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Walker Flashback: Art in the 1980s

Welcome to the 1980s

Bringing This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s to the Walker proved the perfect excuse to raid our archives to find some of the definitive moments of the era. As a companion to “Then & Now,” our series of reflections on how a turbulent decade played out in the Twin Cities, archivist Jill Vuchetich unearthed this sampling of Walker moments, from the premier of David Byrne’s The Knee Plays to a 1988 exhibition by Tim Rollins and K.O.S.

Spalding Gray’s Close Encounter

Spalding Gray wrote about his 1980 debut at the Walker in “Touring Solo: A Performer’s Diary,” in the Soho News: “Oct. 2 — Sex and Death to be performed in a big formal 350-seat auditorium at Walker Arts [sic] Center. It was overwhelming after small galleries and a grange hall. I suggested that they put chairs on the stage all facing my table, and they did it. All those empty black chairs facing the backdrop looked like the setting for a symphony orchestra headed the wrong way. The audience came in cautiously. … I began to think that they were a serious and uptight audience until I realized that, for the first time in a long time, the audience was fully concentrated on the content of the piece. … they were listening to me tell the story in a way I had not experienced before on the road. This made me feel whole again. I gave up going for laughs and just told the story. They were with me all the way.”

Gray’s performances at the Walker over the years “helped define this place as a unique arts institution in the same way that visual artists such as Chuck Close or choreographers such as Trisha Brown have done,” senior performing arts curator Philip Bither wrote a few of years ago.

Alive at the Center

Laurie Anderson followed her 1978 Walker debut with three more performances here in the next six years: in 1980, as part of the New Music America festival with Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and others; in 1982; and in 1984. The following year her work was included in the premiere of Alive from Off-Center, the nationally televised showcase of offbeat, experimental, and avant-garde music, performance, video, and more, originally coproduced by the Walker and KTCA-TV; and she went on to host its 1987 season. This November she returns to the Walker after more than 10 years with Dirtday!, a new performance.

Cindy Sherman’s Anxious Edge

Thirty years ago, Cindy Sherman was part of Eight Artists: The Anxious Edge, along with Jonathan Borofsky, Chris Burden, David Salle, Robert Longo, and others. Featured in the show and now part of the Walker collection, this work “grew out of a proposal to Artforum magazine to produce a Playboy-style centerfold,” wrote curator Lisa Lyons. She also noted how, despite the lack of nudity, it and the others in the series are “charged with the limpid sexuality and psychological tensions that are the stock-in-trade of the centerfold genre.” Sherman’s acclaimed MoMA-organized retrospective opens at the Walker this November.

Words’ Worth

In the fall of 1983 Twin Cities newspapers featured photo collages by Barbara Kruger, whose art grew out of her work as a designer and editor for women’s magazines. They were part of the exhibition When Words Become Works, which had installations on buildings, billboards, and planes, as well as at the Walker and other museums. In 1985 the Walker acquired a set of the nine untitled prints by Kruger that are part of Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s.

Byrning Down the House

In April 1984 Talking Heads’ popularity reached critical mass with the release of Stop Making Sense, the concert film they made with Jonathan Demme; the same month Heads frontman David Byrne amiably modeled for this promotional Walker Shop shot. Though his main business here was the premier of The Knee Plays, a collaboration with theater artist Robert Wilson, this image became something of a local icon when a wall-sized version of it was displayed for years in the concourse betwen the Walker and the former Guthrie Theater (where Keith Haring made his 1984 mural).

Boy Wonder

Keith Haring was the toast of New York’s graffiti and gallery scene in March 1984, when he painted a giant mural at the Walker commemorating its then-new underground education center. It was on view for more than a year and a half, but now, alas, exists only through photographic and video documentation. The computer/bug-head imagery showed up frequently in Haring’s work — a similar piece is part of Art Love & Politics in the 1980s —stemming, perhaps, from the introduction just months earlier of the first Apple PCs?

Goldin Girl

Awarded the prestigious MacDowell Medal for lifetime achievement in August 2012, Nan Goldin here is flush with early success, posing in the Walker lobby back when you could smoke in it. Eighties aficionados could probably date this image using Goldin’s sweater: This was February 1986, and her magnum opus, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency—included in This Will Have Been—was presented as part of Women’s Film Week; a book version would also be published that year.

The Anthropological Theater Critic

In April 1986 the Walker presented Christian Marclay’s Dead Stories, fresh from its premiere at the Performing Garage in Soho, New York. (Marclay’s work appears in Art, Love & Politics in teh 1980s.) John Rockwell’s review in the New York Times sounds almost quaint 26 years later: “The downtown performing arts have recently been dominated by ‘performance art,’ which is not as tautological as it sounds. Instead of music or dance or poetry or theater or video, the scene has been taken over by solo and group ‘performances’ that owe no particular allegiance to any of those disciplines. Performers lap [sic] happily from art to art, most often in an atmosphere of cheerful amateurism or camp mockery. The trouble with such performances, which take place both in Lower East Side clubs and in downtown performance spaces, is that they fall too easily into giggly silliness, as if the passionate impulses of modernist art had devolved into sophomoric gags. But at their best, these cross-disciplinary inclinations hint at something more ambitious, a new kind of multi-art performance that might one day help regenerate that re-creatively busy, creatively moribund art form, opera itself.” Rockwell liked Dead Stories, by the way. Two years later, the Walker inaugurated Out There, its annual festival of cutting-edge performance, which celebrates its 25th year next January.

Birth of the Blockbuster

The blockbuster museum show became a phenomenon in the 1980s, and at the Walker the decade opened with Picasso: From the Musée Picasso, Paris, which then joined Pablo Picasso: A Retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. A couple of years later, design curator Mildred Friedman and her husband, director emeritus Martin Friedman, began organizing their take on blockbuster. Opening in April, 1986, Tokyo: Form and Spirit was then the largest, most complex, and most expensive exhibition in Walker history. Featuring artists like Kohei Sugiura, Fumihiko Maki, and Tadao Ando—whose graphite drawing Conceptual Drawing for the Living Space (1985) is pictured above—the exhibition drew record crowds before traveling to Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco.

K.O.S. and the Kids

During the 1988 Walker exhibition Viewpoints: Tim Rollins and K.O. S., Rollins worked with students from Minneapolis’ Franklin Junior High (now Middle) School to create Amerika XI. It’s visible in the background behind those awesome hairstyles and that Twins Championship t-shirt. Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s includes a similar work from 1987 by Rollins and his K.O.S. (Kids of Survival) collaborators, who are still working together; they did a workshop as part of the Frieze New York art fair last May.

Garden of Sculptural Delights

The land just north of the Walker Art Center has a history of serving uses both populist and civic, from John Philip Sousa conducting concerts and U.S. Army Reserve drills to boxing matches, auto shows, and garden displays. So the fanfare was fitting when officials from the Walker and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board cut a giant ribbon on September 10, 1988, opening what was then the first urban sculpture garden in the U.S. The Minneapolis Sculpture Garden has since acquired its own historic patina: One of Minnesota’s most popular destinations, it celebrates its silver anniversary next year.