Pictures at the Met

Richard Prince, "Untitled (four single men with interchangeable backgrounds looking to the right)," 1977. Mixed media on paper. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

As summer officially winds down, I can’t help but note that 2009 marks one very significant anniversary that seems to have been somewhat underappreciated, if not totally overlooked here in New York. I’m not talking about this the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s historic exploration of the New York region, which also seems to have slipped by with relatively little fanfare. While perhaps not of this same scale, the underappreciated anniversary to which I’m referring does, nevertheless, mark an occasion that forever changed the course of art history. It is, after all, one hundred years ago this year that the first Futurist manifesto was published—a seismic proclamation that signaled the coalescence of a group that would alter the landscape and the trajectory of modern art (this group’s lessons and legacy are still being assessed). Although a major exhibition is irculating around Europe at the moment to observe the occasion, here in America, the centenary has been greeted with a somewhat muted response by institutions from which one might have expected a more robust commemoration (MoMA, wherefore art thou?).

While there was no centennial celebration to be found, one of the better commemorative exhibitions in New York did in fact highlight another group of radical, young artists whose lessons and legacy are also still being absorbed. I’m referring to the The Pictures Generation: 1974-1984 show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art earlier this summer. This exhibition, however, felt a bit like the anniversary that wasn’t, as it commemorated and expanded upon Douglas Crimp’s landmark Pictures show. But it did so, somewhat peculiarly, two years after the thirtieth anniversary of that now legendary exhibition at Artist’s Space in 1977 (to be fair, it was the thirtieth anniversary of Crimp’s important article in October magazine, a broad articulation of his argument in which he also discussed the work of Cindy Sherman, who was not included in his original exhibition).

Face-to-face once more with some of the most iconic images from the so called Pictures generation, it struck me that few moments in the history of art match the late 1970s for its wide-ranging and sustained critique of those institutional systems through which meaning is manipulated and, more importantly, produced. Certainly the Italian Futurists and various strains of Dada vigorously attacked the mechanisms of power and the conventions of representation, and articulated a radical new vision of what art and life should be. Likewise, the 1950s witnessed Jasper Johns’s and Robert Rauschenberg’s devastating assault on both the painterly gesture as an index of authenticity and originality, as well as the mythology of the abstract expressionist artist.

But the generation that came of age in the 1960s internalized its era’s incredulity towards institutional authority, artistic or otherwise, while growing up in a culture of mass consumption increasingly dominated and defined by images. It was up to this generation to employ the appropriative and quotational strategies inherited from the likes of Johns and Rauschenberg in order to investigate the insidious economy of representation in visual and consumer culture.

The Pictures generation was, like the Futurists had been seventy years earlier, a youth movement, but one that deftly understood that the most devastating way to effect a critique of a mass media system that no longer seemed to simply be representing the world around them but rather determining it, was to transact in it on its terms. In retrospect, this might be one of the most important legacies of the Pictures generation—namely their collective ability to operate within the insidious systems of meaning production in order to challenge them, and to do so without simply substituting irony for aesthetics and acumen. The work of Richard Prince, Jack Goldstein, Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo and Laurie Simmons demonstrate this rare balancing act. The art of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, two slightly later artists who inherited the lessons of the Pictures generation, also succeeds in finding that rare equilibrium between commenting upon and unabashedly embracing the systems of representation in contemporary culture. The current generation of artists, or at least those included in the recent Younger Than Jesus show at the New Museum in New York, seems to be in the initial stages of coming to terms with those same lessons (and increasingly muted legacy) while working in an ever more image-dominated world.

Alas, while the Pictures generation may not have opened up entire new worlds for exploration to the scale that Henry Hudson did four centuries ago this year, some 30 years ago in New York, they did demonstrate perhaps more plainly than any generation before or since that in contemporary visual culture, one must deal in the mechanisms of power in order to effect a critique of them—and that is an anniversary worth celebrating.

Contributor
Max Weintraub is a Visiting Professor at Hunter College in New York City, where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on modern and contemporary art and theory. He has published widely and worked in curatorial and educational departments at major museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Since 2006, he has contributed the Art2 column "On View Now."
  1. Hi Max, don’t forget about the upcoming PERFORMA biennial, with its inspiration drawn from the anniversary of the Futurist manifesto.

