The Pictures Generation: A Conversation with Douglas Eklund
Opening today at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Pictures Generation : 1974-1984 is the first major museum exhibition to focus on the tightly-knit group of artists, now collectively known as the 'pictures' generation, whose work formed what may be considered the last definitive movement of the 20th Century. Following up on Art in America's April issue, which revisited that decade from several critical perspectives, independent curator and critic Jess Wilcox spoke with the exhibition's curator, Douglas Eklund:
JESS WILCOX: The Pictures Generation : 1974–1984 takes it name from Douglas Crimp's 1977 Artist Space exhibition, Pictures, an exhibition which became best known through an edited and revised reprinting of the catalogue essay in a 1979 issue of October. Crimp's essay discussed work of Cindy Sherman, who was not originally included in the exhibition, and dropped the argument for Philip Smith; he was only briefly mentioned in the altered text. Over the span of these two short years there was a conscience effort at refining a critical historical argument.
DOUGLAS EKLUND: I think it also had to do with the fact that even though Cindy Sherman made one film still during the Pictures show, she hadn't really made enough to be considered [for the exhibition]. In the end, the whole point of The Pictures Generation is to include them all. I was lucky, because it's easy in hindsight to say that these people should have been [included] and this person shouldn't. At the time it was important to understand that not all of these people were known quantities -- David [Salle] and Matt [Mullican] weren't in the show; Richard only emerged later, and Cindy had only done one film still at that time. Obviously by 1979, she had made work that perfectly fit into that idea. As for the relegation of Smith, I don't have any idea why that happened. When I reviewed his work for this show, it seemed not strong enough to be included; it was a curatorial, aesthetic judgment on my part.
JW: Has thirty years proved enough distance for a critical reading of the Pictures phenomenon, considering that the artists and critics who helped shape the movement are still so actively involved in the dialogue?
DE: I think so. I'm in the tricky position of working with contemporary photography, which is my specific area of expertise. I think part of the surprise is to see it installed at the Met; the historical achievement [of that generation] is secure, but what that achievement actually is remains in question. The curator must make that first call. So I'm making an implicit statement of agreement. I think people who know the material will be surprised [by the exhibition].
It's better to look positively at the people who are in the exhibition. Artists like Nancy Dwyer, Charles Clough, and Michael Zwack are great artists; it's one of those strange historical things that they have not received as much attention. The show is a balancing act between works that people know, and works that people know but have never seen—like Sherrie Levine's appropriations, for instance. I made a point of having a representative body of them, so viewers can see them and not dismiss them offhand. Nancy Dwyer is another example: She's a great artist who is respected by her peers and her work should be better known. To see her work next to Cindy Sherman's—they were best friends—will be illuminating for a lot of people.
JW: The exhibition traces two groups of artists that became what we now know as the "pictures" generation. One group was from Cal Arts—they were John Baldessari's students—and the other was from Buffalo.
DE: I have worked with the artists pretty closely, and I think that the connection between CalArts and Hallwalls [Contemporary Art Center] is pretty clear. According to all of the oral histories, that there was a group of artists [from CalArts] that came to New York at the same time; there was another group of artists in Buffalo that were hungry to participate, and they made their own version of CalArts. It blows my mind to see the artists that were invited [to Buffalo]. That they did it themselves was a bit amazing.
Part of the problem with [the exhibition's] chronology is that I go from the earliest to the latest. A lot of the female post-conceptual artists had their own histories in New York, I understand their position: They were not waiting to be discovered or anointed by the CalArts or Hallwalls people. I would say that there are three groups of people: Baldessari's oddball conceptual art, that allowed Cal Arts artists to not be bound to the orthodoxies of conceptual art, the Hallwalls group, and those who were already in New York—Louise [Lawler], Sarah [Charlesworth], and Laurie Simmons]—who all have their own individual histories, which I tried to bring out in the text.
JW: How do you think The Pictures Generation functions differently from previous exhibitions that have used this group of artists to investigate the effects media? For instance, shows such as Image Scavengers at the ICA Philadelphia (1982), Forest of Signs, at LA MOCA (1989), and Image World at the Whitney (1989). How did you take these exhibitions into consideration, and how does your presentation differ from them?
DE: Ann Goldstein and Anne Rorimor's shows—not just Forest of Signs, but the minimalism and conceptual ones—were the template. My ambition was to do a show half as good as theirs in terms of bringing a scholarly view to this material. Anne and Chris Williams were instrumental in helping me choose the artists. Forest of Signs exhibited mostly then-recent work, and Anne's idea of representation had room for different people, such as Mike Kelly.
Image World was wide-ranging; that was the show that introduced me to these artists. I trace everything back to seeing that show, which started with Rauschenberg, and was about Post-War media and consumer culture. Pictures Generation is much narrower. Image World went out to Clegg & Gluttmann, Peter Nag and a wider range of artists from the 1980s. The exhibition—not for me to do, but someone else—would consider the late 1980's and early 90's. But I just don't know: I'm so close to it now that I have no clue how it's going to look.