Insular and Over-determined

Sherrie Levine, Fountain (Madonna) (1991), bronze; courtesy Simon Lee Gallery, London, and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

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The following article was originally published in the September 2009 edition of The New Criterion. It is posted here on the occasion of Sherrie Levine: Mayhem, an exhibition currently on display at The Whitney Museum of American Art (until January 29).

There was, by my count, one compelling work of art included in The Pictures Generation, 1974–1984, an exhibition that recently closed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Paul McMahon’s Postcard Fan (Girl in a Bathing Suit) (1975) shouldn’t be lauded for its pictorial invention: Aligning seventeen copies of the same postcard in a circle so that the title figure kicks her shapely gam like a Busby Berkeley-style perpetual motion machine is, at best, art school clever. But McMahon captured collage’s capacity for the absurd in a winningly efficient manner. Squeaking by on kitsch appeal, Postcard Fan provided much-needed whimsy. If there was one thing that marked the cadre of like minds at the Met, it was a deadening lack of humor. This “generation” was no fun.

But, boy, did it think a lot. The Pictures Generation focused on a network of artists who came of age after Minimalism and Conceptualism had taken root in the academy—CalArts, the Disney-funded school for the temporarily outré, figured heavily in its purview. Taking as a given the notion that visual art had reached its culmination in the idea and the object, a group of heady young students dedicated themselves to commenting on the obsolescence of high culture and on the false promises of aesthetic reward. Poaching on mass media with icy disregard, they made “appropriation”—the wholesale lifting of “pictures” from Hollywood or Madison Avenue— an art-world mantra. “Post-” became the obligatory prefix, especially when referring to modernism or the studio.

You could blame the French: the anti-humanist philosophies of Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, and Julia Kristeva were gobbled up by American artists sold on the line that art was at a dead end. But any line of reasoning diverting art’s niceties from aesthetic pleasure to over-intellectualization was welcome. John Baldessari’s shambling Conceptualism, with its easy reliance on photography and glorification of the “deskilled,” inspired his CalArts students to further deracinate the scope of Conceptual art—an against-all-odds tendency that didn’t go unnoticed, even among theoretical fellow travelers. “It’s your fault, John,” a friend jibed at Baldessari about the work of his protégés, “you called them artists.”

An image from After Walker Evans, a 1981 series by Sherrie Levine; courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery

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What resulted was insular and over-determined art, at first humble in means but increasingly slick in finish. Pop culture was the lingua franca of the Pictures Generation and its touchstone, but the line between high and low had already been blurred by the likes of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein; any residual frisson resulting from breaking boundaries had dissipated and been codified. As a result, a been-there-done-that skepticism set the tone. “A picture is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture,” intoned Sherrie Levine, “we can only imitate a gesture that is always interior, never original …” So what can a poor girl do except re-photograph photographs by Walker Evans and Edward Weston under the smug assumption that art is inherently a cheat?

Except the Pictures Generation—or, at least, notables like Robert Longo, David Salle, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, and Levine—got rich. This is, in and of itself, not a sin; an artist’s bank account shouldn’t be the litmus test for his art. But when the failings of commodity culture are your subject—and let’s not forget, please, that art is a commodity—what happens when the resulting work accrues significant financial worth and, in the long run, a stamp of approval from an august institution like the Met? Small ideas rendered large are hard enough to endure; small ideas collapsing under their own logic are intolerable. The period pieces on display in The Pictures Generation evinced a social set without either the gumption or the imagination to explore anything greater than its own cynicism.

As with the old quip that each generation congratulates itself on having invented sex, so, too, does every generation think the world as they know it will soon be at an end. What looked diverting twenty years ago—Longo’s monumental drawings of falling men, say—now looks tinny and overblown, expert and little else. But that’s not to say we should be pessimistic about future generations. When a group of art students visiting the Met was informed that the Pictures Generation was important for having confronted feminism, capitalism, mass media, and (pace Levine) “the uneasy peace … made between the reassuring mythologies society and culture provide and our wish to see ourselves as free agents,” their teacher later told me that they shrugged their collective shoulders and replied: “So what? The art is still lousy.” The Met has better ways of spending its time. So do the rest of us.

© 2009 Mario Naves

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