Historical Erasure at the Pictures Generation

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current blockbuster, The Pictures Generation 1974-1984 is on the one hand a sprawling historical survey, and yet also a revisionist history. Jerry Saltz describes it as “less a critical survey of a highly influential aesthetic than a feel-good class reunion. Rather than opt for scholarship and tough choices, curator Douglas Eklund cultivated a gang’s-all-here coziness. It’s a huge show, with hundreds of objects, books, posters, films, and videos, and works by 30 artists.”

Philip Smith, All the Answers, 1998

Philip Smith, All the Answers, 1998

Given the breadth of the show and its apparently inclusive approach, it is particularly surprising that Philip Smith was not included, even though he was one of the five artists that Douglas Crimp selected for the original “Pictures” show at Artists Space in 1977. Crimp’s revised essay, published several years later in October, is arguably responsible for the enduring currency of the “Pictures” moniker, and substitutes Cindy Sherman for Smith. It’s a critical decision that the Met has apparently perpetuated; Eklund has explained to CultureGrrl that “I didn’t respond strongly enough to his work to include it.”

Fair enough.

Remembering that chief photography curator Malcolm Daniel explained the Met curator’s mission as “To collect, preserve, study, exhibit, and stimulate appreciation for and advance knowledge of works of art that collectively represent the broadest spectrum of human achievement at the highest level of quality, all at the service of the public and in accordance with the highest professional standards,” it is clear that Eklund had the license to exclude Smith on the grounds of quality alone.

What disturbs me more is the way that the Met has entirely erased Smith’s inclusion in the original exhibition. At least one wall label for a work by Tory Brauntuch mentions him as one of the four artists in the Artists’ Space exhibition. The didactic material here needs to be qualified.

Reviewing the show, Martha Schwendener perpetuates the error: “The show at Artists Space featured only four artists. Ironically, neither Cindy Sherman nor Richard Prince, who would become figureheads for Pictures art, were included.”

So what happened to fact-checking? The museum gift shop, at the exit to the exhibition, is discretely selling copies of the catalogue for the Artists Space show (only $30). One need only flip to the title page to see that Crimp’s artists numbered five: Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, and Philip Smith. CultureGrrl cornered Crimp at the press preview and asked what he thought of the omission:

Q: What do you make of Philip Smith’s absence from the Met’s show?

A: He was not so much of the group, of the social world, of the people who formulated this. He’s gay and this [the Met's show] is a very straight configuration of artists. I don’t know what’s happened to him, career-wise. It’s a slightly touchy subject: I think Philip is upset, reasonably.

Schwendener rightly points out that the show “was organized by a photography curator intent on showing how the medium was integrated into “mainstream” contemporary art.” Beyond the social circle aspects of the show that Crimp and Saltz emphasize, I wonder if Eklund’s curatorial omission also has to do with the fact that Smith’s work seems to be grounded in drawing.

Whatever Eklund’s his reasons for excluding Smith, the historical record is being distorted. It might not make good copy for wall labels and audio guides, but this decision making process should be more transparent, or at least represented truthfully in the history of Pictures.

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One Response to “Historical Erasure at the Pictures Generation”

  1. Historical Erasure Follow-Up: Holland Cotter « Carefully Aimed Darts Says:

    [...] Carefully Aimed Darts Thought Things, Sharpish « Historical Erasure at the Pictures Generation [...]

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