The Pictures Generation - History and Concepts
Beginnings of The Pictures Generation
Reconsidering photography and film
The artists who would be involved in the Pictures Generation grew up in the 1960s when consumerism and mass media began to have a large impact on society. They were the first generation of artists raised with television.
In the 1970s and 1980s conceptual art ideas were being circulated through art professors who began to incorporate then-unorthodox and nontraditional media into their curricula. Many artists abandoned conventional educational tracks in painting and sculpture, recognizing the influence of mass-media formats such as advertising, film, and video, and brought representation into conceptual art practice instead. Programs like the Whitney Independent Study Program in New York City, which was established in 1968, the visual arts program at New York's Buffalo State College, and the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in Los Angeles were cutting edge curricular innovations. A majority of the artists of the Pictures Generation studied in Buffalo, New York or Los Angeles.
Several of the Pictures Generation artists studied at Buffalo State College, including Robert Longo, Charles Clough, and Cindy Sherman. Professors like photographer Barbara Jo Revelle introduced them to Conceptual art and students were encouraged to be independent-minded and to experiment. While still undergraduates, the aforementioned artists founded Hallwalls in 1974 as an alternative art space in downtown Buffalo where their studios were located. The space was intended to show cutting edge photography, performance, and film not funded by corporate interests. Using student activities funds, they also set up a visiting artists program and invited prominent artists like Sol LeWitt, Vito Acconci, Richard Serra, and Philip Glass, among others. In the late 1970s some of their work was also being shown at Artists Space in New York City. Other artists in the Pictures Generation who had studied, and/or were working in New York City by the mid 1970s include Barbara Kruger, Richard Prince, Louise Lawler, and Laurie Simmons.
Developments in postmodern art practice were brewing on the west coast, as well. The photo-conceptualist John Baldessari began teaching a visual arts program at CalArts in 1970, the same year he burned all of his previous paintings. Though initially hired as a painter, Baldessari taught a class titled "Post Studio," broadening artistic understanding of studio practice. In addition to giving students access to contemporary art from America and Europe, Baldessari introduced film, video, photography, and advertisements to the curriculum. His focus on photography and montage were key elements that his students would eventually manipulate in their own art: David Salle's disjunctive paintings, for example, show the influence of film and photography. At CalArts, Baldessari taught Barbara Bloom, James Welling, Jack Goldstein, Matt Mullican, and Troy Brauntuch, in addition to Salle. Many of these artists decamped for New York in the mid-1970s and were dubbed the "CalArts mafia," in part for their brashness.
East and West Meet in New York City
An important figure tying these two coastal groups together was Helene Winer, director of the Pomona College Museum of Art in Claremont, California from 1970 to 1972 where she showed artworks by Baldessari and others from CalArts. In 1975 Winer became the director of Artists Space in New York City where she exhibited the work of Cindy Sherman, among others. All of the artists in Winer's circle - both from California and New York - circulated in the same social milieu, lived in close proximity to each other, and/or bonded through various day jobs and art-related activities. Cindy Sherman, for example, was the receptionist at Artists Space and dated Robert Longo while Jack Goldstein, who attended CalArts, was Winer's boyfriend. Art critics who wrote about the Pictures Generations artists - Douglas Crimp, Brian Wallis, and Craig Owens - were also part of their social group, attending the same parties and nightlife spots.
It was Winer who encouraged Crimp to organize the "Pictures" show in 1977 at Artists Space, from which the movement gets its name. The show then traveled to the Allen Art Museum at Oberlin College in Ohio, the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art, and the University of Colorado Museum in Boulder. It featured the work of five artists: Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, and Philip Smith.
While the show itself did not make much of a splash, in 1979, Crimp republished the accompanying exhibition text in the art journal October where he expounded upon the themes implicit in "Pictures," discussing more artists than were included in the exhibit. Pictures Generation artists also contributed to the burgeoning discourse circulating in art journals and magazines. Cindy Sherman, for example, was commissioned by Artforum to create "centerfold" portraits for the magazine in the 1980s, and Barbara Kruger pursued art criticism on top of her visual practice.
