A group of artists in the 1970s and 1980s questioned our conceptions of reality and originality by appropriating the seductive imagery of TV, magazines, film and advertising
The Pictures Generation was born on 24 September 1977, with the opening of the exhibition Pictures, curated by the late art historian Douglas Crimp (1944-2019), at New York’s Artists Space in SoHo. It included five artists: Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo and Philip Smith, whose work across a variety of media — photography, film, video and even painting — shared a common thread of using images not just to document or recreate real life, but to create a new reality that existed within the images themselves.
‘To an ever-greater extent our experience is governed by pictures: pictures in newspapers and magazines, on television and in the cinema. Next to these pictures first-hand experience begins to retreat, to seem more and more trivial,’ Crimp prophetically wrote in the original catalogue essay for the exhibition. The fruits of this aesthetic and concept are apparent in the works that make up the auction IMAGE WORLD: Property from a Private American Collection at Christie’s New York beginning in early November, alongside a dedicated online auction in December, Image World | Contemporary Art from a Private American Collection.
Crimp identified an aesthetic that — once it was put into words and images — struck a chord with other curators and critics, resonating beyond the work of these five young American artists. ‘Basically what happened was that the show got a lot of notice, and it was pretty widely reviewed,’ Crimp said in an oral history interview for the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art. ‘It was pretty widely talked about. It was then quite quickly imitated.’
Soon more artists were being labelled as part of the Pictures Generation — Cindy Sherman chief among them — enough so that when Crimp wrote his landmark follow-up essay two years later for the arts journal October, he included her prominently in his theoretical framework.
‘We do not know what is happening in these pictures, but we know for sure that something is happening, and that something is a fictional narrative,’ Crimp wrote of Sherman’s photographs, in which she dressed herself as various imagined characters — from a bright-eyed career girl in the big city to a glamorous starlet on set — to play with the viewer’s expectations and gender stereotypes. ‘We would never take these photographs for being anything but staged.’
The IMAGE WORLD collection contains what Sara Friedlander, Deputy Chairman, Christie’s New York, describes as ‘three of the finest examples of Cindy Sherman’s Centerfolds series, which continue to radically play with the male gaze in contemporary art’.
The Pictures Generation continued to grow, with Laurie Simmons, Richard Prince, Sarah Charlesworth, Barbara Kruger, John Baldessari and Louise Lawler eventually added to the ranks. All of them were immersed in what the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s photography curator Douglas Eklund described as ‘the sea of images into which they were born — the media culture of movies and television, popular music, and magazines that to them constituted a sort of fifth element or a prevailing kind of weather’.
While the artists felt comfortable enough with visual media to borrow or appropriate it, and to dissect, remix and deconstruct the tropes and formats of the images, ‘their relationship to such material was productively schizophrenic: while they were first and foremost consumers, they also learned to adopt a cool, critical attitude toward the very same mechanisms of seduction and desire that played upon them’, Eklund writes.
By the time the Whitney Museum of American Art organised its exhibition Image World: Art and Media Culture in 1989, the Pictures Generation was more than a decade old, and works that incorporated mass media had proliferated, just like the advertising, television and movie industries from which they drew inspiration.
‘Today across America 260,000 billboards line the roads,’ read the wall text that introduced the show, according to the review in The Washington Post. ‘23,076 newspapers and magazines are on sale, 162 million TV sets will be turned on for an average of seven hours, 23,237 movie theaters will project films and 27,000 stores will rent videotapes. By the time the day ends you will have been exposed to 1,600 commercial messages. Tomorrow there will be more. Welcome to “image world”, America's post-war visual environment.’ (Fittingly, the show was sponsored by the instant camera and film manufacturer Polaroid.)
The exhibition took its title from Susan Sontag’s final essay in her book On Photography, published in 1977. Like Crimp, Sontag recognised the immutable power of visual imagery. ‘In the real world something is happening, and no one knows what is going to happen. In the image world, it has happened, and it will forever happen in that way,’ she wrote.
She also saw that such imagery, immediately available and easily consumable, would quickly outstrip a more mundane experience. ‘Knowing a great deal about what is in the world (art, catastrophe, the beauties of nature) through photographic images, people are frequently disappointed, surprised, unmoved when they see the real thing,’ Sontag wrote.
When Michael Kimmelman reviewed the Whitney show in The New York Times he gave credit to the female artists — Kruger, Levine, Sherman, Charlesworth, as well as Jenny Holzer, Annette Lemieux, Lorna Simpson, Barbara Bloom, and Hannah Wilke — who he said were responsible for ‘a great deal of the most astute and acutely political work over the last two decades’.
Hughes, meanwhile, singled out Sherman as ‘probably the only 1980s artist in America who has managed to introduce a real shudder of feeling into media-based work… enacting her parade of roles, gender-caricatures and grotesqueries for the camera’.
‘What is fascinating about the artists in the IMAGE WORLD show,’ says Friedlander, ‘is how they not only defined a voice for themselves, building on Pop art, but also influenced the next generation of artists in such a profound way.’ Works such as Christopher Wool’s Untitled (1995) show an artist playing with the potency of images and what Friedlander describes as ‘radically advancing contemporary art’.
Even younger artists such as Elizabeth Peyton reveal their indebtedness to the Pictures Generation. Her portrait of Liam and Noel Gallagher, the brothers who founded Britpop band Oasis, as children in the 1970s explores the contemporary currents of celebrity not through a portrait, but a painting of a photograph.
The centrality of the camera and manufactured image is likely why the work of the Pictures Generation continues to permeate our cultural consciousness. Images like Richard Prince’s series of lonely cowboys, sprung from Marlboro’s cigarette adverts, riding across the wilderness, Barbara Kruger’s pointed social critiques in black, white and red, and Cindy Sherman’s perfectly posed Centerfolds elicit more of an emotional impact than the pop-culture sources they spring from. Because, as Crimp noted in October, ‘underneath each picture there is always another picture’.