Reconciling with the Ex: “A Pictures Generation” Confessional

I’ve had a great time, but this wasn’t it.

Groucho Marx

I considered myself adequately prepared for the “Pictures Generation, 1974-1984” show at the Metropolitan Museum in New York–and a prophylactic two beers in advance were to ensure that the flashbacks, the good times, the bad times, the ironic times, would be kept to a minimum. But I was way off when it came to the actual impact of the much-hyped show on my psyche. I honestly thought that viewing the seminal works of Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo and all the other cool-as-ice hipsters of the ’80s would be like walking down the halls of my old high school (you know, the vaguely familiar and yet somewhat creepy “wow … did I actually go here at one time in my life?” and “thank God I got out of this asylum” feeling.) But I have to report that spending time in the exhibition was more like meeting one of my old girlfriends (of the … “she was a nasty piece of work and nearly destroyed my soul, but wow, she looks great!” ilk.) You might say the whole thing (my relationship with the art, that is) is somewhat complicated. I hated the period for its cool irony and easy cynicism. I loved the period for its clear and unwavering attachment to ideas. The whole photo-appropriation-as-social-critique schtick–and the strident anti-aestheticism that gave birth to it–was everywhere. Like many of my peers, I cut my critical teeth on the stuff. I also got cut up by it … like a bad knife fight. Like I said, it is complicated.

To put it bluntly, I am the pictures generation … or at least I was. Well okay … perhaps just a bit. But I’ve changed. I now describe myself as a re-constructed subjectivist, fully committed to a post-pictures, post-structuralist de-tox program. I must admit that it is an ongoing battle, but with each passing day, my new-found naïveté and deepening connection with personal narrative give me the strength to be the artist and person I know I can be! I’ve also come to grips–even embraced–the sad truth that there are some things in life (and art) you can shake and other nasty bits that, no matter how hard you scrub with the super-grit sandpaper of experience, inevitably stick to you like glue, like the lingering, intoxicating and thoroughly debilitating spectre of irony.

I was born in the early ’60s, coming from that much maligned cultural hinterland neatly sandwiched between giving “peace a chance” and fighting “for my right to party.” Instead, I was “comfortably numb,” hanging out in shopping malls and drooling my way through art school on a healthy dose of third-generation ersatz abstract expressionism, enforced by a cadre of aging Brits and Americans who still smelled of patchouli. Life was good, as long as you didn’t look up. The serious adult stuff that was actually going on in the art world was conveniently kept at a distance. We were warned to stay away or lose our artist souls, so for the most part, I stayed away. When the yucky, soul-sucking stuff did come my way, it was in dribs and drabs from the occasional young and always very serious visiting artist: ominous talk of things French and philosophical that seemed decidedly bleak and definitely not fun. So I did what any self-respecting slacker would do when confronted by the news of a parallel world of simulacra and free-floating signifiers at complete odds with my warm and fuzzy education: I told those snivelling prophets of doom to go reify themselves. Naturally, this extraordinary act of maturity only made the situation worse. The pandemic of postmodernity was already fully ensconced in the art world by the early ’80s, and with it a gang of big, very bookish and brutally cool bullies looking not only to challenge any aesthetic taker but also to literally kick the shit out of them. Head in sand, ass in the air, I was an easy target for a good smackdown. And it was a pile on …

See issue 111 to read the entire essay!

Volume 28, Number 3: Paint

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #111, published August 2009.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.