The Pictures Generation: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Building on the work of Neo-Dada and Pop artists, artists of the Pictures Generation appropriated existing images and re-contextualized them to undermine their original intent. Whereas Pop playfully poked at and surveyed design-conscious image production, Pictures artists more typically appropriated images to question and criticize the inherent power structures in mass-circulated imagery. Dara Birnbaum's video work, for example, manipulated scenes from television to uncover stereotypes in the medium. Because of the interest in appropriation and its refusal of traditional art hierarchies, the Pictures Generation is considered an important movement within postmodernism.
Authorship and the Viewer
Tied closely to the use of appropriation, the work of Pictures Generation artists questioned traditional notions of authorship. Sherrie Levine's work, for example, in appropriating the photographs of other artists, questions ideas of originality. Many Pictures Generation works also rely on the viewer to produce their meanings, further eroding the conventional significance of the artist as creator. Barbara Kruger's works often include the pronouns "I" or "you" that directly address the viewer, challenging them to critically assess how their lives are affected by media. The viewer is challenged to create meaning in David Salle's paintings where he juxtaposes disparate images in vertical registers that mimic film.
Advertising and Identity
Many artists of the Pictures Generation worked to reveal biases innate in popular advertising and other imagery. Artists such as Barbara Kruger and Richard Prince, who both had backgrounds in advertising, manipulated imagery to show how marketing executives were shaping consumers expectations and buying practices. Others such as Matt Mullican, not specifically focused on advertising, explored how humans create and maintain their identity or sense of reality through their subconscious.
There were several Pictures artists whose work displayed concerns with gender disparity and objected to the patriarchal narratives of popular media and art history. Instead of celebrating characteristics thought to be intrinsic to women (essentialism), Pictures artists turned to developments in psychoanalytic theory as well as film theory, both of which claimed the cultural perspective of the viewer as dominantly male, privileging one gender over another. In works by Kruger and Sherman, for example, deconstructed and appropriated images displayed the disparity between individual agency and expectations that stemmed from social construction of femininity. Collectives such as the Guerrilla Girls, working in the late 1980s and early 1990s, would utilize more obvious, rebellious, and often humorous tactics, pasting giant advertising plaques to force public attention toward the gender inequalities of the art world. Paul McMahon also used humor and kitsch in his Postcard Fan (Girl in a Bathing Suit) from 1975 to underscore the ubiquity of the female body in advertising.
Inherent racism in popular media and art institutions was also a recurring theme in the work of some Pictures Generation artists. Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems (both of African-American descent), whose bodies of work began to develop at the end of the Pictures' years, both explored blackness and femininity, utilizing photography and text to activate different readings for the viewer. Fred Wilson's work focused on how African-American history, particularly slavery, is glossed over by museums.
Later Developments - After The Pictures Generation
The original five artists included in Crimp's 1977 "Pictures" exhibition were never a formal group and did not exhibit together again. However, Crimp's 1979 essay in October gave prominence to the themes and methods of their work, leading to numerous exhibits throughout the 1980s that showcased a revolving array of artists such as Sherrie Levine, Barbara Kruger, and Richard Prince whose works were thematically similar. These artists are now considered part of the Pictures Generation.
By the end of the 1980s blockbuster exhibitions such as the "Forest of Signs" (1989) at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and the "Image World" (1989) at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York explored ideas comparable to those of the original "Pictures" show while further expanding the roster of artists to include younger individuals like Mike Kelley.
Cementing a continuing influence on contemporary art, many of the artists were brought together again in 2009 at an exhibit at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art entitled "Pictures Generation, 1974-1984." The show firmly placed the thematic group within a trajectory of postmodern conceptual artistic practice that began with Robert Rauschenberg.
Contemporary artists continue to address those themes significant to the Pictures Generation artists. Gary Simons, represented by Metro Pictures, does wall drawings in chalk as well as sculpture that deal with issues of race and gender within popular culture. Clare Fontaine, a French artist who works in neon, focuses on the intersection of the political and the popular. Among the many others that create works along these lines including Andreas Slominski, Annette Lemieux, Olaf Breuning, and Andreas Hofer.