Pictures, our most recent Online Viewing Room, brings together works by Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, John Miller, Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman and explores the links between these artists' respective practices and the Pictures Generation group with which they are closely associated.
The presentation borrows its name from the show of the same title put together by art critic Douglas Crimp in 1977 for the non-profit Artists Space in New York. Crimp’s exhibition which included only five artists—Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, and Philip Smith—grew to have an enormous impact not only in the local art scene but also in contemporary art at large, marking the starting point of the rise of a much larger group of artists that would come to be known as the Pictures Generation.
“In choosing the word pictures…I hoped to convey not only the work's most salient characteristic—recognizable images—but also and importantly the ambiguities it sustains. As is typical of what has come to be called postmodernism, this new work is not confined to any particular medium; instead, it makes use of photography, film, performance, as well as traditional modes of painting, drawing, and sculpture. Picture, used colloquially, is also nonspecific: a picture book might be a book of drawings or photographs, and in common speech a painting, drawing, or print is often called, simply, a picture. Equally important for my purposes, picture, in its verb form, can refer to a mental process as well as the production of an aesthetic object.”
Douglas Crimp, Pictures, 1979
Although Cindy Sherman’s work was not included in Crimp’s show, she would go on to become one of the most famous artists associated with the Pictures Generation. One of her most celebrated bodies of work, her Untitled Film Stills comprises of over seventy black and white photographs made between 1977 and 1980 for which Sherman photographed herself in various fictional scenes which bring to mind stereotypical feminine characters from 1950s and 1960s B-movies. The Film Stills became an important contribution to feminist discourse and a hallmark of postmodernist art. They are exemplary of her career-long probing into female stereotypes and exploring femininity as a social construct, as well as bringing into focus broader issues around identity and the artifice of representation.
"...these are photographs whose condition is that of the film still, that fragment whose existence never exceeds the fragment."
Douglas Crimp, Pictures, 1979
In his essay of 1979 which took the earlier show at Artists Space as a point of departure Crimp writes of Sherman’s photographs:
“The still photograph is generally thought to announce itself as a direct transcription of the real precisely in its being a spatiotemporal fragment; or, on the contrary, it may attempt to transcend both space and time by contravening that very fragmentary quality. Sherman's photographs do neither. Like ordinary snapshots, they appear to be fragments; unlike those snapshots, their fragmentation is not that of the natural continuum, but of a syntagmatic sequence, that is, of a conventional, segmented temporality. They are like quotations from the sequence of frames that constitutes the narrative flow of film. Their sense of narrative is one of its simultaneous presence and absence, a narrative ambience stated but not fulfilled. In short, these are photographs whose condition is that of the film still, that fragment whose existence never exceeds the fragment."
Cindy Sherman (b.1954, Glen Ridge, New Jersey, USA) graduated from the State University of New York, Buffalo in 1976, and in 2013 received an Honorary doctorate degree from the Royal College of Art, London. She lives and works in New York City, New York, USA.
“…by not painting images that aimed to be exceptional, I was trying to second-guess what a viewer might consider to be an ordinary picture.”
Focusing on the normativity of pictures to explore the notion of image as an ideological construct is also at the heart of a series of works by John Miller, to which Untitled of 1982 featured here belongs. For this series, the artist tried to produce a new painting every day, aiming for what he described as “normative” pictures or “pictures of pictures.” “I was trying to make a photo of what someone would think was ordinary…” Miller explains. “By not painting images that aimed to be exceptional I was trying to second-guess what a viewer might consider to be an ordinary picture.” The scene pictured in his ’82 painting derives from walks through Central Park and the Hudson River Park in Manhattan. Its impressionist pitch that sets it slightly apart from the rather more iconic images of the rest of the series succeeds in capturing the fleetingness and everyday-ness of a moment commonly thought of as generic that the artist chose to depict.
John Miller is best known for his “John Miller brown” signature works for which he coated reliefs and sculptures assembled mostly from found objects in a thick layer of brown paint and more recent gold-leaf covered assemblages of similar detritus. Part of the cluster of artists who studied at Cal Arts in the 1970s whose work drew from the popular cultural references of the time, Miller’s work has consistently tackled mass consumerism and media culture.
