Morality Tales

  • Sue Coe, New York 1985 - Car Hookers, Age 13, 1985. Courtesy of Speyer Family Collection.

  • Eric Fischl, First Sex, 1981. Collection of Edwin L. Stringer, Q.C., Toronto.

  • Leon Golub, Riot #1, 1983. Courtesy of Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York.

  • Odd Nerdrum, The Ultimate Sight, 1983-85. Courtesy of Pentimento, San Francisco.

  • Joanne Tod, Maw, 1987. Courtesy of Carmen Lamanna Gallery, Toronto.

Curated by Thomas Sokolowski

Morality Tales: History Painting in the 1980s examines the catalyst between past and present to critique the public issue of morality and morally conscious art. The thirteen artists in this exhibit reference what is academically known as history painting, a large-scale depiction of historical, religious or mythological subject matter with an anecdotal function intended to inspire the viewer. Subjects such as Central American executions, street prostitution, and homoerotic narratives are examined while evoking the aesthetics of old master painting. This integration of historical forms and compositions with contemporary figures and situations forms the cornerstone of the exhibit, questioning the moral relationship between the viewer, artist, and subject.


For artists of previous epochs, it was much easier to fall back on the canon of stories of divine intervention and mercy that provide suitable comment upon almost any turmoil or torment. The artist of the present moment has no such repository of sure images to which he can turn, no breviary in which he will find all the answers, no emblem book to provide him with a potent iconography. It must all be created anew. In the 17th century, istoria, or history painting, was once a medium to impart historical information as well as moral truths. The paintings were used to teach the viewer how one ought to act using examples of past events. During the 18th and 19th centuries, however, owning works of istoria became a symbol of social status and the purveyors of the art were now expected to follow certain formal and content guidelines. The once rich discipline, full of complexity and variety, had been homogenized.


Facing the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, Thomas W. Sokolowski and other curators and artists revived the art of history painting. Unsatisfied with the general reaction to AIDS by the government and media, they prompted a resurgence in painting as historical and moral record. In a sense, the paintings showed what happened and how one should act in the future. It is a complicated discipline, not just because the subject matter is extremely personal, but because it challenges commonly held beliefs about the nature of history itself. The works in Morality Tales are intensely political and moral and depict powerful, unsettling images.


Accompanying this exhibition is the catalogue Morality Tales: History Painting in the 1980s, edited by Thomas W. Sokolowski. Please click here or visit our shop for more information.



Thomas Sokolowski

Thomas Sokolowski is a museum director, curator and art historian. He has held positions as the Director of Grey Art Gallery at NYU, curator at the Chrysler museum,  and director of the Andy Warhol Museum. As a curator, he worked on shows such as Against Nature: Japanese art in the Eighties with Kathy Halbreich in 1990, which showed at Grey Art Gallery, From Media to Metaphor with Robert Atkins from 1991-1994, and Morality Tales: History Painting in the 1980s.

Thomas Sokolowski holds a BA from the University of Chicago and a MA from New York University.


touring schedule

Musee du Quebec
Quebec City, Quebec, Canada
June 26, 1989 - August 5, 1989

Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery
Lincoln, NE, United States
April 11, 1989 - May 26, 1989

Duke University Museum of Art
Durham, NC, United States
January 13, 1989 - February 16, 1989

Goldie Paley Gallery, Moore College of Art
Philadelphia, PA, United States
November 11, 1988 - December 17, 1988

Wadsworth Atheneum
Hartford, CT, United States
April 9, 1988 - June 12, 1988

The Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami
Coral Gables, FL, United States
March 14, 1988 - October 16, 1988

The Berkshire Museum
Pittsfield, MA, United States
January 17, 1988 - March 6, 1988

Grey Art Gallery and Study Center
New York, NY, United States
September 14, 1987 - October 24, 1987

Laguna Art Museum
Laguna Beach, CA, United States
July 24, 1987 - December 27, 1987

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