1977 The “Pictures” exhibition identifies a group of young artists whose strategies of
appropriation and critiques of originality advance the notion of “postmodernism” in art.
In early 1977 the critic Douglas Crimp was invited by Helene Winer, the director of Artists Space, to mount a show of artists relatively new to New York: Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein,
Sherrie Levine (born 1947), Robert Longo, and Philip Smith. Winer, who would later open the gallery Metro Pictures, steered Crimp toward young artists who, like others in their milieu Cindy Sherman (born 1954), Barbara Kruger (born 1945), Louise Lawler (born 1947), and so on—were linked not by any one medium (they used photography, film, and performance, as well as traditional modes such as drawing) but by a new sense of the image as “picture”—that is, as a palimpsest of representations, often found or “appropriated,” rarely original or unique, that compli cated, even contradicted, the claims of authorship and authenticity so important to most modern aesthetics. “We are not in search of sources of origins,” Crimp wrote, “but of structures of significa tion: underneath each picture there is always another picture.” “Picture” was meant to transcend any given medium, delivering its message equally from the pages of magazines, books, billboards, and all other forms of mass culture. Further, it mocked the idea that a specific medium might serve as a resistant fact, a kind of bedrock of truth that might itself serve as an aesthetic origin in the modernist sense, whether by “truth to materials” or as revealed essence. “Pictures” have no specific medium, they are as transpar ent as beams of light, as flimsy as decals meant to dissolve in water.
The postmodernist “picture”
As this collective work developed over the next few years, it became clear that the challenge to authorship was most radical in Levine’s practice. In 1980, with her series Untitled, After Edward Weston, she blatantly pirated a group of images from those Weston had taken in 1925 of his young son Neil posed nude and cropped to include no more than the boy s torso [ 1 ]. Absolutely fusing her own status as author with that of Weston’s, Levine was seen as going beyond merely challenging his legal status as the creator, and therefore the holder of the copyright to his own work. Instead, her appropria tion was taken as extending to Weston’s very claim to originality, in the sense of being the origin of his images. For in framing his son s body in such a way as to yield a series of graceful nude torsos,
1 • Sherrie Levine, Untitled, After Edward Weston 1,1980
Photograph, 25.4×20.3(10×8) it could be argued that Weston was in fact helping himself to one of
the most culturally disseminated visual tropes in Western culture going back certainly to the male nude of Greek high classicism, itself the model for endless Roman copies, but filtered through the form in which these antiquities were received in the post-Renais-
sance world, namely as decapitated, armless fragments, the cut-off torso had come to symbolize the body’s rhythmic wholeness. The author of this image is, therefore, dazzlingly multiple: from the
nameless antique sculptors who trafficked in copies, to the teams of
archaeologists who excavated ruins, to the museum curators who put these bodies on display, to the modern advertisers who use
versions of such images to promote their products. It is this per spective that Levine’s violation of Weston’s “authorship” opens onto his work, setting up a long line of claimants to this privilege and making a mockery of the very idea of Weston himself as the
image’s origin. That Levine would have dramatized this appropriation with a
photograph of another photograph was intended, moreover, to address the special role that photography itself had had in dis pelling the mystique of “origin” that had settled onto the work of art. Belonging to a generation of artists for whom the lessons of Walter Benjamin’s seminal 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” were now second nature, Levine thoroughly understood the condition of the photograph as a “multiple without an original.” Thus the cult-value of the unique object, the artistic original whose aesthetic magic or “aura” would be voided by the invalidity of a copy or a fake, was held up to question by the very nature of photography. Benjamin: “From a photographic negative … one can make any number of prints; to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense.” Indeed, one of the motives of the “Pictures” artists was to counter the growing market for fine photography, with its canceled negatives and vintage prints, with the lowly, derisive term “picture.”
Building on this demystification of one type of origin (the aesthetic original), it was easy for Levine to transfer it to another (the author’s originality). Photography, she implied, only made it technically easier and more transparent to do the kind of steal ing—politely called “appropriation”—that has always been endemic to the “fine arts” whose fundamentally decorative status photography now reveals. As Benjamin’s essay had already pre dicted: “Earlier much futile thought had been devoted to the question of whether photography is an art. The primary ques tion—of whether the very invention of photography had not transformed the entire nature of art—was not raised.” Levine and other appropriation artists were now raising it. One of the terms under which their critique sailed was “postmodernism.”