Miller lives and works in Berlin and New York, where he teaches at Columbia University. His work was included in the 1985 and 1991 Whitney Biennials, and he has had solo exhibitions at Metro Pictures in New York, Tokyo's Center for Contemporary Art, and MoMA PS1.
Sherrie Levine’s contribution to Crimp’s 1977 show was Sons and Lovers, a series of 36 drawings, which depicted silhouetted heads belonging to Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy, as well as an unknown woman and an unknown couple, placed facing each other in different combinations. Repetition is also at the heart of her Krazy Kat series of works, one of which is featured here. For these works Levine borrowed images from George Herriman’s comic strip of the same name that ran in American newspapers between 1913 and 1944. Her paintings offer meticulous renditions of the Herriman characters and the use of a single wood panel for each of them are reminiscent of the comic book panels; but that’s where the similarities to the comic books end. Blowing up these characters and stripping them of their familiarising landscape, cutting out captions and speech bubbles Levine creates a sense of perpetual strangeness out of the ordinary.
Through her repeated appropriation of these fictional characters that were originally someone else creation Levine questions ideas of originality and authorship. What’s more, through her insistent copying and replication of the work of male artists in particular Levine also presents her own critique of the ingrained patriarchy within the art world but also across society at large.
Sherrie Levine was born in Hazleton, PA in 1947. She received her BA from the University of Wisconsin in 1969 and went on to receive an MFA in 1973. Works of hers form part of important collections and institutions around the world such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Pompidou Centre, Paris. In 2011 the Whitney Museum of American Art organized “Sherrie Levine: Mayhem”, a major survey of Levine’s work.
“Most of what’s happening that passes for information is total fiction. I turn the lie back on itself.”
Richard Prince, another artist associated with the Pictures Generation, is widely acknowledged for having made what is perhaps the most significant contribution to the development of the notion of appropriation as an artistic strategy. He is best known for his photographs of found images—often magazine advertisements—from which he removed any features that linked these images to their original context, such as captions or the rest of the magazine page that would have served as the artist’s original image source.
As Untitled (Pen) of 1979 featured here attests to, the artist took an interest in pictures depicting luxury goods such as the high-end lighter, pen and watch in this work. “Whether they were pens, watches, jewellery,” Prince noted in an interview in 1988 illustrating the primacy of the image of these commodities over the actual objects depicted “I remember not having anything to do with the objects themselves other than having a relationship with the pictures of those objects.”
And yet, focusing on such luxury objects to offer his own commentary on consumerist culture Prince’s work also brings into focus the nature and status of commodities and opens up associated questions of value.
Although the image in Prince’s 1979 work is likely to have come from an advertisement it is cropped in such a way as to not give any clues as to the particularities of its provenance. Instead, it draws attention to the image’s formal and aesthetic qualities touching upon ideas revolving around the power of images and challenging notions of originality, authenticity and authorship.
Richard Prince was born in the Panama Canal Zone in 1949 and grew up in Massachusetts. He first started working on his famous “re-photographs” after relocating to New York in 1977. In 2007 his work was the subject of a major retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum. He currently lives and works in Upstate New York.
"I don't exactly think I'm a photographer...I'm just trying to point things out."
The last work of this presentation, Who Says Who Shows Who Counts by Louise Lawler depicts a framed Witch by Andy Warhol of 1981 hanging on the wall of what looks like an office meeting room. Lawler, also closely associated with the Pictures Generation group, started photographing works of other artists that were on display in various settings ranging from auctions, museums and galleries, to storage spaces, office boardrooms and collectors’ private homes. The artist embarked upon these works in 1984, when she was granted full access to the Connecticut home of twentieth-century collectors Mr. and Mrs. Burton Tremaine. This was to become her signature style and has led to an impressive body of work that focuses as much on the depicted works as on their respective surrounding environments and interrelation between the two, opening up questions of production, circulation and display and challenging commonplace ideas of authorship and authenticity.
Louise Lawler (1947) was born in Bronxville, New York and now lives and works in Brooklyn. She graduated from Cornell University. Her work has been featured in numerous solo exhibitions around Europe and the USA including Why Pictures Now, a major survey exhibition at New York’s MOMA in 2017.