‘Pictures’ was the title given to an exhibition curated by Douglas Crimp in 1977 at Artists Space in New York, which presented the work of five emerging artists – Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo and Philip Smith – each of whom were turning away from the analytical, dematerialized forms of Minimalism and Conceptualism to reprioritize the power of image-making.
In the accompanying exhibition text, Crimp recognized the influence of photo-conceptualists such as John Baldessari, suggesting that the younger artists were taking peripheral aspects of that practice – the underplayed beauty and desire, the latent anxiety, fetishism and romanticism – and bringing these traits to the fore to create a new kind of representation that resonated with the media-obsessed, post-Vietnam age that privileged the processes of quotation, excerption, framing and staging. He posited that ‘Pictures’ was an apt way to describe their images, which were predominantly inspired by, or culled from newspapers, advertisements, film and television and that were increasingly becoming the signifiers of reality. When used as a verb, ‘to picture’ also suggested the artist’s interests in jump-starting the imagination to create distanced psychological spaces, as well as their desire to reinstate the production of aesthetic objects.
Two years later, Crimp wrote an essay by the same name in October that would extend the impact of the practices, replacing the example of Smith’s work with Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Stills’ (1977–80). While the switch indicated an evolving understanding of what this group of artists were articulating, Crimp’s new text also assured the term ‘Pictures’ was inserted into the annals of history to await rediscovery.
Soon exhibitions ensued across the USA and Europe, in museums, non-profit spaces and newly opened commercial galleries like Metro Pictures, expanding the list of artists and approaches that were to become associated with image-based art of the 1980s. Furthermore, the decade revealed the ballsy nature of the protagonists, who blatantly appropriated popular and high culture, insisting on a ‘presentness’ to their work so as to instill meaning that could be independent of interpretation. Proliferating across art forms, from performance and music to film, video, photography, painting and sculpture, the artists embraced semantics, historicism, new feminism, celebrity, and market competition, while also establishing a strong DIY culture, speaking out through instigating magazines, events and criticism, to the point that an inevitable backlash began, with people wanting something less hermetic that would directly address impending crises such as AIDS and Reaganomics.
Thirty years on, ‘The Pictures Generation: 1974–84’ at the Metropolitan Museum is the first exhibition to use Crimp’s expression to define a zeitgeist, while also indicating that our understanding of the term is developing new meanings over time. With works arranged in a narrative chronology, the timeline starts three years before Crimp’s exhibition, establishing the influence of CalArts (and Baldessari) through the early works of Barbara Bloom, Matt Mullican, David Salle, James Welling and Goldstein, before introducing the rival Buffalo contingent (Longo, Sherman, Charles Clough, Nancy Dwyer and Michael Zwack) and then turning attention to the common ground of New York to encompass 30 artists in all, including Dara Birnbaum, Sarah Charlesworth, Rhys Chatham, Louise Lawler, Thomas Lawson, Richard Prince, and Laurie Simmons.
Anthropological in its approach, the exhibition essentially re-examines the who’s who of the ‘Pictures’ lineage. The earliest works in the exhibition are examples of Bloom’s ‘advertisements’ of windows for modernist homes, ‘Crittall Metal Windows’ (1972), which the curator, Douglas Ecklund, writes were a manifestation of Bloom’s interest in producing an artwork ‘so certain that it would disappear’. While maybe not the imperative at the time, the exhibition reveals that indeed this phenomenon has happened to a number of the key works, such as Longo’s ‘Men in the Cities’ (1979–82) and Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Stills’, which are now so familiar that they have become almost invisible as art works and symbols of our visual culture.
Although framed as an historical survey and anthropological in its approach, the exhibition is more of a manifestation of current curatorial interests, mining the past in search of overlooked or undiscovered ‘truths’. Whereas artists sought to level the horror, banality or exoticism of pictures, the show levels out the historical hierarchies between works, giving ephemera as well as greater and lesser-known pieces equal prominence. While at the time this generation was prone to individualism, now their diversity has accumulated into the representation of a moment; where Crimp directly related ‘Pictures’ to a new kind of production, now it’s not the art, but the artists and their negotiation with society that is under consideration. As a result there is an openness and conviviality to the show that indicates how this generation were precursors to the ‘what if?’ style of Relational Aesthetics in the 1990s, and the research-oriented practices of today. What it sacrifices is evidence of the artists’ passionate outspokenness, which perhaps is the legacy that we’re most needing to inject back into our culture now.
First published in Issue 124