“Tormented Self-Portrait (Susie at Arles)” by Ashley Bickerton (1988)
“Tormented Self-Portrait (Susie at Arles)” by Ashley Bickerton (1988)

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As visitors step off the second-floor escalators of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, they’re greeted on the left by Haim Steinbach’s “on vend du vent,” in which the title is spelled out in billboard-sized vinyl letters. Roughly translating to “we sell air,” the piece has a clever double meaning: that anything at all, including the air around us, can be marketed and sold, and that everything sold is fleeting and ephemeral, no more than air. Though some of the works represented in Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s feel a bit weightless, content to embrace rather than challenge this growing consumerism, a number of them manage to legitimately provoke and intrigue.

Remember the ’80s? As consumer culture took hold across America, a range of artists mostly working in New York City lifted the trappings of advertising and business as a reflection of the times. Logo design and branding became their own self-contained disciplines, and sloganeering crept into every area of life, from “just doing it” to “just saying no.”

The price of artworks sold at auction soared, with a Vincent van Gogh painting selling for what was a record $5.7 million at the start of the decade; seven years later, his “Sunflowers” sold for an unheard of $39.85 million. It was a simple product of supply and demand: Businesses as well as fine artists charged more simply because they could.

But the decade kicked off in a more collaborative and public-facing spirit—many of the works selected for Brand New come from artists collectives, or were exhibited in several pivotal group shows of the time. As the ’70s gave way to the ’80s, artists set up galleries of their own design and published written works, toying with the idea that art could be designed by committee.

General Idea was one of these pioneering groups, and they manifested the era’s obsession with obtaining physical objects with “The Boutique from the 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion,” a kiosk shaped like a dollar sign, selling prints and magazines published by group members. It functioned both as a handy piece of self-promotion, as well as a legitimate attempt to move merchandise in a product-driven era. 

While some artists were hustling like Wall Street bankers to sell their works, others were in the business of selling themselves. No artist in Brand New manifests this quite as well as Jeff Koons, who’s also one of the most heavily cited in this survey. In his “Art Magazine Ads” series, he staged himself in surreal photoshoots and turned them into advertisements for himself, which he ran in respected art publications. Here, they’re blown up to movie poster size, making them look both more mythic and more outlandish. It would be easy to declare that Koons is lambasting celebrity culture or the urge to buy, but he also holds the distinction of creating the most expensive work by a living artist to sell at auction.

Ashley Bickerton took the idea of the self as brand a step further, creating a persona called “Susie.” It began as a painting of a logotype, and ended up becoming a sort of signature or trademark that the artist used for a time. This culminated in “Tormented Self-Portrait (Susie at Arles),” a sculpture that resembles a vending machine emblazoned with logos of brands that Bickerton used. By calling it a self-portrait, he displays a very ’80s penchant for constructing an identity based on the products one buys.

The works in this collection are, by definition, high-value luxury items, and it’s worth wondering whether the artists in Brand New are actually radically re-contextualizing marketing schemes, as some of the wall text claims, or merely embracing them for the same profit-minded ends that corporations do. The most successful endeavors here are the pieces that don’t just parrot consumerism but also pack a political punch. Erika Rothenberg’s “Freedom of Expression Drugs” is a biting piece of satire, playfully marketing subversive behavior like protesting or offending the powers that be, as opposed to traditional advertising that encouraged assimilation and compliance.

The AIDS crisis also provided interesting fodder for artists with a social bent. Gran Fury, the art collective embedded in the activist group ACT UP, provided one of the most indelible messages of the era in “SILENCE = DEATH.” Shown in Brand New in neon sign form and hung to face out at street level, the slogan was slapped on everything from posters to buttons to encourage actively discussing AIDS and spreading awareness of the disease.

Donald Moffett’s “He Kills Me” is a particularly damning critique of political apathy toward people suffering from AIDS during the time. In Moffett’s original, an image of a Day-Glo target is paired with an image of Ronald Reagan stamped with the titular words. Here it’s been installed as a step and repeat wallpaper, at once both amplifying its message and all but guaranteeing that numerous selfies will be taken in front of it.

Barbara Kruger was particularly adept at lifting the language of advertising, having started her career as a graphic designer for Condé Nast, and going on to develop a signature fine art style that served as anti-advertising. In her works, bolded copy atop surreal black and white photos broadcasts grim anti-establishment slogans, such as “You rule by pathetic display” stamped over an image of a knife being rinsed in a glistening jet of water in her “Untitled (You Rule By Pathetic Display).” Kruger is one of the marquee names in this exhibit, and as such her works that co-opt advertising have in turn been co-opted for the signs and materials advertising Brand New.

Ultimately, the exhibit returns full circle. Visitors are deposited back at the start of the show, perhaps a bit deafer from the numerous televisions blaring video works throughout, and a bit dazed from the nearly 150 works on display in the showroom-esque gallery.

On the final wall, a timeline depicts the rise and fall of the GDP alongside crucial events of the decade, underscoring the inextricable link of the market and artmaking. As a final farewell, Apple’s acclaimed 1984 commercial (an ad that was hailed for transcending advertising to become something akin to art) plays on a small monitor in the lobby. Now, given an unironic place among some boundary-defying enterprising artists, perhaps it is.

At the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to May 13. Independence Avenue and 7th Street SW. Free. (202) 633-1000. hirshhorn.si.edu.