PRINT October 2001

Signs of the Time

WHEN DOUGLAS CRIMP’S GROUP SHOW “PICTURES” OPENED AT ARTISTS SPACE IN SEPTEMBER 1977, I was in junior high, so I won’t presume to speak about its initial reception. What I am sure of is the shadow the show cast when I first started visiting galleries in the East Village and SoHo circa 1984. Crimp’s essay “Pictures”—taking “its point of departure from the catalogue text”—was published in October 8 (Spring 1979) and subsequently anthologized in Brian Wallis’s Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation (1984), the Big Think bible of the ’80s art-world ingenue. Wallis’s book had an indelible effect on those who were either disinclined to embrace the blatant corniness of the Neue Bilde and transavanguardia (the other movements claiming the attention of young gallerygoers) from first exposure to their theatrical tantrums or whose minds were quickly changed. Crimp’s essay, along with other critical shibboleths of the time, served this conversion in a remarkably efficacious way.

The appeal of Pictures in the mid-’80s was in part the movement's calculated ambiguity, its appearance of detached irony shot through with menace, and the manner in which it embraced stagy, ersatz effects. Crimp lays emphasis on these very qualities. Of Sherrie Levine’s Sons and Lovers, 1976–77, he writes in the catalogue text: “From these banal pictures emerges a scenario that moves from assassination to adultery. Levine's genre is the melodrama, where the cliché is the vehicle of the larger-than-life story. One thinks of the TV soap opera with its stultifying repetition of drab sets, bland characters, tedious dialogue. Where is there a single image in that daily routine that would indicate the dramas of life and death that are always enacted there?” Of course, one could say that Rainer Fetting’s genre is melodrama, too, but it is utterly unconvincing. With the critical attitude Pictures fostered in the face of neo-expressionism, the emphasis on received or “processed” historically overdetermined) imagery in Pictures left the door open for an appreciation of such varied artistic phenomena as neo-geo, Institutional Critique, and ever certain species of painterly painting (e.g., the early Philip Taaffe).

The Pictures aesthetic worked well with such high-’80s phenomena as promiscuous cinephilia, New Wave music, “androgyny,” and asymmetrical haircuts. Its embrace of low-to-middling culture, its calculated chill, and its theoretical insistence on “constructed” identities (an ill-defined notion that became tiresome some time back but is still in use) abetted a certain young and cheerfully cynical mind-set. Nature Morte by day, Pyramid Club by night. Also, the tendency to regard the surrounding world as somehow not really real, as instead a fabric of elusive and duplicitous representations, accorded with a generalized revulsion toward the Reagan administration, although it didn’t necessarily serve any more specific political agenda at the time. An increasingly inchoate sense of playacting hysteria over conspiratorial simulation reached its apogee with the shapeless yet wannabe-definitive statement of the 1989 “Image World” show at the Whitney. (A few months earlier the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles had mounted “A Forest of Signs,” a more succinct overview of Pictures and neo-geo.) By the time the ’80s gave way to the ’90s—with the Gulf War, the recession, and the politicized attitude toward the AIDS crisis, to which Crimp gave himself wholeheartedly as both theoretician and agitator—Pictures had run its course. In “Photographs at the End of Modernism,” the introduction to his collected essays On the Museum’s Ruins (1993), Crimp states that “it was the specter of death that finally revealed to me the limits of my conception of postmodernism. . . . My engagement in direct-action politics did not, however, represent a break with the positions argued in these essays. Rather it grew out of an attempt to adapt those positions to an analysis of the aesthetic responses to AIDS.”

“Pictures” included five artists: Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, and Philip Smith. Artists Space’s partial rehanging this past summer (many works were unavailable) afforded the opportunity to measure the distance some of the artists have traveled since the late ’70s, either settling into institutionalized midcareer stasis or disappearing to varying degrees from the art-world stage. What of this work when it was “fresh”? Levine’s drawings benefit from Crimp’s reading of them in the catalogue text, prepping the would-be historian of her oeuvre for its frequently histrionic subtext. Longo’s The American Soldier and the Quiet Schoolboy, 1977, is something of a canonical work In his appropriation of a film still from Fassbinder’s The American Soldier showing a man shot from behind, Longo introduces an image to which he would return in his performance-cum-film Sound Distance of a Good Man, 1978. With their suggestions of violence and grandiosity, such works provide a template for the artist's subsequent “Men in the Cities” series, 1978–83, the paragon of Longo’s archly stylized, rather bombastic vision of apocalyptic urban alienation.

Brauntuch’s 1 2 3, 1977—a triptych showing three drawings by Adolf H. against blood-red backgrounds—isn’t “disturbing” in its lack of commentary. Instead, the piece looks agreeably aesthetic and quite collectible. Ergo, the distancing effects typically employed by the Pictures artists don't necessarily promise criticality; maybe they never meant to. Anyway, Nazis never go out of style: A recent descendant of Brauntuch’s my-lips-are-sealed attitude is Piotr Uklanski’s “The Nazis,” 1998, although the latter images, all appropriated from the movies and often very campy, are not exactly understated, whereas Brauntuch relies on reserve to achieve his effect. The title itself operates precisely not as a caption.

Having apparently vanished from the art scene for over a decade, Jack Goldstein seems poised for a revival, with recent exhibitions of his early films in Stuttgart, Cologne, and Los Angeles. His works were the most successful in the show. The films Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Shane, both 1975, were highlights. The former is Goldstein’s famous appropriation of the MGM lion, caught in a perpetual roar (at least when the film is shown as a loop, as it was not here); the latter shows a trained German shepherd barking on cue, over and over again. In such works as these, Goldstein overlays the serial attitude of Minimalism and Conceptualism with aspects of Pop, achieving with elegance and economy that sotto voce creepiness that courses throughout the best of the Pictures work.

Perhaps the exhibition’s oddest surprise was Philip Smith, whose schematic drawings figured prominently in the original show but who was demoted to a footnote in Crimp’s October text. Critic Jerry Saltz told me that when he visited Artists Space with some recent MFA grads, the works they responded to most were Smith's—this sort of figurative, handmade imagery (like, say, that of Ida Applebroog or William Kentridge) best accorded with their idea of what art looks like. Smith was “cool,” the others “whatever.” It certainly wasn’t the response I would have expected, but then again, like Pictures, maybe I’m a little dated.