Although not represented in the “Pictures” show, Louise Lawler most consistently took up this term to refer to her own production, as in show after show—“How Many Pictures,” “It Could Be Elvis, and Other Pictures,” “Paint, Walls, Pictures”—she integrated her work into the serialized world of mass production, injecting her photographs into the little domes of glass paperweights, projecting her images in the ephemeral form of slides, presenting her output as a kind of cultural detritus: matchbook covers, souvenir glasses, phonograph records. And in the grip of the same logic that had
operated for Levine, Lawler extended the structure of multiplicity from the technical fact of copies generated from a matrix to the aesthetic domain of authorship, thereby dissolving herself as her
work’s point of origin into the bath of a diverse social continuum. Many of her photographs bear titles like Arranged by Barbara
and Eugene Schwartz ; Desk Light by Ernesto Gismondi, to signal
the mutations in authorship they are documenting. The sub mission of works of art to the forces of the market has meant that they are not just integrated into the world of commodities, thereby taking on the personality of their owners, like the artfully arranged wall of August Sander portraits hanging in Mr. and Mrs. Schwartz’s study. It has also meant that the form of commodity to which they are assimilated is one in which their exchange-value exists at the disembodied level of the sign, making them the equiv alent of so many fashion logos worth far more than the incidental handbag or leather moccasin to which they might be attached. This status of art as nothing but “sign exchange value” is implied again and again by Lawler’s images in which, in a work like Pollock and Tureen (1984), a dining room sideboard neatly splits our attention between a piece of eighteenth-century porcelain and the segment of the Jackson Pollock painting we can see on the wall above it; or in Who Are You Close To? (1990), where Andy Warhol’s S&H Green Stamps hang on a magenta wall between symmetrically placed green Chinese horses, all of it a study in color coordination (magenta and green) worthy of House and Gardens magazine. By ceding her compositional privileges to the collectors of the works, by relinquishing her stylistic prerogatives to a whole range of mass- media vehicles—the photographic styles of fashion magazines, of high-end advertising, of brute documentation—and by sustaining the implied logical reciprocity through which “sign exchange value” will overtake not only Pollock’s work but her own as well, Lawler suspends her own claims as author.
All of these “pictures” issues generated by photography and affect ing the fine-arts triumvirate—originality, original, origin—by leaching the autonomous world of the art object into the explosive domain of mass culture, found their way into the work of Cindy Sherman, a contemporary and colleague of Levine’s and Lawler’s. Elaborating the series she called Untitled Film Stills between 1977 and 1980 [3,4], Sherman rang extraordinary changes on the idea of self-portraiture as she disappeared behind the guises of the
2 • Louise Lawler, Arranged by Barbara and Eugene Schwartz, 1982 Black-and-white photograph, 40.6 x 59.7 (16 x 23 1/2)
4 • Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #39, 1979 Black-and-white photograph, 25.4 x 20.3 (10×8)
question in Sherman s Film Stills were feminine, but the feminist argument according to which those roles should be understood had shifted. Mulvey was no longer exhorting a kind of conscious
ness-raising by which women were asked to put aside the roles into which they had been cast, like a set of disguises they could change if only they would. She was making a far more structural argument according to which the division of labor under patriarchy could not be shifted: men were the actors in a world in which women were the passive objects; men were the speakers, the makers of meaning, while women—the spoken for—were the bearers of meaning. If Hollywood followed this pattern, producing female stars as somnolent visual fetishes and male ones as vigorous agents, this was because these assignments were hard-wired into the social psyche, unavoidable. Accordingly, Sherman’s settings came to be analyzed less for their mass-cultural associations and more for their visual vectors: the traces of a male gaze trained on a waiting and defenseless female; the ways the female reacts to this gaze, entreating it, ignoring it, placating it.
As Mulvey’s essay had also argued, the division of roles in terms of action and vision also apply to—or are structurally imbricated with language. If she says that the woman is the bearer of
movie stars she impersonated (Monica Vitti, Barbara Bel Geddes, Sophia Loren), the characters she implied (gun moll, battered wife, heiress), the directors whose styles she pastiched (Douglas Sirk, John Sturges, Alfred Hitchcock), and the film genres she dissimu lated (film noir, suspense, melodrama).
Beyond jettisoning her selfhood as author and individual, however, the implication of these works is that the very condition of selfhood is built on representation: on the stories children are told or the books adolescents read; on the pictures the media provide through which social types are generated and internalized; on the resonance between filmic narratives and fantasy projec tions. Hence the transparency of the persona to the roles and situations that form in the public image-world, the one cannily projected first by film and then by television. If Sherman’s work could be authored by so many Hollywood gambits, her pictures seem to be saying, this is because Sherman herself, standing in for all of us, is constructed by those same gambits. And in this form of the argument, not only does every author appropriate his or her images, but every author appropriates his or her “self.”
