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Contemporary Art  
 
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At the core of postmodernist criticism was the rejection of modernism's assumptions concerning subject, style, and media, and its domination by male artists. In postmodernist criticism, writers attempted to explain why specific groups and works of art had been marginalized. They made intense efforts to elucidate and to value "difference" and the "Other."

The most important strategy for correcting past inequities was "naming": identifying and giving voice and image to what had been dismissed. The full impact of these ideas would not be felt in contemporary art until the early 1990s.

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In the meantime, postmodernist art of the early 1980s was manifested in a series of revival styles that appropriated the high styles of modernism for personal and ironic commentary: neo-expressionism, neo-Pop (graffiti and cartoon art), neo-Surrealism, and neo-abstraction.

One clue to the fact that these revival styles were essentially conservative was that large-scale painting was their primary medium. This phenomenon was made obvious in "A New Spirit in Painting," an important exhibition in London at the Royal Academy of Art in 1981. The "retro" movements were linked to the cultural conservatism of President Ronald Reagan, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and the bull market and rush of new money associated with investment banking and market speculation. Moreover, despite their links to postmodernist theory, the retro movements were dominated by male artists.

Mostly personal, the new art in revival styles carried little polemical edge or analysis of difference. There were notable exceptions, including, in terms of gay identity, the German neo-expressionist Rainer Fetting and the neo-abstractionist Ross Bleckner and neo-Pop artist Keith Haring, both American.

"Extended Sensibilities: Homosexual Presence in Contemporary Art"

The exhibition "Extended Sensibilities: Homosexual Presence in Contemporary Art," organized by Daniel Cameron for the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York in 1982, was of great historical importance. It was the first exhibition in the United States to examine issues raised by contemporary gay art and homosexual identity. It was also the first exhibition to bring gay and lesbian artists together.

Although conservative in subject matter and in the prominence of traditional media (with no photography, video, or installation art, which would become the primary vehicle for gay and lesbian art in the next decade), the exhibition did attempt to identify the nature of gay and lesbian art in regards to content and sensibility from both personal and political perspectives.

Reactions in the gay community to this major exhibition were mixed. Some artists were ambivalent about coming out in their art and others questioned the validity of any universal gay sensibility. For many, these attitudes would dramatically change with the AIDS crisis, which became acute by mid-decade. Society's repression of its realities galvanized the gay artistic community.

The Impact of AIDS

In 1987 a group of gay artists and critics founded ACT-UP/New York (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). Although it organized public demonstrations, its first gesture was a shop-window display at the New Museum of Contemporary Art that featured AIDS activist posters and broadsheets. Reviving the Pop Art styles of Andy Warhol and Robert Indiana, these materials, especially their typography and layout, became immediately associated with gay activism, public declarations of gay identity, and proactive campaigns to gain access to political power.

Gay art came of age in the late 1980s. Keith Haring, who until this time had avoided his gay identity in his colorful cartoon caricatures, stepped forward to be counted. One of his most moving works of art is a screenprint he made in 1989 for an ACT-UP fundraiser. Its title, Silence = Death, was the organization's motto. On a square black field, dozens of intermingled figures, outlined in silver, sob and grieve. Over this image, Haring centered a large pink triangle in defiant and elegiac protest against indifference.

ACT-UP and other gay and lesbian groups adopted the pink triangle to reclaim the symbol used by the Nazis to identify homosexuals in the death camps during World War II. Haring, who was HIV-positive, died in 1990.

In addition to ACT-UP/New York, this period saw the organization of other artists' collaboratives that functioned as activist organizations, such as Group Material and Gran Fury, which wished to initiate social reform through art.

In 1989, Gran Fury produced a special side panel for New York City buses. Appropriating the graphics and photography of commercial advertising, Gran Fury presented three racially intermixed couples kissing: boy and girl, girl and girl, boy and boy. Admonishing the public's irrational fear of the AIDS virus, the simple caption under the young and attractive couples read: "Kissing Doesn't Kill."

In 1990, at the Venice Biennale, an international venue for modern art since the early twentieth century, Gran Fury erected billboards lambasting the Catholic Church's condemnation of homosexuality.

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