Cindy Sherman (American, b. 1954) Untitled Film Still (#54), 1980 Black and white photograph; 8 x 10 in. (20.3 x 25.4 cm)
The opening of, The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984, on April 21st at the Met signals a final ordainment of the art that all but defined New York in the 1980’s. Hanging alongside the old masters, the images of Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince and the gang are bequeathed with an unignorable stamp of legitimacy, an official concentration within the house of Art with a capital "A". One striking thing about the up-scaling of venue is the fact that the show’s title contains a tag attached to this work more than 30 years by a show on the opposite end of the institutional hierarchy. In 1977, a group exhibition called simply, “Pictures” was curated by Douglas Crimp at Artists Space in SoHo. Artists Space is a non-profit gallery still in operation today. Founded in 1972 by Trudy Grace, an officer at the New York State Council for the Arts and Irving Sandler, an art historian and critic, the gallery was intended to fill a need for a venue where emerging artists could experiment, outside of the commercial system, at a time when public funds were scarce. The Pictures show has become synonymous with Artists Space, as the show has passed from legend and into myth.
Of the 30 artists included in the Met exhibition, only five were included in the original Pictures. Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, Troy Brauntuch and Philip Smith comprised the show, while, (now figurehead) Cindy Sherman was installed in a different gallery. A related essay by Douglas Crimp, which shared the name of the show, is probably more responsible for the “Generational” reach attributed to the Pictures brand than the modestly sized show at an out of the way venue. Pictures was the art of the Baby Boomer generation, the first to be steeped in the media saturation we now take for granted. They were kids reared on television, responding to the onslaught of images from movies, TV, and advertising the characterized post-war America. While at school, they were steeped in the conceptual and avant-garde movements of the 60's. Jack Goldstein, Troy Brauntuch and others studied with John Baldassari at CalArts, (one of the first schools with an overtly conceptual curriculum), while Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo, studied with structural filmmaker, Tony Conrad, at SUNY Buffalo's newly formed Center for Media Studies. They took the conceptual and expanded media approaches of their teachers and applied them to the consumer media landscape, yielding a critical and seductive, sexier kind of conceptualism Met curator Douglas Eklund dubbed “the last great movement in 20th-century art".
But the Pictures artists are most associated with their careers between Artists Space and the Met, when they were in the middle of the commercial art market's atomic boom of the 1980's. Their work subsequently sold for unprecedented prices and their images have become emblems of the excess of the 80's (even while they maintained a critical stance to the machinations of capital). It may be an irony that the boost they received for being artists without means catapulted them into spheres of unheard of commercial success and the following legacy of market dominance that has persisted in the art world, perhaps until this very moment. In the shadow of the global economic crisis, the Pictures Met exhibition occupying as it were, the official space of history, is perhaps a signal of the end of a that era in art. Perhaps we're on the cusp of a new beginning where the centrality of non-profits like Artists Space will assert itself again.
Artist Space still maintains a presence and importance to New York's geography, and beyond. Not the least, by their web presence via the Irving Sandler Artists File, ( http://afonline.artistsspace.org/ ) a free, uncurated databank and artist registry that is open to the public and has been used by curators, and emerging artists since 2006.