The New Museum’s new five-floor exhibition identifies 1993 as a turning point in New York art, a time when the ideological battles between “isms,” ranging from minimalism to neo-expressionism, gave way to something new. What the new paradigm entails, exactly, we’re still determining. “NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star,” with its 161 works–each of which was made or exhibited in New York during the title year–succeeds in identifying 1993 as a pivotal moment, when phenomena like the AIDS crisis, the Internet, a shifting political climate and the convergence of avant-garde with big money changed the way we make and talk about art.
On display through May 26, the show draws works from 77 artists or collectives, each of whom helped define that turning point in some way, said Massimiliano Gioni, one of the show’s four curators, and the museum’s associate director and director of exhibitions, in a presentation to the press on Wednesday. The transgressive acts that drove the New York art scene in the 1970s had by the ’80s become big business, and a new generation of artists in New York and abroad rushed to expose that convergence, or embrace it, or both.
It was a year when the dominant narratives of art history and cultural authority were being upended. As Gioni put it, “At that moment, as new voices and a more pluralistic and multicultural understanding of art came to the surface, I think we learned that history is a slippery ground.”
The show’s subtitle comes from a 1994 album by Sonic Youth, who at that time were reacting in part to accusations they had sold out. “We picked [the title] because we thought it signaled a shift between a grittier New York-a moment in which the underground as a concept was still alive-and a world in which the underground and mainstream are much more entangled and complicated,” Gioni said.
Indeed, there’s a sense that the very possibility of transgression was at stake. And it was. For better or worse, much of what felt transgressive 20 years ago seems almost naive today when assembled together like this. In Turd (1993), Kathe Burkhart strips Hollywood of its candy striping by placing a squatting, bare-bottomed man in a painting of Liz Taylor. A black-and-white painting by Sue Williams of horse cocks and rectums asks, like its title, in hand-painted words, “Are You Pro-Porn or Anti-Porn?”
But such work provokes awareness today about the ways we have changed, and in that sense it continues to challenge and teach. For the most part, 1993 was pre-Internet. It was pre-O.J., pre-Lewinski, pre-Real Housewives, pre-9/11. If we thought we knew something about mass imagery, celebrity and commoditized sex then, we’re experts now.
In that context, Sarah Lucas’s defiant, macho, nearly 9-foot-high self-portrait made from color photocopies, Self Portrait #3 (1993), doesn’t feel so gratuitously large and ironically self-promoting as it must have when she was lesser known. But it works today as a prescient statement about media and the rewards it grants to such ironic posturing. She’s one of contemporary art’s most recognizable faces now precisely because of work like this.
Among some artists, there was tension between the irony of the moment and the sense that things like painting still mattered. We see it in early work by John Currin, whose two haunting paintings, both named Girl in Bed (both 1993) hover between the funereal and the satirical. One gets the sense that their anxious subjects are confined to their beds by choice, as though they’d finally had enough.
Elizabeth Peyton’s impressionistic charcoal portrait Mademoiselle George (1993) made its New York debut at a show in a Chelsea Hotel room in 1993 (visitors had to ask for the key downstairs), prefiguring the portraits of celebrities that would cement her reputation. The series of Napoleonic-era portraits marked a turning point in her career: “For the first time,” she said, according to the wall text accompanying the piece, “I realized there was something very important about portraiture.”
Still bigger things than irony or figuration were at stake in 1993. A video timeline on the fifth floor, compiled by scholar Claire Lehmann and designed by a New York-based duo called “This is our work,” reminds us this was the year of Waco, the first World Trade Center bombing and a major Middle East peace agreement. It was also the height of the AIDS epidemic, when the disease was killing tens of thousands of people in America each year. Nan Goldin’s photos documenting the slow wasting away of a friend are as stark and heartbreaking as ever.
On the third floor, the noise of the crowds is absorbed and muted by Rudolf Stingel’s untitled wall-to-wall orange carpeting (1991/2012), enhancing the somber, meditative qualities of two untitled works by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who died of AIDS complications in 1996. One is a string of light bulbs hung from the ceiling, illuminating the otherwise dark space with a soft, lonely glow; two giant, grainy black-and-white images of soaring birds cover two of the walls surrounding it. In the background, an audio loop by Kristin Oppenheim of a woman singing (Sail on Sailor, 1993) adds to the room’s haunting, incorporeal stillness.
Like Goldin, established artists like Cindy Sherman and Paul McCarthy were taking their careers to new places in 1993. Sherman broke from self-portraiture in the early ’90s to photograph medical mannequins in explicit sex positions, as seen here in an untitled work from 1992 that depicts a legless woman thrusting her naked pelvis upward. McCarthy that year saw his first New York solo show, which included Cultural Gothic (1992): a life-size sculpture of a suburban father and his son, who’s positioned suggestively behind a taxidermied goat.
Songs by Dinosaur Jr. play in the lobby, while in the glass-walled gallery at the back, stills and casting shots from what would become Larry Clark’s 1995 film, Kids, hang among skateboard decks and newspaper clippings-a stylized depiction of youth culture, but as much a memento of a lower Manhattan that no longer exists. It’s hard not to feel nostalgic.