Howard Singerman

  • “Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology”

    While appropriation and institutional critique—two of the dominant artistic strategies of the late 1970s to early 1990s—are both invariably traced back to their roots in Conceptual art, scholarship has rarely investigated the intersections of these practices or the shared aesthetic, political, and theoretical engagements of the artists we divide between them. “Take It or Leave It” wants to rethink the way we have historicized the period, arguing that the two categories and their practitioners are in fact inextricably linked. With some 120

  • Danny Lyon, View west from a Washington Street rooftop, 1967, black-and-white photograph, 9 x 11 1/2". From the series “The Destruction of Lower Manhattan,” 1966–67.

    Mixed Use, Manhattan: Photography and Related Practices, 1970s to the Present

    “Mixed Use, Manhattan” begins with “The Destruction of Lower Manhattan”—not the city’s most infamous devastation, the fall of the World Trade Center towers in September 2001, but the vast demolition that made the twin towers possible.

    “Mixed Use, Manhattan” begins with “The Destruction of Lower Manhattan”—not the city’s most infamous devastation, the fall of the World Trade Center towers in September 2001, but the vast demolition that made the twin towers possible. “The Destruction of Lower Manhattan” is the title of a series of 1966–67 photographs by Danny Lyon, taken as he raced to record the hundreds of condemned buildings being torn down in Washington Market and along West Street before they vanished. If September 11 was—or quickly became—a world historical event, the wholesale

  •  View of “The Pictures Generation, 1974–1984,” 2009, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


    The hallowed halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York would seem an unlikely setting for “The Pictures Generation, 1974–1984”: an exhibition of artistic insurgents who dissected the images and words of the mass media with cutting ken. Here the past is far from settled, and while many figures represented in the show have already secured a place in the history books, group hagiography is hardly easy among practices so diverse and ongoing. Yet even if the works defy rigid, canonical terms, this first group retrospective still gave us an astonishing corpus—allowing an era’s real complexity to surface and then be amplified in critical debate. Artforum asked art historians MICHAEL LOBEL and HOWARD SINGERMAN to reflect on the show’s picturing of a moment that holds great sway over our own.

    ONE OF THE MORE CURIOUS SEQUELAE of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s staging of “The Pictures Generation, 1974–1984,” curated by Douglas Eklund, was the controversy surrounding the exclusion of Philip Smith from the show. Smith is one of five artists—the others were Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, and Robert Longo—whose work Douglas Crimp had included in the 1977 show at Artists Space in New York titled “Pictures.” The event gave this group its name, in part, and has since been mythologized as a pivotal moment in postwar art. While those other four artists were represented

  • Sherrie Levine, The Mother of Us All, 2008, still from a color video, 45 minutes.

    Sherrie Levine and The Mother of Us All

    FROM THE BEGINNING, Sherrie Levine’s work has been about names and how to count them. Depending on how one took her early appropriations, they seemed to promise a practice without origins or names and, as Craig Owens wrote, without “the paternal rights assigned to the author by law.”¹ Or they suggested precisely the opposite, an agonic and Oedipal struggle over the name: not no names but exactly two. That was Carter Ratcliff’s early argument: “Her ‘appropriations’ are most effective as expressions of her resentment at the fact that her name will never be as glamorous as Walker Evans’s.”² Now,

  • Mike Kelley, Proposal for the Decoration of an Island of Conference Rooms (with Copy Room) for an Advertising Agency Designed by Frank Gehry, 1991. Installation view, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1992.

