The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press , 2009 £35.00 $60.00
352 pp. 240 col/47 mono illus
This large-format, hardback catalogue accompanied a well-received exhibition held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York from April to August 2009 and contains a substantial, well-researched and informative text by Douglas Eklund, Associate Curator in the Met's Department of Photographs. He devised the label ‘Pictures Generation’ to describe a loosely knit group of American artists active during the decade 1974 to 1984 who became known partly as a result of a show called ‘Pictures’ (New York, Artists' Space, 1977), curated by the critic Douglas Crimp. The most famous names to emerge from this group were Cindy Sherman, David Salle, Richard Prince, Barbara Kruger, Thomas Lawson, Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, Matt Mullican and Robert Longo. Around 30 artists were featured in the exhibition and it was refreshing to find the art of lesser-known figures such as Barbara Bloom and James Welling discussed and illustrated in the catalogue.
[Richard Prince, Untitled (four single men with interchangeable backgrounds looking to the right) (1977). From The Pictures Generation 1974–1984 by Douglas Eklund.]
As students, the pictures artists were familiar with the Pop, Minimalism and Conceptual art movements and with art and media theories, but reacted against the austerity, demateriality and linguistic emphasis of Conceptualism by reviving the use of visual representation and optical pleasure. They employed a variety of media to do so: drawing, painting, photography, photomontage, posters, books, magazine illustrations, models, sculpture, installation, film, video and performance. Visual images were also crucial in another way: the images the artists created (or quoted or appropriated) were mostly derived from the visual and audio cultures of the mass media and from the fine arts, rather than from empirical reality directly perceived. Examples are Sherman's famous series of photographs starring herself that simulated Hollywood movie stills and Prince's re-photographed Marlboro cigarette advertisements. Texts or slogans were often retained along with imagery, as in Kruger's political and feminist graphics. As Eklund points out, the artists' relationship to mass culture:
was productively schizophrenic: while they were first and foremost consumers, they also learned to adopt a cool, critical attitude toward the very same mechanisms of seduction and desire that played upon them from the highly influential writings of French philosophers and cultural critics such as Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, and Julia Kristeva that were just beginning to be made available in translation.
A greater theoretical sophistication thus distinguished the pictures generation from the earlier generation of Pop artists.
Although New York was the key location, Eklund begins by discussing the young artists – Salle, Mullican, Goldstein, Bloom and Welling – who emerged from Cal Arts on the West Coast and were inspired by the teaching of the photo-conceptual artist John Baldessari. Another group, which included Sherman and Longo, were associated with the artist-run space Hallwalls in Buffalo, New York State. Both groups eventually moved to New York, where they linked up with artists already resident. Eklund then considers the artists associated with the tactic of appropriation – Levine, Prince, Sherman, Louise Simmons and Sarah Charlesworth – whose work challenged received wisdom concerning originality, authorship and copyright. A final chapter is devoted to art in a ‘reinvigorated market’, which discusses the new gallery Metro Pictures (co-founded by Helene Winer in 1980), the magazine Real Life (co-edited by the Scottish-born painter and theorist Thomas Lawson) and works by Longo, Kruger, Louise Lawlor and Allan McCollum. Along the way, there are also accounts of performances, multimedia and musical events (several Pictures artists also played in bands such as Glenn Branca's Theoretical Girls). Eklund analyses numerous works of art and his accounts of them are generally acute and illuminating. He also sets them within a socio-historical context. The book ends with an exhibition checklist, an extensive bibliography and an index.
In his introduction Eklund argues that, despite the commercial success and popularity of its leading lights, ‘much of this art still intellectually polarizes both general and specialist audiences’ and disturbs people on both the Right and the Left of the political spectrum. Certainly, much of the work continues to challenge the viewer's preconceptions of what art is and should be about. For instance, McCollum's dozens of small, framed paintings all painted solid black (no pictures pictures?).
It ought to be recorded that a comparable post-Conceptual art movement equally concerned with pictorial rhetoric and the mass media occurred in London during the mid 1970s. It was associated with such individuals as John Stezaker, Yve Lomax, Paul Wombell, Jonathan Miles, Peter Kennard, Vaughan Grylls, Stephen Willats, John Hilliard and Victor Burgin. Furthermore, the Americans were recognised by the critic Rosetta Brooks, the British editor of the small but influential magazine entitled ZG (Zeitgeist, 1980–5). (A 1981 issue of ZG devoted to New York with a cover featuring a Longo ‘Men in Cities’ image is reproduced in the catalogue.) Unfortunately, the London movement has not yet been celebrated by a British curator or museum.