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A Million Little Pictures: The Pictures Generation Revisited | The Nation

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A Million Little Pictures: The Pictures Generation Revisited

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COLLECTION OF B.Z. AND MICHAEL SCHWARTZBig Camera, Small Camera, by Laurie Simmons, 1977

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Barry Schwabsky
Barry Schwabsky is the art critic of The Nation. Schwabsky has been writing about art for the magazine since 2005, and...

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"On Saturday, September 30, 1967," as artist Robert Smithson was careful to specify, he embarked on a trip from New York's Port Authority Bus Terminal to his hometown. He was about to undertake what in his now-famous text he would call "A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey." (It's not clear whether the piece should be called an essay or a story; perhaps it's best to call it an artwork made of writing and pictures.) The monuments in question were things like concrete abutments for a highway under construction and a pumping derrick connected to a long pipe. As he stepped off the bus at his first monument, a bridge connecting Bergen and Passaic counties across the Passaic River, Smithson noticed that "Noon-day sunshine cinema-ized the site, turning the bridge and the river into an overexposed picture. Photographing it with my Instamatic 400 was like photographing a photograph. The sun became a monstrous light-bulb that projected a series of detached 'stills' through my Instamatic into my eye. When I walked on the bridge, it was as though I was walking on an enormous photograph that was made of wood and steel, and underneath the river existed as an enormous movie film that showed nothing but a continuous blank."

Writing in a tone derived in part from the deceptive objectivity of the French nouveau roman (he quotes from Mobile, Michel Butor's collage-travelogue of the United States) and in part from British new-wave science fiction (he entertains himself on the bus ride with the New York Times and Brian Aldiss's dystopian sci-fi novel Earthworks), Smithson evokes a vacant reality made only of "memory-traces of an abandoned set of futures." Critics fascinated with Smithson's apparently post-Duchampian idea that banal objects become art simply by being looked at a certain way--that "a great artist can make art by simply casting a glance," as he would write a year later--have often overlooked the way Smithson framed his saturnine view of postindustrial culture through the eye of the camera. His alienation allows him to perceive that things, made or natural, are mere photographs of themselves, and that these photographs are essentially "stills" excerpted from the film that is time. Rereading "The Monuments of Passaic," one begins to wonder whether the grainy snapshots with which Smithson illustrated his text are secretly not photographs of the monuments but in fact the monuments themselves. It is clear that, for him, the image is always of something that was already an image. Artists have perennially had the feeling that they are merely the channel for something that is already art, but Smithson's notion of sunlight pitching images into his eye through the camera is a peculiarly gnostic or paranoid version of it, with a visceral punch characteristic of a contemporary of William Burroughs, J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick.

Smithson died in a plane crash in 1973 at the age of 35, so he could hardly have been part of the exhibition now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, "The Pictures Generation 1974-1984" (through August 2), which is devoted to a loosely knit group of artists mostly born ten to fifteen years after him--the first wave of baby boomers, if you like, the first generation to grow up with (black-and-white) TV. And Smithson is barely even mentioned as an influence on this group in the extensive catalog essay by the exhibition's curator, Douglas Eklund, who imagines Smithson as an artist of "cataclysmic processes and sublime vistas of the natural world," as distinguished from these younger artists who were more immersed in "the media culture of movies and television, popular music, and magazines, which to them constituted a sort of fifth element or prevailing kind of weather." Eklund nominates Smithson's contemporary John Baldessari, a smaller artist but a legendary teacher, as the Pictures group's honorary chef d'école. Yet Smithson's ghost lingers everywhere in the show, and as ghosts tend to do, it lingers mostly to reproach. What a work like "The Monuments of Passaic" shows so clearly is that, for Smithson, nature and the image-apparatus were one and the same, and to see is always to see a mediated image. Some of the works in "The Pictures Generation"--most of the best ones--are based on the same premise. But too many of the artists really do seem to have believed, as Eklund does now, that their work should be concerned with "media culture" as a self-contained area of investigation, and their work is all the narrower for that.

"The Pictures Generation" takes its title from a famous exhibition of 1977--famous in the sense that many more people remember it than ever really saw it. The original "Pictures" took place at the nonprofit gallery Artists Space, in New York City, and it was further publicized by a couple of articles by its curator, the critic Douglas Crimp, published in Flash Art and October in 1979. Of course, the Met show is far more than a rerun. Crimp exhibited the work of just five artists (Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo and Philip Smith), whereas Eklund's "Pictures Generation" encompasses nearly thirty--among whom Smith, by the way, has gone missing without the slightest explanation. There's nothing wrong with that in itself because Smith's work, a more traditional kind of painting, really does seem to have been on a different track. But it's unfortunate that a reader of the catalog (co-published by the Met and Yale University Press) might easily not realize he had ever been included.

That's just one example of how Eklund, having amassed a vast amount of information on his artists and their milieu, has organized it haphazardly. The catalog is a rarity in being blessed with an index, but if you look up "Pictures" in the index, you will find, perversely enough, multiple references to "artists not included in" the 1977 show but no entry to point you to a page that says who was included. Basically, though, Eklund's loose-knit Pictures generation mainly comprises two distinct groups of artists. One consists of former students of Baldessari's at Cal Arts who had moved east to New York. The other group, less academic in formation and more working class in origin, had gathered around the artist-run space Hallwalls in Buffalo before migrating downstate. There, both groups gravitated to Artists Space and the downtown art and music scene, and some of the artists began to show with the commercial gallery Metro Pictures, which was co-founded by the former director of Artists Space, Helene Winer, in 1980. Its opening was immediately and presciently seen by the critic Robert Pincus-Witten as "definitely" marking "the death of the '60s" (as though the intervening decade had merely been an extension of it).

Pincus-Witten's judgment should raise suspicions when we read Eklund's summation of what constitutes the rough unity of the Pictures group: "They synthesized the lessons of Minimalism and Conceptualism in which they were educated, with a renewed (though hardly uniform) attention to Pop art because it chimed with the new, media-driven world they had inherited." Maybe, but if all that was at stake in the work of the Pictures generation was an effort to tie up a tidy little semiotic package out of the unruly and contradictory impulses of an older generation, it's not likely anyone would be taking the trouble to re-examine their work today. Opening the exhibition up to encompass so many artists was a good decision in that it helps re-create a sense of context, but a more stringent selection focusing on, say, nine central figures--Brauntuch, Goldstein, Levine and Longo plus Louise Lawler, Allan McCollum, Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman and James Welling--would have allowed for more specificity. One might then have said that the Pictures group had gleaned from the Minimalists and Conceptualists a sense that art should assume an incommunicative, pugnaciously neutral stance--that it should throw down the gauntlet of its own incomprehensibility. The public's inability to find anything to see or any evidence of work or meaning in, say, a row of bricks by Carl Andre might be repeated in its encounter with Levine's photograph of a photograph by Walker Evans or one by James Welling showing some crumpled foil. But this willingness to use recalcitrant inconsequentiality to frustrate the viewer's desire might be all they have in common.

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