Setting the Record Straight


The following letter from artist Philip Smith arrived at Art in America‘ s offices on June 11, 2009.

Dear Art in America:

As one of the five original artists in the seminal 1977 “Pictures” exhibition, I read with great interest Jess Wilcox’s interview with Mr. Doug Eklund regarding his “Pictures Generation” exhibition at the Met. [See “The Pictures Generation: A Conversation with Douglas Eklund” published in Art in America‘s online edtion on April 21, 2009.]  In the interview Mr. Eklund explains my omission from the show by stating, “When I reviewed [Philip Smith’s] work for this show, it seemed not strong enough to be included …”

The truth is Mr. Eklund never contacted me or any of my representatives regarding my archives from the period.  It is unclear as to what work he actually reviewed to make this sweeping judgment.  If, in fact, my work was “not strong enough to be included” how did I ever end up in the original “Pictures” exhibition, much less the over 100 exhibitions since 1977 that have also included the Whitney and Beijing Biennials?

Had Mr. Eklund contacted me, I could have provided him with hundreds of examples of photo-based work that include slide-shows and photo-works, as well as photo-based paintings, drawings and sculptures from the period, all in accordance with the “Pictures” aesthetic.

What happened with regard to my omission from the “Pictures Generation” exhibition has set off alarm bells with various critics.  Most notably, Holland Cotter wrote a front-page Arts section article (May 31) on this issue titled, “Cultural History is Being Written and Revised, Right Before Our Eyes. It Can Be a Disturbing Sight.” In the article Mr. Cotter writes about the “Pictures Generation,”…The show…as history has problems.  The most obvious of them is factual.  Of the original five “Pictures” artists, only four are acknowledged.  No work by Mr. Smith is on view; his name is mentioned only once in the catalog. His portrait has effectively been removed from the hall of fame … In the interest of accuracy Mr. Smith should have been included in the Met show.  As it is, his absence turns historical record into invention …”

In the The Nation, Barry Schwabsky also expressed his concern regarding the omission of my work. “… Smith, by the way, has gone missing without the slightest explanation … it’s unfortunate that a reader of the catalog (co-published by the Met and Yale University Press) might easily not realize he had ever been included.”

Jerry Saltz, art critic for New York Magazine, posted on his Facebook page, “… one wonders why Philip Smith was excluded from the Met show when he was in the original “Pictures” show … it’s annoying how so many curators mindlessly buy whatever party-line they’re sold.”

As you can see, I am not the only one puzzled by Mr. Eklund’s inexplicable curatorial decision to ignore my work and my influence.  Even more bizarre is the notion that artists not related to the ‘Pictures’ aesthetic were pressed into service by Mr. Eklund.  As Martha Schwendener reports in The Village Voice, “Eklund admits, many artists, when contacted, refused to identify themselves as ‘Pictures artists’.”

One cannot help but wonder why the Met so obviously chose to rewrite art history and produce an historical survey damaged by flawed scholarship and for what reason.

I have had the pleasure of being reviewed in A.i.A., and would greatly appreciate it if you would consider an examination of what really took place in the creation of the “Pictures Generation.'” Apparently, there is much more to this story than has been publicly discussed.

With warmest regards,

Philip Smith