Feature

Exhibit of the week: The Pictures Generation, 1974–1984

Some 160 works from artists of the "Pictures" movement are on display in a striking new show at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Metropolitan Museum of ArtNew YorkThrough Aug. 2

The art world of the 1970s was “enmeshed in a vast series of lines, dots, and amorphous figures,” said Sara Rose in the Associated Press. Conceptualism, the dominant movement of the time, placed its primary emphasis on ideas. “Clear representations with clear meaning” were nowhere to be found. But by the end of the decade, a new generation of artists emerged, dubbed the “Pictures” movement for their emphasis on non-abstract imagery. The loosely affiliated group included Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo in Buffalo, James Welling and David Salle in Los Angeles, and Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince in New York. Their representational works quickly ascended “from the fringes to the center of the art world.” Some 160 works from this influential group are on display in this striking new show at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The 30 artists featured here share a “vastly influential signature method,” said Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker. Their modus operandi was appropriation, particularly of images from the mass media, which they subverted and burlesqued according to the punk-rock mores of the day. Thus works by these artists often “come loaded with political and social associations, bearing notions of America.” Levine meticulously re-creates an iconic, Depression-era photograph by Walker Evans in After Walker Evans: 2 (1981), a contrivance that links the 1930s to her own recessionary times. Prince’s Untitled (Cowboy) (1989) mocks the cowboy myth by blowing up a photograph of an advertisement that depicts a man on horseback riding through the desert.

“There’s something almost quaint, now, about these earnest exposés,” said Ariella Budick in the Financial Times. Some of the work “still compels”: Sherman’s Film Stills, in which the self-photographer inserts herself into Hollywood-esque scenes from the 1950s, continues to raise unsettling questions about femininity and feminism. But Prince’s attempts to denude advertising images come across as merely dull, now that more or less everyone is hip to media manipulation. Fortunately, the exhibition downplays the “grandiose claims” and “eggheaded theorizing” that originally greeted these works. Instead, the focus is on the “original playful experimentalism” of the artists themselves. This approach makes for a refreshingly “unpretentious survey of a sporadically pretentious bunch.”

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