Just back from New York, and I must say I agree with Holland Cotter that it’s enlightening to see the Met’s “The Pictures Generation” show alongside the New Museum’s “The Generational: Younger than Jesus.” I also agree with him that the former is a much stronger and more carefully curated group of work than the latter. But at the same time, I don’t think it’s quite right to say that the “generational parallels are so many as to be worrisome. Has new art come no further than this? Is it still tilling fields all but farmed out in the past?”
One reason to question this reductive view of current appropriation-driven art is articulated well in an article by Jan Verwoert published a couple of years ago in Art & Research. In it, Verwoert makes a distinction between the appropriation art that was produced in the 1970s and ’80s (see “Untitled (Nixon)” by Paul McMahon above), and another kind of work that emerged in the 1990s. The younger group of artists employ similar strategies as their predecessors, but with different implications. The basic premise is that during the Cold War history had frozen due to a superpower stalemate, and artists such as Robert Longo and Cindy Sherman analyzed culture through the lense of a detachment from history. In the ’90s the movement of history sprang to life again, and the act of appropriation became something more like the act of invocation: “To utter words for the sake of analysis already means to put these words to work. You cannot test a spell. To utter it is to put it into effect.” Artists had to wrestle with the ghosts of the past (a “multiplicity of histories”) as well as the life of the moment, as they dealt with a quickly evolving relationship to history and its connections to the present.
It seems to me that since 2001, this sense of living in a web of histories has only accelerated: from September 11 to Obama, China’s waxing cultural influence to the perpetually imminent collapse of Pakistan, commentators are stumbling over themselves to declare the dawn of new era after new era. It has the urgency of the 1960s, even if the cultural shifts are of a different nature. The ’60s produced a large body of art — both Pop and Conceptual — which resisted metaphor and was later synthesized by the ’70s “pictures generation” artists. But at the same time that this work resisted metaphor, it simultaneously helped open up space for a reinvigoration of metaphor and symbolism, a space that was filled by artists from Kenneth Anger to Martin Luther King (see “” and “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop“). Our moment now is different from the ’60s in many ways, but I think we are seeing a similar opening for a resurgence of the poetic, largely lacking from the artwork of “the pictures generation.”
So while I found the pieces at the New Museum generally stale and incoherent (see “Deep Breathing” by Cao Fei above), it’s not because the artists are simply rehashing Barbara Kruger or Jack Goldstein. It’s because the artists in the show generally don’t meet the poetic demands of the moment. They’re caught, unable to take the extra-historical viewpoint of their ’70s counterparts, but unwilling to make the poetic commitments of earlier artists. That’s not to say that other young artists aren’t invoking the past with an incantatory symbolization: it’s just not apparent in the vast majority of the pieces in “Younger than Jesus.”
Aaron Curry’s sculptures and prints (see “Cosmic Knot #2″ above) at Michael Werner wove found material and invocation of modernist artworks together in a way that revealed, in the words of Bruce Hainley, “an artist who wishes to make thrilling rather than pernicious the attempt to wrest from the global barrage something inappropriable, irreducible, and questioning, which acknowledges what comes before it, culturally, and from where it arrives without merely desecrating it.” I sense in Hainley’s words (which come from the catalog for the show) a suggestion of the kind of invocation Verwoert proposes. Curry’s show is a thriller, raising the spectre of modernism dwelling somewhere in the water of our reservoirs — not as a chilling memory, but as a living ghost prepared to inhabit our fields, our livestock, our bodies.
UPDATE: This interview with Bruce High Quality Foundation in Art in America seems too pertinent not to add here. From the discussion of Sept 11 as their “creation myth” to the invocation of multiple histories, there are a lot of parallels between this post and the interview. Although I visited the Bruce High Quality studio during my trip, their recent show had just come down, so I missed their new work both in the gallery and in the studio — otherwise they may have made it into the original post.