    “Helter Skelter”

    Pop artists took a professional interest in products and packaging in the ’60s: Commercial design offered not only new source material—Campbell’s Soup labels or Brillo boxes—but the model for a whole new way of doing business. Across the decade, modern museums learned their design lessons as well as the artists did, perhaps even better. “Art has entered into the media system,” wrote Harold Rosenberg in 1968, arguing that the “archetypal creation of the media is the package, whether it contains cornflakes, a 240-horsepower motor or a retrospective exhibition of the paintings of Jackson Pollock.”(1)


    In memory of Joe Bishop, ISP 1976–77

    I’d like to think this essay has been written at the suggestion of Thomas Crow, who singled out the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program in his examination of the “new art history” in the second of Artforum’s special issues on the ’80s last spring and proposed that there was more to be said:

    One American crucible where social art history and the theoretical approach associated with October came together lay in the estimable Whitney Independent Study Program (long may it flourish) under the direction of Ron Clark. The ISP welcomed

  • Laura Owens, Untitled, 1998, acrylic and oil on canvas, 84 x 96".

    Laura Owens

    There are some very good paintings in MoCA’s Laura Owens survey—particularly the large decorative landscapes painted between 1999 and 2002 that borrow from Chinese scroll and screen painting, the rococo pastorals of Beauvais tapestries, and the peaceable critterdom of children’s-book illustration. Notable in their absence, though, are a couple of the artist’s very strong early works that take pluralism in the museum and a modest and collaborative approach to painting as their relatively explicit subject. It’s a way of working that continues to inform Owens’s output and that has been an especially

  • Dieter Schwarz, Sherrie Levine, and Rosemarie Schwarzwälder at Galerie Nächst St. Stephan, Vienna, 1988.

    Sherrie Levine

    HOWARD SINGERMAN: There is a caricature of the ’80s: All you needed was a critic with a name to write about your work and cite some hot theorist, and you had a career. This strikes me as both historically and systemically wrong; it’s my recollection that the theory and criticism arrived earlier and in different spheres than the ’80s market did. Do you have any thoughts about a different sort of chronology of the decade?

    SHERRIE LEVINE: I came to New York in the mid-’70s, at the same time as a lot of recent art school graduates from CalArts, RISD, Buffalo, and Nova Scotia College of Art and Design


    THE EXHIBITION NOW titled “Public Offerings” has undergone a lengthy and complicated gestation. The idea of exploring the impact of art schools on the production of art in Southern California first came to LA MOCA curator Paul Schimmel when a series of ever more derisory articles looking at the phenomenon—Dennis Cooper’s “Too Cool for School” in Spin (July 1997), Andrew Hultkrans’s “Surf and Turf” in these pages (Summer 1998), and Deborah Solomon’s New York Times Magazine piece “How to Succeed in Art” (June 1999)—began to appear. To endow the proceedings with the requisite critical breadth,

  • Arnold Mesches

    Arnold Mesches recent paintings are painted on top of some of the most familiar images in Western art—among them Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson, and Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. Or, rather, they are painted over copies after photographs, as a detail—a mechanically cropped and reproduced image—from Michelangelo’s Last Judgment points out. Mesches’ grounds are aged as well as historical; his repaintings are sanded down and varnished over. Buried under a dark glaze, they are meant to be more than images from the past. They are images of their own pastness: witnesses,

  • Jim Morphesis

    Like much recent painting, Jim Morphesis’ work is revivalist, the painting of a believer of, and in, something that has passed. It is painted to recall the past and it seems that past’s willing victim, the willing record of the present’s historical damage. It measures, or is meant to, the damage of “the times,” and, more than that, a particular psychological damage as well: the much-heralded struggle to paint, to find feelings and images, in the late twentieth century. These are, the argument goes, the paintings we must make in order to make paintings. The very existence of such works as painting

  • John Knight

    For the past seven or eight years John Knight’s work has been concerned with design, with the presentation of the image. In a broad sense, that interest is a concern of any visual art, but Knight’s preoccupation is specific. The design he refers to, even aspires to, is “good” design, the sort that follows the words “commercial” or “graphic” or “interior.” And the image he presents is public; opposing itself to the artistic icon, whole and absolute, it packages, masks, and dissembles. Yet the subjects of Knight’s designs, the clients of his campaigns, are situated in the art world, where he forces