1987 – 1997


The ’80s started in 1978. These are the years when the ’70s ended and the ’80s were born. In 1978 Salvador Dalí was still alive and Marc Chagall was alive too.

They were still painting even if not very well. The dark mood of political delusion was fading and people like Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince and Julian Schnabel were rising. 1978 was the dawn of the ’80s.


Yet an image by Irvin Penn foresaw the ’80s better than anything else. It’s a still-life that begins a dialogue between its objects: a Buddhist head and a skull. That’s what the ’80s were about, from heaven to hell in a very short time. The ’80s where the release valve of the ’70s. All the political and social frustrations of that age were vented out and we plunged into pure desire, pleasure and excess. The ’80s were about the self, the beauty of success and image. Warhol was fading away but his legacy remained strong and rooted in the fantasies of that era.


It was pure hedonism embodied by Francesco Clemente’s elegance, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s excessive coolness and Julian Schnabel’s grandiosity. Milan and New York were the centers of the ’80s-revolution, nobody wanted to be anywhere else. Those two cities were black holes of greediness and desire. After the loaded conceptual, political and minimal mood of the ’70s, the world exploded into superficiality and dived into a joyful endless after-hours party. Tom Wolfe’s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities became the narrative of the era. Its pages and chapters overlapped with the real world. It was not reality being borrowed by fiction but the other way around. Real people became heroes and villains hired by writers and film directors. The ’80s felt like they were scripted, edited and sound tracked; most of the time they were unreal. The movies that came out in this decade swung from out of space fantasies such as E.T. to the imaginary metropolis of Batman or Blade Runner, while past and future got entangled in movies such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, and The Name of the Rose. Fear and the power of the senses were also classic ’80s experiences best told in Stephen King’s novel It or in Perfume by Patrick Süskind. Globalization and the issues that it would drag into our world were not yet part of the ’80s but started to peek into them through books like Midnight Children or The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie.

The world of the ’80s was a new age of fantasies and inspiration. Keith Haring was using the Manhattan underground scene to break out and cover the rest of the planet with his joyful and vivacious graffiti. Painters were painting again, becoming celebrities on the front covers of the most popular magazines. Michael Jackson shook the music world with his album Thriller while Madonna became a phenomenon selling more that 3.5 million copies of her second album, Like a Virgin. It was the very beginning of the stardom revolution when PR turned into an essential part of anybody’s success. Social Media was far from reaching its potential and the iPhone revolution was unimaginable. But the seed of what would arrive decades later was growing in the grassroots of the ’80s.


Life seemed to be like a powerful fire-cracker which needed to be burned as fast as possible at its brightest light. In those years, the great photographer Robert Mapplethorpe represented the purest beauty and the darkest provocations through his work. The ’80s were, in fact, beautiful, dark and provocative all at the same time. Success, Success, Success was the password of the decade. Nobody in the ’80s wanted to lose and everybody was dreaming and maybe thinking of being a winner. The three painters of the Transavanguardia movement, Cucchi, Clemente and Chia, were famous in New York and around the world, like Fellini, Sofia Loren and Mastroianni. Something utterly impossible happened in the ’80s, nothing was marginal anymore and all converged into the center. The economy exploded and imploded, the rich became richer and the poor poorer, it was the game, it was fiction.

No movie represents better an era gone mad than Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining; its characters lost and frozen in a maze of self-indulgence and excess. It was fun, it was scary, it was everything you would like a decade to be and everything you wish would never happen.


It was after all a true decade, depraved and purified: all ideologies were devoted to their own pleasure, which was the pleasure of everybody else. There is a self-portrait of Mapplethorpe that is the perfect coda to Irving Penn’s picture mentioned earlier. It is the artist looking into the camera holding a stick with a skull handle. Its gaze and the deep beautiful darkness behind it symbolize what the ’80s really were. An age where nobody was looking backwards but only and surely into an imaginary future to be tailored according to one’s own wishes … and then Sean Connery was declared the sexiest man alive on the cover of People Magazine.


Text by Francesco Bonami

Photos by Alberto Zanetti