The 80s art style and culture were one of the most fascinating eras in the art world. Unique personalities, groundbreaking designs, and enormous financial growth due to increased investment in artwork laid the foundation for the art market to boom in the next three decades.
A handful of charismatic personalities dominated the 80s art scene. From Andy Warhol to Jeff Koons to Basquiat, the young and old joined forces to create a truly memorable period in the art world.
At the end of the 1970s, the most expensive painting on record was “Juan de Pareja” by Velazquez. At the time, it was valued at $5.5 million. Just one decade later, by the end of the 1980s, Van Gogh’s “Irises” sold for an incredible $53 million. In only 10 short years, the most expensive painting of the time period increased 10-fold.
A few primary reasons for the significant rise in the art market during the 1980s were Japanese investors and collectors’ huge art appetite. As this international money poured into art collecting, the belief began to spread that art was a great investment.
It was a perfect storm for the art market during the 80s. Changes in tax laws giving deductions to donated art boosted activity for the super-rich. The growth of auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s, and their promotion of huge sale prices, increased awareness of the growing value of fine art.
Record-breaking prices for art continued beyond the 80s and haven’t stopped. David Geffen sold a Willem de Kooning painting for $137 million in 2006. Nearly topping the record at the time, which was $140 million for a Jackson Pollock piece. Later, Geffen would sell another Kooning painting to hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin for $300 million.
Geometric shapes and colorful bright patterns created the 80s style and aesthetic. There was another influence for the 80s aesthetic that many are not aware of. The Memphis design began in 1981 by an Italian design and architecture group called the Memphis Group. They were a group of artists eager to form more radical art from the modern era. Their influence helped shape the 80s aesthetic.
Ettore Sottsass led the Memphis Group, where a song from Bob Dylan influenced the name and set the tone for the groups’ aspirations. The group displayed their first works at the Salone del Mobile Milano design fair, including furniture credited for a “faux chic” look. It was a memorable opening for the Memphis Group, and hype intensified after the exhibition setting the stage for the growth of the 80s aesthetic.
Biggest 1980s Artists
The most prominent 80s artists were not exactly painters or sculptors. In many ways, the 80s were defined by larger-than-life musical artists who transformed the way people became their own personal brand through art.
Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna, and Bruce Springsteen were four of the most iconic 80s musical artists. Each had their own persona and figured out a way to capture their audience with a completely original style and never seen before. Maybe traits were borrowed from the past influences, but these mega-creators took what inspired them and made it their own to captivate an entire generation.
Known as one of the top visual arts creators, Andy Warhol dominated the 80s art scene by combining artistic expression with celebrity culture. Some of his best-known works were done in the previous decades, but Warhol reached superstar status in the 80s by inspiring a new generation to be outrageously original and authentic.
His influence on Jean-Michel Basquiat is well known. But Warhol didn’t just influence a few artists; he created a movement. Warhol heavily influenced Julian Schnabel, David Salle, and Francesco Clemente.
Jeff Koons rose to superstar status in the 1980s as he combined sculpture art with the Neo-pop movement of the 80s. His sculptures take everyday objects and relate them with pop culture featuring stainless steel finishes.
In 1986, Koons created Rabbit, one of the most expensive works sold by a living artist at auction. In 2019, it was purchased by billionaire hedge fund manager Steven A. Cohen for $91 million.
Pop art and graffiti street art would never be the same after Keith Haring brought them to prominence in the 1980s. He began gaining pubic notoriety with his graffiti art in New York City subways.
Haring was part of the 80s New York City art culture, including rising stars Jean-Michel Basquiat, Futura 2000, and Madonna. Of course, this also included a friendship with Andy Warhol during the 80s. His friend, popular American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, died of a drug overdose in 1988. Haring created a painting depicting a towering stack of crowns, Basquiat’s trademark, to memorialize his lost friend.
