Walker Art Center

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A Culture Wars Chronicle

Demonstrators on Minneapolis’s Nicollet Mall protest cuts to NEA funding, 1990

Since its inception as a public art center 75 years ago, the Walker has never shied away from challenging art or “unsafe” ideas. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s artists across the United States found themselves working through a battleground of polarizing issues, from sexual orientation and women’s rights to censorship, AIDS, multiculturalism, and religious expression. The conflicts and political debates of this era, dubbed the Culture Wars, were captured in art that was provocative, boundary pushing, and often shocking. Many audiences embraced the work and the artists who created it as innovators, while others decried what they deemed offensive and even publicly attested and petitioned to its immorality or illegality.

The exhibition Art at the Center: 75 Years of Walker Collections presents a chronological narrative of institutional history, collections, and programs. Integral to the exhibition are rotating “time capsules,” sections of each gallery that provide historical context for the work on view. In Gallery 6, which concentrates on the 1980s and ’90s, Dan Graham’s 1995 sculpture New Space for Showing Videos features six monitors showing film and video clips from the era, with the first rotation focusing on the Culture Wars.

1989: General Idea

General Idea’s AIDS Wallpaper, as installed in the 2012 Walker exhibition This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s

General Idea’s AIDS Wallpaper appropriates the style of Robert Indiana’s pop LOVE icon, utilizing the same bold text and primary colors. By producing the image as wallpaper the artists cite street art and wheat-pasting, as well as the domestic, creating a political message that reframed the AIDS crisis. Although the work was decried both by the religious right and AIDS activists who desired a more aggressive, educational campaign, the imagery proved infectious and the work circulated readily.

1990: Edgar Heap of Birds

Artist Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds utilized appropriation and site-specificity to develop his sculptural installation Building Minnesota (pdf). Commissioned by the Walker in 1990, the project featured 40 aluminum signs installed along West River Parkway in downtown Minneapolis. Each sign commemorates a member of the Dakota tribe who was hanged at the end of the United States-Dakota Conflict of 1862. The work makes use of clear red lettering and simple design to mimic the aesthetics of government signage, suggesting a sense of official history and unequivocal fact. Building Minnesota was created at a moment when the Twin Cities, and the rest of the United States, were facing the hypocrisy of widespread multiculturalism amidst ongoing Native American struggle for land rights.

1990: Cultural Infidels

Karen Finley performing at the Walker Art Center, 1990

As the NEA was embroiled in a funding controversy ignited by conservative groups’ complaints about allegedly indecent artwork, the Walker hosted the series Cultural Infidels: Film and Performance for Consenting Adults. Visiting artists included Kathy Acker, Isaac Julien, and Karen Finley, who would later challenge the NEA in the Supreme Court for rejecting her grant application under its decency clause, which she and other artists claimed was a violation of First Amendment rights.

1990–2005: Dyke Night

For 15 years, the Walker held an annual Dyke Night that coincided with the Twin Cities’ LGBT Pride festivities. Although the event was originally a one-night performance showcase, its popularity eventually spawned a week’s worth of programs. Dyke Night was a platform for queer artists who often felt marginalized or unwelcome in other venues. The event had been conceived by curator John Killacky and was later curated by Eleanor Savage; performances ranged from music and dance to cabaret, comedy, martial arts, spoken word, and film screenings. Upon the announcement that its 15th iteration in 2005 would be its last, the Walker stated its decision was informed by the artists themselves, many of whom sought to be viewed simply as artists, rather than lesbian artists. This shift reflected the institution’s holistic, inclusive approach to programming as well as the organizer’s transition to a broader human rights and social agenda.

1990: Robert Mapplethorpe

Robert Mapplethorpe, Two Men Dancing, 1984

In 1990 former Walker Director Martin Friedman testified before the Supreme Court during the pretrial hearing of Dennis Barrie, then director of the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, who was arrested on charges of obscenity for publicly exhibiting Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs. Museum directors and arts experts from across the country testified in defense of the arts center and the artwork in what was a seminal moment of Sen. Jesse Helm’s campaign against the National Endowment for the Arts, which had helped fund the Mapplethorpe exhibition. After the case had been acquitted, Barrie stated, ”This was a major battle for art and for creativity, for the continuance of creativity in this country. Mapplethorpe was an important artist. It was a beautiful show. It should never have been in court.”

1990: Arts Over Aids

Arts Over AIDS was a Twin Cities movement coordinated by members of the arts community to set up an educational program to disseminate information and organize activism, as well as provide support systems and community. Arts Over AIDS worked to dispel misinformation about AIDS and HIV and to inform people about both public policy and the reality of living with AIDS. Their efforts included educating the art community, providing resources for HR personnel, supporting the Minnesota AIDS Walk and producing videotapes which often featured artists.

1992: Gomez-Peña and Coco Fusco

Guillermo Gomez-Peña and Coco Fusco in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden

The Cultural Infidels series also included Guillermo Gomez-Peña, who would return to the Walker with Coco Fusco in 1992 with the performance The Year of the White Bear. Gomez-Peña and Fusco took on the celebrations of the 500-year anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival to the Americas, contrasting his legacy as hero with colonialism’s dark history of enslavement and exploitation of indigenous people. The Year of the White Bear represented the type of revisionist, alternative history made popular with multiculturalism while contextualizing contemporary racial oppression and bigotry within Western history. Today the performance continues to be disseminated through the documentary The Couple in the Cage: Guatianaui Odyssey, produced by Fusco and Paula Heredia.

1993: Felix Gonzales-Torres

Felix Gonzales-Torres was known for poignant statements on love and mortality, typically created using mundane materials and a minimalist aesthetic. He was deeply engaged with the political issues of the late 1980s and 1990s, and worked as a member of the activist artist collective Group Material while also continuing his individual artistic practice. Gonzales-Torres’s works often addressed his relationship with his longtime partner, Ross Laycock, who died of AIDS in 1991.

In 1992, the artist began his light strand series, simple extension cords with low-wattage light bulbs. Gonzalez-Torres left installation decisions up to owners of the light strands, stipulating only that the bulbs were to be replaced as soon as they burned out. This melancholy representation of life, death, and renewal is signature to many of Gonzalez-Torres’s works, particularly after his own diagnosis with HIV in the mid-1990s. (He died of the disease in 1996.) “Untitled” (Last Light), which was made in an edition of 22, was first exhibited in 1994 alongside work by Jim Hodges, Roni Horn, Cindy Sherman, and others at the New York alternative art space Exit Art.

1994: Ron Athey

Ron Athey performing with Darryl Carlton in Four Scenes in a Harsh Life, Patrick’s Cabaret, 1994. Image courtesy the artist

In March 1994 the Walker presented Ron Athey’s Four Scenes in a Harsh Life to a sold-out audience at Patrick’s Cabaret. Like many artists during this period, Athey was deeply pained by the AIDS crisis and his poignant work touched on the emotions and suffering he and those close to him endured. Nineteen days later the Minneapolis Star Tribune ran the first of more than 20 articles about the performance, spurred by an informal complaint received by the state health department after one audience member expressed concern that they had been exposed to HIV-positive blood during the performance. Although the claims had been investigated and audience safety confirmed, the performance and ensuing controversy made national headlines. Misinformation abounded and the sensationalized story became a central component of Sen. Jesse Helms’ ongoing attack on the NEA. Despite impassioned testimony from arts leaders and advocates, budgets for the NEA and the NEH were ultimately cut by 30 percent.