Monday, May 11, 2009

The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984 @Met

JTF (just the facts): A total of 280 works by 30 different artists, beginning in the main Contemporary Photography gallery, and winding back through an additional 5 rooms, with 3 adjacent spaces containing installations or video. In addition to the photography, there are paintings, sculpture, installations, video/film, collage, drawings, posters, magazines and books. An audio guide is available for the show. No photography was allowed in the exhibition, so unfortunately there are no installation shots.

Comments/Context: Even though The Pictures Generation has only been open a few short weeks, there is already a mountain of commentary on this superlative show. Much of it centers on who was included, whether these artists in different locations were really a “movement”, how this work related to Minimalism, Pop Art, Conceptualism, Postmodernism and plenty of other theoretical constructions, how feminism impacted the development of this work, and how the baby boomer environment contributed to the varying but related approaches these artists took. All of these are fruitful and necessary lines of thought, given the breadth and depth of this exhibition.

One discussion that has been remarkably absent in all this criticism is that there is a compelling argument to be made that it is this moment in the history of art when photography jumps into the mainstream of contemporary art. While the avant-garde and surrealist photography of the 1920s may well have been out on the bleeding edge at the time, I think a case can be made that photography generally remained within its own separate realm until the early 1970s, when work by artists in this exhibit jumped the gap and became particularly relevant to the ongoing discussions about media and its influence on modern life.

From my point of view, this is the key reason to see this important exhibition. For the first time, we have a comprehensive look at much of the contemporary art action going on during these years, and we can trace the use of photography and photographic techniques, side by side with painting, collage, video, and installation art. It is in these years that media saturation first appears, and these artists thoroughly deconstruct this creeping influence in myriad ways, often taking a cool, cynical look at the images that had become inundating. Placed in this context, the diversity of Cindy Sherman’s film stills (Untitled Film Still #54, 1980, above right), Laurie Simmons’ dollhouses, appropriations by Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine and James Welling, James Casebere’s architectural constructions, Barbara Bloom’s travel posters, Barbara Kruger’s collages, and Louise Lawler’s arrangements all suddenly coalesce into a multi-faceted view of how photography could be used very effectively to unpack the prepackaged culture that surrounded them. By intermingling work in other mediums by David Salle (The Coffee Drinkers, 1973, below right), Robert Longo, Jack Goldstein, Dara Birnbaum, Alan McCollum and many, many others, the show explores how all kinds of artists were riffing on the same set of interrelated ideas, many grappling with the issues of photography and image making, even if they weren’t always using a camera to do so.

Even today, nearly all of the photographers represented here are routinely categorized as Contemporary Art, rather than Photography, evidence of their lasting influence on the larger artistic dialogue. With passage of nearly 30 years, while many traditional photography subjects have disappeared, the influence of images, media, and popular culture are still as relevant as ever, perhaps even more so, given the explosion of marketing and consumerism that now surrounds us. A large percentage of contemporary artists are still wrestling with these same exact issues, only now with the help of digital technologies instead of hand crafted approaches. Appropriation and stage setting are now commonplace, the boundaries and playing fields of these styles being extended further each day. Much of the reason the work of The Pictures Generation still seems fresh is that nearly all of the same concerns the artists raised are still bothering us today. Unbelievably, our overall skepticism may have actually increased over time, which is why many of these overlooked and under appreciated works now seem even more prescient.

Collector’s POV: This is a deep and diverse show, with recognizable images hung side by side with obscure and lesser known pictures, all contributing to an environment of experimentation with and criticism of media. Much of the resonance of the show comes via comparison and juxtaposition, seeing the images inside the context of the shared consciousness of the time, and comparing how each artist took the same general raw material and came up with a piece of the larger puzzle.

Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a show that fits in the usual Contemporary Photography space; I started in, looking at each piece with utmost care, assuming it was only the usual one-room affair; I got to the other end of the first room and saw that the exhibit continued on through a hole in the wall for many more rooms, and my pace was suddenly way off and I had to recalibrate.

Finally, in particular, I came away with a much deeper appreciation for the work of Laurie Simmons and Louise Lawler (Pollock and Tureen, 1984, above right), both of which seemed to resonate more for me when placed within this environment than they had previously. I had several “ah ha” moments with these two, the light bulb going on above my head as I started to understand better what they were really trying to do.

Rating: *** (three stars) EXCELLENT (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:

  • Reviews: NY Times (here), New Yorker (here), Bloomberg (here)
  • Audio clips at WNYC (here)
  • Art in America interview with Met curator Douglas Eklund (here)
  • Show catalog (here)

The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984
Through August 2nd

Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10028

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