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  2. SFMoMA is also doing a series of Futurist-inspired events in October, associated with Performa.

    There’s also a bit of discussion about what this anniversary means on SFMoMA’s blog (not all think it’s something to celebrate): http://blog.sfmoma.org/2009/08/why-i-wont-celebrate-futurisms-anniversary/

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    Max Weintraub Reply:

    An update to Futurism and its complicated legacy: there is an event at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College in New York on November 11 titled “Shock and Awe: The Troubling Legacy of the Futurist Cult of War.”

    * The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College
    * 68th Street and Lexington Avenue
    * Wednesday, November 11 4:00pm

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  3. Max Weintraub says:

    Thanks for the thoughts. Wesley, you’re right to remind that the fascist legacy to which some facets of Futurism were later linked–and have been rightfully taken to task–is indeed something that should not be diminished. I believe that that doesn’t detract from being worthy of commemoration for its value on other levels–as the Performa theme implies, its influence on performance art being but one legacy only recently receiving some needed critical attention. Similarly, some argue that Henry Hudson’s anniversary is not something to celebrate, I suppose, or, for that matter, are the artistic achievements of the Pictures generation…

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  4. Tim Nowakowski says:

    Apples and oranges. Marinetti, the caffeine of Europe, as he proclaimed, re-syntaxed language. Remember Parole et Liberte, translated as Words in Freedom, crossed over, a literary manifestation w/ pictorial traction. Marinetti fucked w/ the printers type, not unlike Arp in Zurich, who would claim the same prodedure for his paper chance piece. Marinetti’s theory would play much larger in Berlin Dada, where w/ Baader, Hausmann, Hoecke would operate on the premise of screw up the language and u screw up the society. I don’t see the Cindy Sherman’s having been this radical, especially since she’s made quite a profitable career in tweeking the codes of mass media. Richard Prince, Koons simply look like alternative marketing strategies. The Futurist soiree’s and Dada ex.’s often ended w/ the police shutting things down, attaching a deliberate anti-bourgeois stigma to their affairs. The dealers for the Americans combed and groomed already available upper middle class clients. Now, w/ Marinetti, who, like Tzara, was privately wealthy, the visual artists had to be coaxed into producing a visual language to match Marinetti’s impresario performances. In this sense, Sherman, Prince, Koons, et alia coaxed their images from already existing prototypes in dominant culture, and therefore like dominant culture, issues of friction from race, class and gender are erased, Kruger being somewhat an exception. Furturo-Dada never had the same slick product production, which ultimately led to its passing. So, these Americans never wrote a manifesto, never exploded the middle class syntax and, thus, never got on MOMA’s radar screen, n’est-ce pas?

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    Max Weintraub Reply:

    Tim, thanks for your great thoughts, but I would propose that c’est pas vrai. If I read you right, your suggesting in your last line that the Pictures generation isn’t represented in MoMA’s collection? For the good or for the bad, they are very much on MoMA’s and just about everyone else’s radar screen, and have been for some time. And while I do agree that the Futurists (separate from the Dada experiments) pushed the envelope in printed matter, Marinetti was still standing atop the shoulders of Rimbaud and others who played with syntax and destabilizing narrative convention before. Also, I’m not sure if writing a manifesto or being jailed is the only measure of radicality. After all, Johns and Rauschenberg did neither and their broadside shot against all that high modernism held dear resounds to this day. (that said, Levine and Koons did have major copyright lawsuits against them, and Prince’s legal problems with Spiritual America are well known, all of which suggest that their techniques were clashing with institutionalized notions of originality and authorship, rather than being–or being simply–an innocuous extension of advertising).
    Moreover (and at the risk of defending one side too much and diminishing the accomplishments of another), as Ben notes, in some ways the incendiary rhetoric of the Futurists was never matched with an equally incendiary product on canvas. Vector lines only go so far in the direction of overcoming convention, and it took some time (and a few studio visits in Paris) just to slough off their indebtedness to post-impressionism.
    Finally, Prince et al.’s coaxing of images from consumer culture and ensconcing their art in its forms is my point–After all, I am suggesting that their power and their legacy is the seamlessness with which they effect a critique of representation by transacting in those very same visual codes, as opposed to operating outside of them in some radical new expression. Jasper Johns used the codes of abstract expressionism against itself, and the Pictures generation used the seductive, beguiling nature of consumer culture against itself. In this way, they reveal the biases, assumptions and exclusions of dominant culture and its forms by using its own rhetorical devices.

