Tropolism Exhibitions: The Pictures Generation 1974-1984
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has been an embarrassment of riches this summer. Roxy Paine's rooftop installation is an artwork so right for its summer vista (in a way the Madison Square Park installation was not), and so right for right now, that it seemed as if I had left the repository of artifacts on the floors below and had entered a temporary installation on a gallery's rooftop in Chelsea. Except this rooftop was in Central Park, and the view there is pretty sweet.
Stumbling around the rooms of stuff downstairs, I happened upon The Pictures Generation 1974-1984, a wonderful collection of the image-oriented artists in that period who were focused on the mechanisms of images, and how they shape our perceptions. It's like a redo of the Image World exhibition the Whitney for those of you (like me) who missed that show in 1989. For those of you who (like me) haven't quite gotten around to purchasing your own copy of the Image World catalog, the catalog for The Pictures Generation will do as a handy substitute.
This show fits better into the Met's usual role of repository for Old Important Stuff: these are artifacts that are 30 to 40 years old, and have special nostalgic significance for students of art history and the newfangled Art Criticism going around departments of architecture in midwestern universities in the early 1990s. I will spare you the boring (but so not boring!) details of the show, because the power of the works shown--by no-names like John Baldessari, Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince--are almost overwhelmed by the fact that these images of resistance are so very important, and the artists so well known. They are so recognizable that they almost become the toothless icons for image-worship they seek to expose. The inclusion of a few of Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Stills (the ones donated to the Met by Madonna, of course) is the easiest target. Fortunately, the show is large enough to keep it from being a trip down nostalgia lane.
A couple of other elements keep the show fresh and alive. One is the inclusion of Dana Birnbaum's ever-awesome Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman. The work distills the original television show into an intense five minutes that is at once dizzying, loud, disco-awesome, and far more entertaining than any single episode of Wonder Woman could ever hope to be. It is also as fresh as the day it was made. The work, and its twin in the show Kiss the Girls: Make Them Cry, liven up the static images around them, and had some people grooving while they walked around. Both expose how entertaining the flatness of images can be, if properly sequenced and given a fierce soundtrack. I was struck with a powerful desire to see these treatments give to every form of entertainment I've ever enjoyed. It was this feeling that made me think of them as premonitions of Who We Are Now, fully subsumed in the Internet Era, where my daily entertainment time is checking out the cute pictures of other people's experiences in their latest Facebook photo album.
Another is that one of the recurring themes is, of course, the criticism of architectural imagery. Or, to be more precise, the exploration of how we understand the built environment through architectural images. James Casebere's photographs of little paper models or Barbara Bloom's Crittall Metal Windows series (mashups of Bauhaus-era buildings and steel window advertisements, hung throughout all the galleries and not shown together) are powerful reminders that the practice and consumption of architecture, like any other art, is dependent upon concealing the mechanisms by which images work. This show will disabuse you of that notion, yet again. And you'll have fun.