Two comments bookend my thinking about “The Pictures Generation, 1974–1984.” The first I overheard a few seconds after entering the show: “I have no appreciation for this,” a woman in her seventies was saying to her friend as they stood in front of a triptych of ultra-minimal Jack Goldstein photographs. The second was an anecdote Robert Longo recounted on the audio tour, of a 15-year-old asking him recently about his well-known Men in the Cities drawings: “Did you get the idea from the iPod ad?”
The idea of different generations having distinct relationships to art and culture is central to this exhibition. These, after all, were the first American artists to be raised on a steady diet of TV and advertising, and they were among the first to understand—really understand—that art is of its moment rather than timeless and universal. (Hell, if you grow up under the novel threat of nuclear annihilation, what’s really permanent?)
Generational issues are everywhere here, as well as a feeling of what fiction writer John Barth called the “used-upness of certain forms” and “felt exhaustion of certain possibilities” after the ’60s. Matt Mullican describes the previous art generation’s conviction that visual art had reached its end. Sherrie Levine’s photographs “after” Walker Evans and Edward Weston, as well as Richard Prince’s rephotographed advertising images, underscore curator Douglas Eklund’s observation that “unless you decided to keep churning out variations of De Kooning or Brice Marden . . . appropriation was the only game left.” In the catalog, there’s an anecdote about John Baldessari’s assistant at CalArts stamping students’ work with the comment, “Nice idea, but it’s been done already by _____________.” Michael Zwack, represented here by, among other works, plastic army men encased in concrete (apt metaphors for American soldiers in Vietnam), remembers Vito Acconci saying to him, “I get it. Your generation is into turning things into other things.”
The term “Pictures” was coined, of course, by a critic. Douglas Crimp’s “Pictures” show at Artists Space in 1977 was accompanied by an essay, later revised and reprinted in the post-structuralist-leaning journal October, in which he described a new art “whose dimension is literally or metaphorically temporal” and relies on the “processes of quotation, excerptation, framing, and staging”—an art in which “underneath each picture there is always another picture.”
The show at Artists Space featured only four artists. Ironically, neither Cindy Sherman nor Richard Prince, who would become figureheads for Pictures art, were included. But what Crimp acknowledged in his October essay revision and what the Met’s exhibition does in material form is show that this crowd wasn’t tied to any medium. They were the first generation to grow up post-studio, post-medium, and postmodern.
“The Pictures Generation” focuses on the early, post-art-school work of CalArts grads like David Salle, James Welling, Mullican, and Goldstein (the oral history Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia serves as an apt companion), and a Buffalo group associated with the alternative space Hallwalls: Charles Clough, Longo, Zwack, Sherman. Later, of course, fame and money became a factor as artists like Salle and Goldstein retreated to painting (the perennially salable medium) and the loose collectivism of the late ’70s deteriorated into gang-like associations with commercial galleries such as Metro Pictures and Mary Boone.
Instead, Goldstein’s films and sound works are showcased, like The Jump (1978) or a suite of sound effects pressed on vinyl; Salle’s paintings are minimized in lieu of early photo collages and installation work; and Welling’s Winston cigarette ad collages demonstrate how certain ideas were common currency in downtown New York—although it was Prince who would become famous for rephotographed Marlboro ads.
Feminism takes a savvy turn with Pictures artists putting photography in the service of feminism—and ditching ghettoizing subjects like menstruation and ironing. Some of Sherman’s 67 original black-and-white Untitled Film Stills (1977–1980) are included—treated, thankfully, as just another series, not the definitive Pictures project. Across the way is Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face) from 1981 and Dara Birnbaum’s videos featuring Wonder Woman. Sexism lingers here, but in a weird, almost covert-respectful way, like in Glen Branca’s band Theoretical Girls—a post-punk-minimalist band named after a group of brainy downtown artists that included Kruger, Birnbaum, Sarah Charlesworth, and Jenny Holzer.
This is the first museum Pictures show—although, Eklund admits, many artists, when contacted, refused to identify themselves as “Pictures artists.” It’s important to note that it was organized by a photography curator intent on showing how the medium was integrated into “mainstream” contemporary art. You can imagine an entirely different Pictures survey using Thomas Lawson’s “Last Exit: Painting” essay, originally published in Artforum in 1981, as a foil. (Salle’s painting practice is minimized here, and Eric Fischl and Julian Schnabel, technically eligible under the generational aegis, are not present.) Eklund’s version celebrates the artists’ youthful experimentalism while downplaying the effects of the market and careerism. In this regard, it’s an extremely generous, sympathetic show.