1980s visual artists that you need to know about

The 1980s is one of the most iconic decades, and there’s a lot of nostalgia surrounding it nowadays, with fashion trends reminiscent of the era integrated into new styles, the music made during that time becoming popular again, while some popular shows such as Stranger Things have fanned the flames and created a lot of hype around the 80s even for those who were years away from being born at the time. It was a time of differences, and while the period is remembered as simple, uncomplicated, and upbeat by many of those who lived through it, it’s important to remember that it signaled the beginning of more rampant consumerism, the rise of conservative politics in the West and a dampening of the protest movements that had been so important over the last two decades, while stigma against marginalized groups and minorities saw an uptick as well. 

It’s crucial to have a more complete perspective of what the decade actually was like in order to avoid the pitfalls of an excessive romanticization of the past to the detriment of the present. In doing so, both the bad and the good should become part of the discourse. In the case of the latter, art is one of the things that need to be mentioned, and while many are familiar with the most popular bands and artists of the time, as well as the blockbusters that became iconic in the history of cinema, one area that is often overlooked is that of the visual arts. If you enjoy having paintings in your home and are aware of their appeal and importance, here are some of the artists you should know about. 


Jean-Michel Basquiat changed the face of modern art as an integral part of the Neo-expressionism movement of 80s New York. His art focused on the dichotomies present in society, including the divides between social classes, integration versus segregation, and the divide between the physical outer world and the mental and emotional inner world. At the age of twenty-one, Basquiat became the youngest artist to participate in the Documenta, an exhibition that takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany. One year later, he was again one of the youngest artists to exhibit at the Whitney Biennial in NY. Social commentary played a large role in his work, particularly with regard to power structures, racism, and the experiences of the black community. Since his death in 1988, his artworks have been steadily increasing in value, and in 2017, Basquiat’s “Untitled” sold for $110.5 million at Sotheby’s, becoming one of the priciest paintings ever purchased and the most expensive ever by an American artist in a public sale. 

David Salle 

When searching for oil paintings for sale and aiming for pieces that will resemble the 80s style, you will focus on works of art that depict overlapping imagery and that draw inspiration from several different sources, ranging from art history to contemporary magazines. The paintings, prints, and photography were made by David Salle, whose process typically begins with photographs. During the early days of his career, the process was regarded as controversial since painters and photographers were still debating which of the art forms had more merit. According to Salle himself, although his photographs are regarded as art too, he considers the painting to be the ultimate arrangement, as it puts real-world scenes into a different context. Between 2020 and 2021, during the days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Salle created a series known as “Tree of Life,” which references the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, as well as American cartoonist Peter Arno. 

In 2023, the artist collaborated with computer scientists in order to train an AI program so that it could create images reminiscent of his, as he believes the technology could be helpful in the conceptualization of artwork variations during brainstorming. 

Sherrie Levine 

Levine’s work includes painting, photography, and conceptual art, with some of her pieces being reproductions of the works of other artists such as Eliot Porter, Edward Weston, and Walker Evans. Her art is typically associated with the feminism of the 80s, and in 1984 was part of an exhibition that focused on gender distortions. She was acutely aware of the concept of the male gaze and criticized what she saw as the voyeuristic tendencies of media culture. Her latest exhibition was at the Neues Museum Nuremberg in Germany in 2016, while her works are hosted in several public art institutions from all over the world like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, The National Museum of Art in Osaka, the Met in New York, and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark. 

Ida Applebroog 

Applebroog referred to herself as a “generic artist” and an “image scavenger” whose art delved into the intricacies and polemics of human relationships. Her work was political as well, focused on the roles of women in both the domestic and the public sphere, and stylistically reminiscent of comics. She was also the author of several books and published writings, and in 1981, she chose to self-publish the Blue Books, a series of seven separate volumes with titles such as “I Can’t,” “I Mean It,” and “It’s Very Simple.” The final volume is dated 1982, and some collectors have been looking for signed copies for years. Most recently, she authored “Ida Applebroog: The Ethics of Desire” in 2015, while her most recent exhibition occurred posthumously in 2024 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego. 

Although painting is often seen as an art form belonging to bygone times of several hundred years ago, there are actually many artists who remain quite prolific today and who began their careers during the promising but divisive days of the 1980s. If you find yourself looking back to the 80s and feel yourself becoming nostalgic, it could be worth looking into bringing artworks reminiscent of the era into your own home. 

Author: Pia Sooney

Just a little obsessed with all things 80s, Pia still has her Swatch, her cassette tape collection, and her Converse Chucks. When not making friendship pins or listening to Depeche Mode, she runs a web design business.

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