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The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984: A Decade of Media Appropriation

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s first primarily multimedia historical survey, The Pictures Generation, takes its title from the moniker that sprung up for a group of artists working in New York during the late-’70s and early-’80s. This unofficial movement was encapsulated by the 1977 exhibition Pictures at alternative gallery Artists Space, which debuted work from the incubators of Buffalo’s Hallwalls and conceptual artist John Baldessari‘s classes at CalArts, outside of LA.

Organized by the then-fresh and now heavy-hitting art historian Douglas Crimp, the exhibition included only five contributors, but Crimp’s illuminating conceptual framework, along with his accompanying essay, came to epitomize the concerns of a wider group of artists. Spanning the decade from 1974-1984, the Met’s exhibition, organized by associate curator of photography Douglas Eklund, brings together over 150 moment-crystallizing works that reflect an appropriation-heavy, photographically informed, postmodernist practice.

The exhibition begins in the Great Hall with a trio of Robert Longo‘s monumental drawings of contorted people in suits, and transitions to Jack Goldstein‘s photographic triptych of tiny figures free-floating in chromatic voids in the second-floor galleries. The two sets of bodies hovering in space create an emotional parallel for the post-Vietnam isolation from popular culture that operated as a jumping-off point for this group of artists. Critical distance from the media allowed for the artistic mining of imagery that laid bare the hidden signifiers of capitalism, social roles, and power structures.

Hollywood’s constant output also offered fertile grounds for unraveling the psychological cues behind visual gestures. Goldstein’s otherworldly 16mm films look closely at trained responses, such as the MGM lion’s roar and a ballerina flexing on point, while Dara Birnbaum‘s kitschy Technology/ Transformation: Wonder Woman video samples moments of female empowerment as highlighted by ’70s-era blasts of special effects.

Print media proved equally ripe as a site for questioning visual truth in newsworthy pictures and hidden coding in advertising. The inherent tension between loaded subject matter and pedestrian imagery comes to the forefront in Troy Brauntuch‘s installation of photo prints, Untitled (Mercedes), with its quotations of Nazi pageantry at Nuremburg and the banal presence of Hitler asleep in a car. Sarah Charlesworth‘s Stills blow up grainy newspaper clippings of falling figures to demonstrate photojournalism’s struggle with representing tragedy, and Richard Prince transforms advertisements into a deadpan sociological survey of consumerism’s ideal appearances. Barbara Kruger‘s poster-sized prints, meanwhile, pair stock images with upfront slogans like “Buy Me I’ll Change Your Life,” in a moment of anti-propaganda.

High culture also comes under visual scrutiny in works that considered the life of art outside of the white box. Allan McCollum‘s Surrogate paintings push the shape of a traditional framed work into a minimalist scope, and, through repetition, invoke the atmosphere of artworks operating as visual white noise. With her camera, Louise Lawler peeks into private collections hung in offices and homes, coolly observing the juxtaposition of mid-century masters with tureens and fax machines. Upending notions of originality through re-photographing fine-art images, Sherrie Levine‘s appropriations of Edward Weston’s classic male torsos feel increasingly layered in reference to the physical proximity of the Met’s new Greek and Roman Galleries. Along with Levine’s bold questioning of male authorship, other women in the exhibition offer feminist viewpoints, underscoring their nickname, “The Theoretical Girls.” Cindy Sherman and Laurie Simmons‘ photographs borrow the traditional girlish pastimes of dressing up and playing with dolls to reveal expectations of fulfilling femininity.

Vitrines throughout the exhibition also highlight the importance of printed matter and ephemera to this moment, as artists’ books, records, invitation cards, and posters all provide moments for artist intervention in the circulation of ideas. These artists, along with critics, actively created a shared dialogue through texts and projects for the page in brainy magazines, such as Real Life, October, Wedge, and ZG. A screening room further expands the show’s scope with a constantly running schedule, featuring works by Ericka Beckman, Barbara Bloom, and Michael Smith, among others.

While The Pictures Generation highlights the more experimental beginnings of the 30 artists in the show, the overall injection of representation into the maneuvers of conceptualism and minimalism comes across as a radical shift. Even with the friction of institutionalizing their subtly protesting works, the tactics of these practitioners undeniably continues to inform subsequent generations of media-savvy artists.

The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984, accompanied by a comprehensive catalogue, is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through August 2.

Image: Robert Longo, Untitled (from the series Men in the Cities), 1981

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