offers enough art context to lift some hard-to-see works into clarity.

For starters, I had always admired Frank Stella’s early and austere black paintings and shaped canvases. But as he left behind the severe world of logic and systems for flashy color and wild shapes, such as in his mortifyingly endless “Moby Dick” series, he lost me. But Stella’s 1988 “The Try-Works” comes into focus largely because of a visual conversation it has with Andy Warhol’s 1987 “Moonwalk” and James Rosenquist’s “Electric Nymphs on a Non-Objective Ground.” The Stella and Warhol rather match with their quick-flickered gaudy colors splashed onto something more substantial; the Warhol uses a photo of the 1969 moon landing, and the Stella is painted on a loosely welded aluminum armature. The Rosenquist is the kind of thing you still see in outdated hair salons – red-lipped, stylized women with slicked-back hair glimpsed through what appear as paint stroke-like windows in the otherwise white ground. “Electric Nymphs” – what could be more ’80s than that? And while the Warhol seems a gesture back to the 1960s, “Moonwalk” was of the 1987 moment because of Michael Jackson’s famous dance move. It was also the year Warhol, who was a major celebrity, died.

“The Try-Works,” by Frank Stella, 1988.

“Try-Works” looks like sculpted paint strokes. It’s meant to appear quickly, be seen quickly and to imply that it was painted quickly. The prevalent notion of the time was that the “genius” of artists came in flashes. Warhol merely had to make a few marks on a photo-reproduction of something (or someone) famous and it would be a valuable and highly sought-after “Warhol.” (There’s more to his thinking behind this, but the effect was undeniable, and that was much of the appeal to collectors.) Rosenquist was a talented realistic painter known for his postmodern combining of seemingly unrelated images, but with this print, he hides his slow-cooked skill behind a quick window. And by referencing “non-objective” (a better and older term for “abstract”), he keeps to topics of the “artworld.” With “The Try-Works,” Stella looks to the colorful and flashy quickness of the 1980s, a time of flossy chaos.

The best illustration of ’80s flossy chaos is Kenda North’s 1985 photograph “Patty” from her “Backyard Desires” series – a jumble of legs, pubic hair-revealing pantyhose, an ’80s-style sandal and skewed chair parts.

Postmodernism reigned at the time in architecture, culture and fashion: anything could be taken from anywhere, from any time. The idea was that you could have anything you wanted whenever you wanted it. No waiting.

A suite of Richard Tuttle’s “Loose Leaf Notebook Drawings” (1980-’82) greets the viewer. Each was made in mere seconds, presumably no longer than it takes to write a Chinese character with a brush. We’re supposed to sense the artist’s underlying genius. To see that in one drawing might be a stretch. But with a series, at least something starts to stir.

Most of the works are prints, photographic or otherwise. And the logic of multiples lays at the core of, for example, Warhol’s and Robert Indiana’s work. Indiana, Vinalhaven’s most famous recent resident who passed away on May 19, is represented by a cartoonish image of the Statue of Liberty in honor of her 100th birthday. A tear runs down her face, and she is presented as the “Mother of Exiles” (1986), a clear commentary on the broken state of American inclusiveness. Indiana’s style is all about reproducibility: He uses a poster format, generically clean drawing and stenciled letters. (No wonder about the intrigue regarding copying his prints: He clearly invited that to happen by using fonts, stencils and other easily repeatable elements.)

“Mother of Exiles,” by Robert Indiana, 1986, hard-ground etching and aquatint on Arches Cover paper, 47 by 31 inches. Portland Museum of Art. ©Morgan Art Foundation. Artist Rights Society, New York.

Indiana himself was a self-exile, a homosexual at a time when bullying and cruelty were common. He emulated Marsden Hartley, an earlier gay Maine artist, and so headed out to the island. The issue of sexuality surged with urgency in the 1980s, the age of AIDS, and it appears as the driving subject behind John Baldessari’s 1989 print “Blue Boy (with Yellow Boy: One with Hawaiian Tie, One in the Dark)” featuring two male figures with their faces dotted out.

A particularly powerful piece is Allan McCollum’s 1989 “Over One Thousand Individual Works,” a sculptural installation of orangey cast elements. This strikes me as a meditation on proliferation, which, in the discourse of the Cold War, whispers dangerously of warheads and institutionalized fear.

“Under Pressure” may be a small show, but it makes an impressive statement about the PMA’s collection and curatorial skills. Its poignancy is echoed by a concurrent exhibition in the handsome John Calvin Stevens wing of the museum, “The Robbers: German Art in a Time of Crisis,” another small show featuring the eponymous suite of prints by George Grosz and supported by works by great print artists such as Kathe Kollwitz, Otto Dix and Max Beckmann. “The Robbers” is didactic, moving and well-explained. We have the critical distance now to consider German art from between the wars, and this helps us understand the still-out of focus proximity of the 1980s.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. Contact him at:

[email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.