In 1993, Bill Clinton was inaugurated as the 42nd president of the United States, the World Wide Web was less than two years old and the U.S. economy, including the art market, was still suffering the effects of the stock market crash of 1987. By the end of the year there were 2.5 million cases of AIDS worldwide and 14 million people infected with the HIV virus—in New York, an entire generation of artists was being lost to the disease.
How this earlier time resonates with our own is the starting point for this exhibition, titled after a Sonic Youth album released that year and organized by the New Museum’s Massimiliano Gioni, Gary Carrion-Murayari, Jenny Moore and Margot Norton. While the quality of the art included is uneven, “1993” deftly highlights the issues engaging artists back then and examines how those issues have shaped the art of our own era. (The majority of the works were made in or just before 1993, although some were remade for the show.)
Overshadowing this exhibition is the controversial Whitney Biennial of 1993, which showcased art dealing with sociopolitical themes such as class, race, gender and sexuality (and which included a reading room filled with books on critical theory). Identity was the word of the day, along with its most obvious manifestations, the body and the personal or collective narrative.
Appearing at the New Museum is one of the most enduring pieces from that 1993 Biennial, Pepón Osorio’s life-size installation The Scene of the Crime (Whose Crime?). Alluding in part to stereotypes about Latino culture perpetuated by mainstream media, it presents a Latino home, crammed with chucherias and photographs of a happy nuclear family, in which a bloodstained sheet covers what appears to be a woman’s body. Conversely, Gary Simmons explores the knowing appropriation of stereotypes for the purpose of self-branding by African-American youths. He took painted backdrop cloths emblazoned with slogans like “Gangsta Bitch” into the streets and photographed kids posing in front of them.
More intimate narratives range from the solipsistic to the sublime. The best of them are both deeply personal and fiercely political. In Sadie Benning’s video It Wasn’t Love, the artist, then 19, filmed herself with a toy camcorder in male drag and in lipstick, alone and with her girlfriend. Independent filmmaker Derek Jarman’s impassioned, vitriolic, final movie Blue presents an unchanging blue screen whose soundtrack is Jarman’s account of living with AIDS.
Installation art and “bad painting” were in, as well as photography, video and performance. Portable video cameras made it possible for experimental films to be easily and cheaply produced. In Untitled (Spring 1994), Alex Bag anticipates later work by Tamy Ben-Tor and Ryan Trecartin, taking on different personas for the video camera, including an unpopular girl scout and a teenager lip-synching a pop song. Sampling was big in art as well as in music, as witnessed by Karen Kilimnik’s chopped and screwed version of the movie Heathers.
Images of the body—desiring, grotesque and vulnerable—were everywhere in 1993, from Zoe Leonard’s photographs of wax anatomical models in European museums to Wolfgang Tillmans’s shots of attractive young couples making out. In feminist circles the debate between sex-positive feminism and anti-porn feminism was still raging, as noted by Sue Williams in her ribald, cartoonish painting Are You Pro-Porn or Anti-Porn?
Along with this focus on the body was a pervasive awareness of mortality. In addition to including individual works, such as Hannah Wilke’s last photographs of herself ravaged by lymphoma and the effects of chemotherapy, and Jack Pierson’s elegiac found-lettering work STAY, the show’s organizers have created a large installation on the museum’s fourth floor. This curatorial mash-up combines two works by Felix Gonzalez-Torres—a pair of intertwined strings of lightbulbs dangling from the ceiling and a wall-filling billboard of two birds flying in an overcast sky—with Rudolf Stingel’s wall-to-wall orange carpeting and Kristin Oppenheim’s mournful sound work Sail On Sailor.
Today, the legacy of the art of 1993 can be seen in young artists’ (and young curators’) propensity for mixing and matching existing objects, images and ideas, their blurring of mediums, their facility with digital media and modes of distribution. At the same time, the show makes clear that by the 1990s, while the art world was undeniably more inclusive—particularly in terms of women—the now ubiquitous commodification of youth culture, professionalization of art careers and institutionalization of identity politics had already begun.
PHOTO: View of the fourth floor of “NYC 1993,” showing works by Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Rudolf Stingel; at the New Museum.