A famous nightclub at the time, The Mudd Club, featured a gallery curated by Haring on the fourth floor. But with his growing stardom, he also used his art fame to advocate for awareness of the AIDS epidemic. He produced over 50 large-scale murals, many voluntarily for hospitals, schools, and daycare centers. In 1990, AIDS would take Haring’s own life and was later inducted into the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor in New York City’s Stonewall Inn.
Filmmaker and artist Julian Schnabel directed the movie “Basquiat,” which highlights the life of the famous 80s painter and gives great insight into the 80s art scene in the East Village of Manhattan. The movie shows Basquiat as the struggling artist living in Tompkins Square Park and working his way up the New York City art world.
Museum of Modern Art
Not only did the 80s art movement have fresh, new personalities looking to show their first work to the world, they also had a place to feature it. In 1983, the Museum of Modern Art more than doubled its gallery by 30 percent. Argentinian-American architect Cesar Pelli brought the museum’s new addition to life, coinciding with its 50th birthday. Not only did MoMA expand its floor space, but it also increased its curation department, added an auditorium, two restaurants, and a 56 story Museum Tower connected to the art museum.
MoMA wasn’t finished with the 80s yet. A few years later, in 1987, it underwent a second major renovation, spending nearly $900 million. With a design by Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi, the project doubled exhibition space. MoMA now featured the Peggy and David Rockefeller Building on the western side full of galleries and The Lewis B. and Dorthy Cullman Education and Research Building for classrooms, auditoriums, and expanded storage archives.
Retro art is generally known as the two decades roughly 20-30 years before the current one. Vintage and retro art imitates the lifestyles and trends during a specific time period, including music, artwork, fashion, and general attitudes.
In the late 1990s, a revival began, which embraced the 80s retro style and culture. Vaporwave, future funk, lo-fi music, and retro wave music began to emerge that mimicked 80s aesthetics. A common theme among graphic art was palm trees and neon grid backgrounds. VHS scanlines also appeared as an influential retro pattern.
80s Art Deco
80s art deco was full of bright and bold colors. As the economy gained momentum through the early 1980s, status and luxury became a focus through design and marketing. TV shows featured storylines with excess and over-the-top extravagance. Movies showcased financial markets like “Wall Street,” where tycoons wielded their power and showed their greatness with monetary accomplishments.
Miami Vice was a hit TV show of the 80s, and South Beach embraced the Art Deco District somewhat resembling the roaring 1920s era. 1980s art deco was a time when pop art, pop culture, consumerism, and exploration combined.
80s culture shifted to more futuristic technology and an optimistic outlook for the possibilities of what lies ahead. The DeLorean was featured in “Back to the Future,” where it would be used as a time machine. The Star Wars craze launched in the 1980s, creating dreams of fantasy worlds and Jedi knights.
The hit TV show Magnum P.I. featured a private detective speeding around Hawaii in what is now one of the most iconic Ferrari classic cars ever made. Music stars were cultural icons from MTV featuring their music videos. Sports stars were gaining recognition with endorsement deals and multi-million dollar contracts.
Other movies released in the mid-80s, such as Ferris Bueller and Breakfast Club, featured high school students looking to break loose from their power-hungry authorities. 80s movie culture was clearly influenced by the punk rock, anti-establishment tone set by young artists from the early 80s.
In the 1980s, brands grew into influential culture icons. Nike said to “Just Do It,” creating the fitness craze along with Adidas and other sportswear companies. Hip hop stars helped the cause, growing the trend of cultural icons wearing sponsored brand name apparel.
Some of what influenced the 1980s were due to increased investment returns from the stock market. After lingering inflation concerns of the 1970s, the 1980s were full of optimistic investors looking to park their cash in new vehicles. Even the stock market crash of 1987 couldn’t stop the 1980s. Just two years later in September of 1989, the market was back at all-time highs.
Increased investment in the art world and all parts of 80s culture set the stage for the 90s and 2000s growth. Individuals showcased their uniqueness and built entire brands based on their personal identity. The 1980s culture was the beginning stages of what is still prevalent today in the art world and beyond.