PRINT October 2001

Hit or Myth

BY THE TIME I BEGAN STUDYING ART HISTORY IN THE MID-’90s, DOUGLAS CRIMP’S 1977 GROUP show “Pictures” had achieved the quasi-mythic status of those exhibitions we latecomers can imagine we’ve seen, even if we haven't. Like the Jewish Museum’s “Primary Structures,” Michael Fried’s “Three American Painters,” or even Damien Hirst’s “Freeze,” "Pictures” seems less an object of history than of folklore in the minds of those too young to have seen it firsthand. With that show, we are told, a canny critic inaugurated the enticingly slick and brainy strain of '80s art, and we might envision a gallery space in which Richard Prince’s Marlboro man gallops alongside Cindy Sherman as she mugs for the camera, with Sherrie Levine’s rephotographed sharecropper grimacing nearby. Never mind that none of these iconic works had yet been realized at the time of the exhibition’s opening, or for that matter that Sherman and Prince didn’t even grace its walls. They may as well have—given that the hype and attendant theorizing of “postmodern” and “appropriation” art grew so bloated as to have all but obscured its fabled source. Nearly a quarter century later, Artists Space, the exhibition’s original venue, partially restaged “Pictures,” introducing the show to a new generation of viewers. Yet rather than substantiate the myth, the rehanging felt more like a glimpse behind the wizard’s curtain.

From the vantage of hindsight, “Pictures” had the air of a dress rehearsal for the ’80s, not the decade’s triumphant debut. Lucky for Crimp, he still had a few years to shuffle his casting and clean up his act, which is in effect what he did before publishing a revision of his catalogue essay in the spring 1979 issue of October. Today the exhibition is remembered primarily through that article, which featured Sherman’s film stills as well as other works that were not actually included in the show but that better suited the theoretical trajectory launched in the catalogue essay. In that earlier text, Crimp argued that the “Pictures” artists were engaged in a radical exploration of the very nature of representation, which in their hands "does not achieve signification in relation to what is represented, but in relation to other representations.” He continued: “Representation has returned in their work not in the familiar guise of realism, which seeks to resemble a prior existence, but as an autonomous function that might be described as ‘representation as such.’” According to this line of thinking, the “Pictures” artists questioned the structure of visual signification by exposing how images mediate our experience and how images are themselves mediated by other images. Eventually, this argument took on a life of its own, expanding to include critiques of authorship and identity politics, issues not directly addressed by the original show.

That exhibition included not only such familiar figures as Robert Longo and Sherrie Levine but also Jack Goldstein, Troy Brauntuch, and Philip Smith, artists far less known today. In light of the show’s rehanging, Smith’s and Brauntuch’s slimmer renown seems fairly well deserved. The former’s bannerlike paintings each served up an enigmatic abundance of nearly fifty sketchy images, ranging from sportsmen and puppeteers to cats taking tea, but the works failed to offer viewers adequate incentive to muddle through their overwhelming accumulations of incongruous imagery. By comparison, Brauntuch’s spare prints seemed too precious in design and overdetermined in iconography, as in the case of three expansive crimson fields, each containing a single, small, silk-screened drawing of an architectural detail or a tank. Although the source of these images may not have been immediately recognizable, the catalogue’s disclosure that they issued from none other than Hitler’s is hand came less as a dramatic revelation than a leaden punch line.

Goldstein’s work, however, looked fresh and perfectly ripe for historical reappraisal, especially in light of recent efforts by the likes of Douglas Gordon, Dara Friedman, and Paul Pfeiffer. A number of his elegant short films centered on a still image that miraculously sprang to life. In one, a human hand—each finger tipped with a tiny adhesive buttefly—sat motionless on a blue ground, until a slight twitch of the fingers made the insects flutter as if in the breeze. Other films of Goldstein’s, including one starring an endlessly growling MGM lion, consisted of repeating film fragments entirely stripped from their contexts (a device related to Longo’s far less compelling film-based reliefs). These works actually answered Crimp’s call for an investigation of representation, and they did so on their own terms, with economy and wit, as did the artist’s phonographs, such as The Six Minute Drown, 1977, which on two three-minute sides contrasted the gruesome pretense of recording a death with the hilarious staginess of splashing sounds and Chewbacca-like screams.

Apart from Goldstein’s contribution, all the work in the show had a surprisingly rough and quirky feel, betraying a hand often presumed to be purposefully absent from Pictures art. Here, one realized how these artists’ production values had grown slicker over the years, just as Pop and Minimal artists had tidied up their own early work by adopting the silk screen or commercial fabrication. For example, Sherrie Levine exhibited a series of drawings in which the silhouetted profiles of American presidents and anonymous women faced off across blank expanses of graph paper. The works seemed familiar, in light of Levine’s later presidential profiles cut from glossy magazine photographs. However, the earlier heads were filled not with mass-media imagery but with carefully painted bands of fluorescent tempera in bright blue, black, orange, red, and pink. Levine’s strange palette and emphatic touch were at once charming and perplexing, since such details seemed to seep—like some aberrant pictorial excess—outside the rigid semantic boundaries in which Crimp inscribed his artists’ work.

This asymmetry between Crimp’s theoretical model and its initial objects was perhaps the biggest surprise of the exhibition's rehanging. How, one wondered, could Crimp have based such grand claims on art that seemed to make such modest claims for itself, and what critical bias could have led him to overlook that work’s often insistent visual detail? More important, did the art in his original exhibition really question the nature of representation in a fundamentally different way than earlier appropriations by Rauschenberg, Warhol, Ruscha, or even Baldessari? Certainly, the later photographic inquiries that came to be grouped under the umbrella of ’80s Pictures theory—whether by Sherman, Prince, Lawler, Kruger, Charlesworth, or Levine—all did raise important new questions regarding the signifying power of images and their attendant place in an endlessly proliferating chain of reference. Yet those works were not found in the original landmark exhibition, and its rehanging gave us the opportunity to see that Pictures, like any budding artistic “movement” or tendency, emerged unevenly and tentatively before Crimp and his artists refined its theoretical course. Nowhere was this hesitancy more visible than in Crimp’s recurring suggestion that the early Pictures artists shared an impulse toward psychological “narrative.” In his catalogue essay, he sprinkled words and phrases such as “psychological resonance,” “imagination,” “dreams,” and “anxiety” throughout his discussions of Levine’s paired profiles, Smith’s busy menageries, and Goldstein’s oblique tales. Nevertheless, to contemporary eyes, Crimp and his gang still seemed slightly embarrassed by the reemergence of those “literary” conventions in visual art, and they clung to modernism’s self-critical logic, even as they were said to break from it. Crimp claimed that the Pictures artists, like guilty pleasure seekers, questioned the very possibility of representation while simultaneously flirting with its narrative rewards. Today, that anxious ambivalence toward depiction seems just as alien as the forceful critical conviction with which Crimp diagnosed it. Of course, many young artists still appropriate preexisting imagery and stage elliptical narrative “pictures” before the camera or canvas. But now, often less directly concerned with the problems of representation, they just get on with the story.