By the mid-eighties and in the aftermath of feminist arguments such as Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” however, it was no longer possible to see Sherman as standing in “for all of us,” or to take the manipulations operated by Hollywood film as gender neutral. Not only was it obvious that the roles in
3 • Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #7, 1978 Black-and-white photograph, 25.4 x 20.3 (10×8)
5 • Barbara Kruger, We Won’t Play Nature to Your Culture, 1983
meaning she is referring to the sense in which the woman’s body is organized by what the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan called the signifier of difference, namely the phallus that she does not have but that—marked by castration and its threat—she is. Another way of describing this would be to say that her body— complete in its beauty but damaged in its phallic absence—is the fetish that marks the site of a lack. It is on this site and according to this lack that the difference that founds the very possibility of meaning, or language, is built.
The work of Barbara Kruger, another contemporary and col league of the “Pictures” group, is constructed on acknowledging this linguistic division of labor only to suspend it. Like Sherman’s, Lawler’s, and Levine’s, the basis of Kruger’s work is appropriated mass-cultural imagery, here in the form of found photographs taken from magazines and other mass-circulation sources. But onto this visual foundation she collages trenchant verbal state ments. In We Won’t Play Nature to Your Culture , for example, these words ride atop the photograph of a young woman sun bathing with her eyes masked by leaves. Referring to the binaries that structure not only language but all cultural forms of
meaning—the nature/cultural opposition being almost as funda mental as the male/female one—Kruger’s young woman is indeed playing” nature. As she lies prone on a barely visible field of
grass, not only do the leaves covering her eyes encourage a sense of her as yielding to the natural conditions of her surroundings,
•like Roger Caillois’s mimetic animals, but also this mask confirms
the sexual dynamics of vision as described by Mulvey: the young woman is the object, not the agent of vision.
Our bodies, ourselves
But working at cross purposes to this confirmation of the gender stereotypes is the text that mobilizes another aspect of the linguistic analysis proposed by the structuralists. This is the argument about the nature of pronouns put forward by the French linguist Emile Benveniste. Dividing language into two forms, narrative and dis course, the first the form of historical or objective accounts, the second the form of interactive dialogue (conversation), he pointed to another type of division of labor, that between the third person pronouns—he, they—joined to the (historical) past tense, and the first and second person pronouns—I, you, we—connected with the present tense. The former, he says, is the matrix through which purportedly objective, scientific fact is related and it is thus the medium of knowledge. The latter is the medium of active, lived experience, through which speakers assume their subjecthood, taking on the responsibility of entering the position “I.” This is the dimension of language that the linguists would also call the “performative” and what it lacks in supposed truth-value it makes up in its assumption of power and agency. The two messages of Kruger’s image are, then, decidedly “mixed,” one playing to the narrative system in which the woman is the object of knowledge, her passivity constituting its very “truth,” the other taking up the discursive system and, saying “I” (or in this case “we”), assuming a performative position. In doing so, the woman’s voice aggressively returns the male gaze.
The work of these four women constituted an important part of what was identified as “critical postmodernism,” a term that associ ated their critique with that of the theorists of mass culture who, from Adorno to Habermas, had denounced the “consciousness industry.” This qualifier was necessary to differentiate the work from another form of postmodernism that was eagerly promoted by the very media the “Pictures” group was exposing. For an antimodernist postmodernism had declared war on “formalism” by returning to the classicist modes of painting in oil and sculpting in bronze (for example, the Italian Sandro Chia), as it waved goodbye to a pro gressive notion of history by eclectically assuming odd assortments of past pictorial styles, as though none of these had any historically fixed, internal meaning (for example, the American David Salle). The “Pictures” group, insofar as it declared that artistic mediums were no longer value neutral but had now, infected by the (commu nications) media, become part of the battle zone of modern culture, was itself an emblem of postmodernism understood as critique.
FURTHER READING Douglas Crimp, On the Museum’s Ruins (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993)
Hal Foster, “Postmodernism,” The Anti-Aesthetic (Seattle: Bay Press, 1983) and
“The Crux of Minimalism,” The Return of the Real (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998)
Craig Owens, Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture (Berkeley and Los
Angeles: University of California Press, 1992)