Jerry Saltz can be silly–and he can be brilliant. Here he dislikes the Met’s “Pictures Generation” show but uses it as a pretext to offer a well-wrought pocket history:
In the seventies, a group of American artists seized the means not of production but of reproduction. They tore apart visual culture at a time of no money, no market, and no one paying attention except other artists. [ . . . ] They made conceptual art more optical and snazzy. They returned narrative and figuration to minimalism while keeping the rigor. And rather than “liking things,” the way Warhol said Pop Art did, they were skeptical, especially regarding pop culture. This mix was laced with New Wave attitude, French theory, social consciousness, and raw material derived from everything from movies to logos. Pictures artists (as they were called) created a kind of anti- encyclopedia, looking at the world of representation and saying, “This is too good to be true.” They changed the way we look at images, ourselves, and the world.
Today, it’s hard to see two of the most radical things about Pictures art. First of all, most of it came out of photography. Back then, photographs were entirely separate from the elite fine arts such as painting (which was going through one of its near-death experiences). Even so-called fine-art photography was inexpensive and, by comparison, nearly disposable. It was certainly seen as a separate art with its own history and traditions, and critics and theoreticians didn’t much bother with it. The Pictures artists realized that photography could therefore be a theoretical free zone—that they could create their own approach there. Pictures artists staged their own images or copied or cut out others already in existence. The viewer took them in separately, in sometimes paradoxical waves: an original image, then the manipulations of it, then the places where image and idea intersected. This created a crucial perceptual glitch that irony and understanding filled. [ . . . ] Pictures art was never the feel-good fun portrayed here; it was influential, but it was also self-policing and insular. (Salle was essentially cast out of the inner circle for the sin of painting and for using photos of naked women—that’s how conservative the liberal art world was.) But it was a crackling time, and appropriation is too nice a word for how potent this style still is: Stealing and ransacking convey the atmosphere much better.
Great Artists Steal (New York Magazine)