“Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy,” reads “Prop,” a small bronze plaque by David Robbins that replicates the language at the entrance to Disneyland, and is nearly indistinguishable from the original.
The piece now sits at the entrance to the newest exhibition at the Hirshhorn, Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s, an exhibition full of pieces that blur the lines between art and advertising, and make you think or wonder if you’re being trolled.“Prop” is small in comparison to the large-scale graphic works it neighbors, so small I actually missed it during my first visit. Luckily, curatorial assistant, Sandy Guttman, points it out the second time through.
“It really sets the tone in terms of commodity and pop culture and gears up what you’re going to look at in the show, in that this is a little bit of a Disneyland as well,” she says.
Guttman offers to lead me through the exhibition after I hopelessly try and navigate myself.
“It also literally takes an object from this thing which is very American and capitalist,” she adds.
This connection is noticable throughout, you see artworks that are seemingly mundane objects, but re-framed. In the first gallery, “Untitled (Hand with Cigarette and Watch)” by Richard Prince, is a work where he crops an existing advertisement, as he did famously with “Untitled (Cowboy),” (or more recently with his Instagram photos).
Prince’s work hangs adjacent to “Shelf with Ajax” by Haim Steinbach and “Remy/Grand Central: Trains, Boats, and Planes” by Dara Birnbaum, both pieces feature actual products, but not in the vein advertising or product placement. Steinbach’s framing of the Ajax detergent bottle recalls a hunting trophy and Birnbaum’s video is half-ad, with the sexualized shots of a woman holding the Remy Martin champagne and half anti-ad with an additional depiction of a train pulverizing the bottle.
“Pepsi Please” by Peter Halley and “Inflammatory Essays“ by Jenny Holzer are also in the first gallery. Halley’s painting displays a zombie begging for a Pepsi; it’s funny and definitely calls for a Snapchat. Holzer’s more Insta-worthy, floor-to-ceiling piece is confrontational and resonates easily with the poignant pieces toward the end of the exhibition.The galleries are ordered chronologically and these early works are not so representative of the exhibition’s objective, which is to chart the “pivotal moments in the 1980s when artwork became a commodity and the artist, a brand.”
Sandy Guttman tells me that curator Gianni Jetzer was growing up when much of this art was made, and though he didn’t grow up in New York, he was inspired by a show on this very specific scene which capitalized on the conflation of commodity and brand.
“A lot of times when you’re curating for a show you have to think about which pieces can make your argument the strongest,” Guttman says. “That’s where you start with your checklist and then from there you try to branch out.”
The second gallery, which features the work of artists including Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger, lays out and drives home Jetzer’s thesis. The gallery gives a sense of how small this group of friends started exceptionally well. There’s artifacts from an aesthetic consultancy a few started, as well as copy from group shows they put on.
The camaraderie comes across in “Talent” by David Robbins, which features Koons, Sherman and Holzer. The picture includes the artist and his friends in Hollywood-style head shots, but observing as a whole feels like observing a class portrait or even stills from your favorite sitcom.
Charlesworth’s two works are cropped images of Madonna and David Bowie, “Virgin” and “Golden Boy” respectively. Lemieux’s “Courting Death” is a re-staged photograph in a uniquely Hollywood style, while still drawing influences from art history. The result is a cross between a silver screen secretary and a St. Jerome.
“What is she taking notes on?” Guttman asks. “Why is there a skull?”
The later galleries deal with HIV/AIDS and contain some of my personal favorites. For instance, one focuses on objects of cleanliness. There’s more from Steinbach, only this time it’s of a detergent brand he invented. There’s “Lube Landscape,” an acrylic by Walter Robinson that represents household objects like baby oil, which are multi-purpose, though not all uses are prescribed.“Biocube,” a sculpture by Tishan Hsu, also trades in the same clinical vernacular. His nonsense object at once recalls schools and doctor’s offices, but at the same time reads erotic in the weird pustules found, in addition to its coloring.
“I don’t like calling it flesh toned,” Guttman says. “There are endless tones of flesh, but it would read as somebody’s skin.”
This gallery also features “I shop therefore I Am” by Barbara Kruger. It might be the most recognizable piece in the show, if only because it ran as the lead ad for exhibition. Guttman laughs at this.
“’I shop therefore I am’ is the leading image on our catalog and all our advertisements, which is funny, considering that it’s a work making fun of buying things,” she says. “It’s almost like someone didn’t get the memo.”
“This is where the show turns to activism,” Guttman tells me. “The government wasn’t doing anything or reacting to the AIDS epidemic which was not only sweeping New York, but hit the New York art scene particularly hard. I’m sure everyone in this exhibition knew someone who died.”
Moffett’s floor to ceiling graphic work repeats the same photo of Reagan laughing while beneath each photo the text reads ‘he kills me.’” It’s one of the most confrontational works in the exhibition, you have to walk by it. At the same it’s funny even, but ultimately too real.
“Perfect Lovers” features two nondescript clocks, hanging about eight feet off the floor, they’re touching, kissing so to speak and ticking in sync. As is, it was my favorite work on my first time through the exhibition, but the story Guttman tells me the artist isn’t just being clever.
“The artist conceptualized this work when his partner Ross was incapacitated, dying from HIV/AIDS, and he responds to the moment and creates this heart-wrenching portrait from commodity materials anyone can buy.”
It’s one of the last works in the exhibition and the one I return to. It’s simple, raw and effective, far from alone in this compilation. You’ll appreciate early on that the artists are clever, but they’re not so for the sake of being clever. At least not always. The exhibition runs through May 13. It’s open daily from 10 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. and admission is free.Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden: Independence Ave. SW and 7th St. SW, DC; 202-633-1000; www.hirshhorn.si.edu