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    Tim Nowakowski Reply:

    The provincial vocabulary of the ‘Futurist movement aside, Words in liberte, I feel, stands more remarkably than anything of the PicGen. I don’t see in that piece much of Rimbaud (Bateau Ivre?) especially since Marinetti’s work explodes into something purely syntagmatic or contiguous. This is a one hit wonder work, without which the history of 20th C. art, especially for Duchamp, is altered. I disagree as far as antecedents since there was a paradigm shift because the work was picked up by visual artists, not poets, the first concrete poem. Now imagine if the The Marlboro Man or Cindy Sherman had never happened. Would or will the art history of the 20thC. be different? I don’t think so. The problem I’m having w/ the Prince piece shown here eg., the redundancy features are so high as to lose relevance. I mean they appear like the Futurists working in the hopelessly outdated Neo Impressionist vocab., so that I would argue, the PicGen, if u were writing a history of late 20th C., could be easily framed as a School of Duchamp set of actors playing out options already wired into earlier works, like Richard Hamilton’s famous collage.

    On another plane, the PicGen suffer from the hetero-normative, to use Butler, problem. Even w/ Kruger, u still have a critique that just assumes heterosexual hegemony, a problem that has plagued feminism till this day. I mean the Untitled piece u cite here is a case in point, the priviledged male is so intrinsically valued that he can interchange and dominate any context/environment. This group of artists being too embedded w/in the codes of representation plot a dull frisson. So, if they work so closely within the means of reproduction, what are they doing other than flattering the power structure? Is this clever Velazquez or Rubens flattering the monarchs? Thinking in terms of McClintock’s commodity racism, aren’t these artists ad men/women for Imperial discourse? Again, the Untitled here and Marlboro man all speak to white male entrenchment, what’s w/ that?

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    Max Reply:

    Hey Tim,
    Judith Butler of all people would understand that referencing “white male entrenchment” on its own terms can indeed contain a subversive element, which was my basic point. Also, “C’est pas vrai” is, in fact, the way it is often stated colloquially.
    Best,
    Max

    Tim Nowakowski Reply:

    Not so fast w/ Butler. She has, as is well known, had some issues w/ Irigaray on her strategy of working from within the Lacanian school to get at Lacan, attempting to turn female ‘lack’ into a phallago lacks traction (ha ha) and any pre-privileged signifier status . Being lesbian, I find it difficult to imagine her working within Lacan, esp. w/ her Austin everday language background. Having said that, she almost agrees w/ you when she handled the medical benefits issue and the going along w/ the medical definition of homosexual as a malady.

    I’m coming from this as a painter, so I don’t have the vested interest in the Pic Gen as u might, but I’m sure critiquing from within a system can have merit. I just don’t see how the Marlboro man has any traction on capitalism, or advances anything not already found in Duchamp. Again the role models the Eighties had are plentiful, but Marinetti has no antecedents. I would have thought an art historian such as yourself would like that. I guess the burden of proof remains, how is Marlboro Man or the above Untitled subversive since it simply shows the white male rearranged but not threatened? I guess I’ve often found Prince a little suspect, like his ripping off some of the street art aesthetic in his last Gagosian. All in all, I get the feeling the art world has seen enough media artists producing quotes sanctioned by the dis on originality and authenticity, starting to wear thin. Do u agree? Something’s different, maybe the the ‘8 meltdown and Obama.

    I have a son at U of Michigan, now doing a semester abroad en France. I’ll check, but isn’t that expression used by the hillbillies from Normandy?

