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

“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.

As for Pop, the Pictures group has something in common with that too: the idea that images are out there for the taking, that art is not necessarily about creating a new image but about seeing existing images differently. And yet the sense of the image, or of what to look for in it, is different: Pop was more about the signal, Pictures more about the noise; Pop was hi-fi, Pictures lo-fi. Above all, the Pop artists found a kind of liberation in the discovery that their art was already out there in the world, hidden in plain sight. To the Pictures artists, intent on cultivating their disillusion, such optimism would have seemed naïve; at most they could hope to “turn the lie back on itself,” as Prince once put it. Andy Warhol said, “just look at the surface: of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” For Pictures, there is something behind the surface, and it’s another, even emptier and more disquieting, surface. Sometimes that other surface can be identified as a form of ideological manipulation, and when it is, the resulting work acts as a form of demythologization, sometimes verging on agitprop or satire. Barbara Kruger ruthlessly pursued this approach, fashioning found images overlaid with blunt slogans, such as Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face, or Your Moments of Joy Have the Precision of Military Strategy, that seem to address the (often implicitly male) viewer as an antagonist. But with a kind of implacable scorn, Kruger asserts total control over the interpretation of the image that is meant to be demythologized, its hidden presuppositions unveiled, which is why I don’t place her among the artists central to the Pictures sensibility.

Those artists, for the most part, veer away from this kind of claim to decode the image (Lawler being a partial exception). Typically, the Pictures artists work from the assumption that it may not be possible to offer a clear ideological interpretation of an image. If “images compose our preconceptions and expectations of the possible, and in that sense we are their product,” as Welling conjectured in a dialogue with David Salle, then it must be (as the dialogue’s title had it) the “images that understand us” rather than vice versa. Welling and Salle, along with other Pictures artists, are, like Smithson, fascinated by their own passivity with respect to the images that willy-nilly flow through them.

Sometimes the line between understanding pictures and being understood by them can be hazy, however. Consider Sarah Charlesworth’s April 21, 1978 (from the series Modern History), 1978, which reproduces the front pages of European and North American newspapers for that day, but with everything erased except the paper’s banner and photos–no text. On April 20 the Italian Red Brigades had released a photograph of Aldo Moro, the kidnapped Christian Democrat politician and former prime minister, holding up a copy of the newspaper La Repubblica, thus proving that he was still alive. Each of the April 21 newspapers shows this image, but always differently cropped (sometimes excluding everything but Moro’s face, sometimes including the Red Brigades banner behind him) and at a different scale, sometimes (as with the Italian newspapers Il Messaggero and, of course, La Repubblica) as the only front-page picture, sometimes (as in the Danish Politiken or the Canadian Globe and Mail) as one of a multitude of small images. Charlesworth’s work is undoubtedly intended to reflect, as Eklund says, the semiotic investigations of the early Roland Barthes, but how informative is it really to discover that the Italians give much more weight to the kidnapping of one of their leading politicians than do the Danes? As a demonstration of how an image produced by a revolutionary terrorist group in order to manipulate a precise political situation is manipulated in turn by various news organizations for their own purposes and then manipulated again, presumably for more disinterested ends, by Charlesworth herself, the work is effective but thin. (For Charlesworth, the news organizations become authors of the image in turn, just as an artist like Levine did by rephotographing a classic art photograph.) The work’s simple, didactic content seems, in retrospect, less like a raison d’être than an alibi. What gives the work its real fascination, for anyone who takes the bait of the grim and (as always in Italy) unfathomable story behind the image, is how the seemingly endless multiplication of the Moro photograph, always different but always the same, takes on its own logic, endlessly relaying the melodrama of the situation while rendering it ever more unreal–and how the artist has allowed herself to become one more relay in this circuit, not its diagnostician.

This fascination with the endless self-propagation of the image reaches its apotheosis, curiously enough, in a work that might seem to have no images in it at all. Allan McCollum’s Plaster Surrogates–made between 1982 and 1984 and most spectacularly displayed in 1983 at New York’s Marian Goodman Gallery–are hundreds upon hundreds of rectangular objects (there are forty at the Met) made of enamel paint on hydro-stone. They hang on the wall in very dense aggregations–way beyond “salon style.” They resemble matted and framed pictures–the frames here being one or another shade of gray but also existing in different colors–but with the central framed “image” entirely black. Perhaps for the simple reason that they are painted, or perhaps because they derive from an earlier series by McCollum called Surrogate Paintings, I always thought of these works (this is how they have usually been discussed) as a commentary on painting. The painter and critic Thomas Lawson, whose work is also included in the show, approvingly called them “little model paintings” in an Artforum review of McCollum’s show at Goodman, “surrogates for painting with little in the way of individuating character.” But seeing them here, in the context of an exhibition that is overwhelmingly of photographs and in which paintings are quite rare, the impression was rather that these were surrogates for photographs, the whole manner of matting and framing that the pieces mimic being typical of art photography. The black of the central rectangle would then make sense as an exaggeration of that in black-and-white photographs–as if these were radically underexposed. Even more than Charlesworth’s front pages, McCollum’s installation seems to give itself over to an obsessive desire to encounter the same image over and over again, to see it as always potentially different, always potentially ready to give up its secret–even if it has no secret and can hardly even be thought of as an image, or perhaps all the more so if minimum information equals maximum mystery.

A lot of the work in this show wants to be mysterious, but too much of it depends on having a sovereign, unacknowledged commentator whispering in your ear to point out what’s mysterious about it. Among the images making up Brauntuch’s photographic triptych Untitled (Mercedes), 1978, is one of a man’s head, slumped over as if asleep, in the passenger seat of a car–an image that is a tiny component of a work that is mostly blank, but hieratic and altarlike in its configuration. The work’s undeniably creepy overtones are inseparable from its muteness, but what becomes of that muteness when one learns from the catalog that the man in the image is Hitler, the photograph having been taken from Albert Speer’s book Inside the Third Reich? It suddenly seems like cheap manipulation. Craig Owens–who along with Crimp was the main critical advocate of the Pictures group–observed of similar works that “whether or not we will ever acquire the key necessary to unlock their secret remains a matter of pure chance, and this gives Brauntuch’s work its undeniable pathos, which is also the source of its strength.” But it never was a matter of chance; acquiring the key was always a matter of being deliberately clued in–wink, wink–and this is part of the work’s bad faith.

But I don’t want to end on that sour note. Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, 1977-80, are undoubtedly the best-known images here, and deservedly so, for familiarity has not extinguished their complexity or freshness. In Sherman’s pictures it is not the photograph so much as its subject–partaking of the image-reality–who is at once always identical and always different. Sherman reappears in endless, anonymous walk-on roles–the girl waiting for a ride on the lonely roadside, the scuba diver, the sexy babe staring out the window waiting for someone who may never come and so on. Each of Sherman’s reappearances in these photographs seems to be as someone we’ve seen before and will certainly see again, more or less, in some other B movie. Yet if each is a stereotype, it’s one we get too brief a glimpse of to be able to put a definite name to.

“It is important to remember how unassuming and even mystifying they seemed in the beginning,” Eklund rightly cautions, and this show succeeds almost too well in putting Sherman’s stills back into the context from which they emerged–just a few more gray and grainy photos in an exhibition full of them, each as indifferent as the next to the traditional criteria of clarity of form and dramatic tonal range as guarantees of photographic art. Yet Sherman’s, if you look again, have a power the others lack, because she is neither offering a critique of the image nor simply indulging her fascination with it. Smithson ventured into the postindustrial landscape and discovered that its ontology was that of an image; Sherman broached the terrain of personal identity and discovered something similar. In doing so, she seems to be showing us something about ourselves, not just about images as a category separate from ourselves. Hers really are “images that understand us.”