    Tim Nowakowski Reply:

    Some additional notes. Is that Prince piece dated correctly or backdated? 1977 Carolee Schneeman, Edelson, Wilke et alia take over from Vito Acconci w/ concretized female issues and at Iowa Ana Mendieta is still screaming at Breder about how to photograph her. Doesn’t this piece belong w/ the simulacra Baudrillard, pro-male, Situationistic type stuff of the Eighties?

    I also want to point out as opposed to media based art I’m advocating a return/nostalgia for traditional values like drawing and nature as the basis of painting, or conservative, academic painting like a John Currin or Will Cotton. Blah!

    Tim Nowakowski Reply:

    The French “c’est pas vrais’ is indeed colloquially idiomatic in oral or conversational exchanges; however, it is not to be written especially in formal writing. More at our ain’t. I also meant to say I’m NOT advocating … in the disclaimer above.

  5. David says:

    There was a poetry performance at MoMA in February (in conjunction with the Poetry Foundation) celebrating the anniversary: http://www.moma.org/explore/multimedia/audios/136/1182

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  6. Ben Street says:

    Max:

    “MoMA, wherefore art thou?” is a wonderful philosophical question to hang this discussion on, since a chunk of Marinetti’s exhausting manifesto was dedicated to the dissolution of the museum and its ossification of art history (“art museums, wherefore art thou?”, maybe). The failure of that idea to take hold hangs over the Futurist show at Tate Modern like a bad smell (I also hadn’t washed the day I saw it, so that may be related).

    However much the performative or typographic or culinary legacy of Futurism is sifted through with the contemporary art scholar’s 20/20 hindsight goggles (bear with me), its lasting visual legacy will always be a lot of wearyingly ‘experimental’ paintings in look-at-me-I’m-a-crazy-guy colours of people pulling U-eys on Milan High Street in flowing silk scarves and squiggly moustaches.

    I’m not being a typo pedant here, but your ‘irculating’ is right. Futurism is irculating around Europe like a bear with a bad leg wearing a party hat. Go away, you bad bear. The party’s over.

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  7. Marc Mayer says:

    Max, interesting post. At MoMA so many things happen that they seem invisible. But just to provide some information of MoMA’s recognition of the 100th anniversary of Futurism…

    There was an exhibition (Words in Freedom: Futurism at 100) in the Education building at MoMA. Below is the exhibition description
    http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2009/futurism/

    Also the readings David mentioned above was called Futurism and the New Manifesto which took place on Feb. 20—the exact anniversary of the birth of the movement.

    Finally the film department is organizing a series called Nuts and Bolts: Machine Made Man in Films from the Collection (NOVEMBER 1–28) which is inspired by Futurism

    Reply

  8. Tim Nowakowski says:

    I think I made a mistake. You’re saying that you’re surprised that the Futurist Manifesto wasn’t celebrated by MOMA more so, not the PicGen anniversay, right? Even so, the different historicaL times aside, if we had a radicality measuring device, like a Geiger counter, I would argue the Furturist severence was more radioactive, not so much in its bombastic performance, but in its disapproval of the middle class and its crude assertions. I don’t see any disapproval of the middle class in the PicGen as much as a rearrangement of the furniture. If we look at the Prince Untitled you’ve posted here, we could easily rename this ‘Middle class Guy’. Moreover, the hegemonic white corporate male stays firmly entrenched, ‘He’ obviously dominates any environment. This can be construed as critiquing while also reaffirming white male dominance. Apples and oranges in the sense Marinetti’s work was meant 2b performed, not simply published in Le Figaro. He was a poet remember. Is there an equivalent in the PicGen. I’m not the first to claim that when u work within social media codes u r 2 close to culture and simply reproduce it. Anyway, I have kids and dinner, this is more for coffee in the morning. Glad I found this spot, though pardon my French, but u 4got the e,n on ‘ce n’est pas vrais as opposed to c’est vrai. later

    Reply

  9. Ben Street says:

    Tim, are you Prince?

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  10. Tim Nowakowski says:

    Eric or the artist formerly know as?

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  12. morgon says:

    prince is in deep shit !!!!

    cariou versus prince

    Reply

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