Historical Erasure Follow-Up: Holland Cotter

In the Saturday NY Times recent Pulitzer Prize winning critic Holland Cotter addresses some of the “history” issues concerning the Met’s Pictures Generation that I brought up in the previous post:

The show is rich and deeply interesting, but as history it 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 this the Met has followed Mr. Crimp’s lead. In the October magazine version of his exhibition essay, he dropped the discussion of Mr. Smith and focused instead on Cindy Sherman, an artist who hadn’t been in the show. Such revisionism is, perhaps, a curator’s privilege but not a historian’s. 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 and suggests how exclusionary a “generational” history can be.

The show is based on several broader exclusions. One of the notable features of the “Pictures” group was the number of women it included, among them Ericka Beckman, Dara Birnbaum, Barbara Bloom, Sarah Charlesworth, Nancy Dwyer, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, Laurie Simmons, Ms. Levine and Ms. Sherman.

Yet the Met show makes only cursory mention of the feminist movement and none at all of the presence of the Feminist Art Program at CalArts in the early 1970s, well known for its experiments with nontraditional mediums and for its critique of the representation of women in popular culture and in art.

Kudos to Cotter for bringing this to the fore. I assumed that he won the Pulitzer mostly for his feature-style criticism from China leading up to the Olympics, and this article works in the same vein. Cotter discusses two shows that he has already previously reviewed for the Times, and considers the ways in which exhibitions, rather than serving as objective truths, are involved in their own form of historical production and narrativization. In this sense it foregrounds the curatorial responsibility (and imperative) in establishing a context for making meaning.

The article compares the roles of history making in the Pictures Generation and the New Museum’s Younger than Jesus. Interestingly, the web version of the Cotter’s text is illustrated with Elad Lassry’s photographs, whose films I have written about previously. Although Lassry goes unmentioned in Cotter’s article, and his review of YTJ, it is an appropriate editorial decision as Lassry very deliberately engages the forms of production and aesthetic strategies laid out by Pictures artists, making explicit the connection between the two shows. In particular Lassry has a strong connection, even reconsideration, of Jack Goldstein’s motifs, buttressed by the work of Sarah Charlesworth and Dara Birnbaum and David Salle and James Welling. While I am obviously interested in Lassry’s work, I think it fares poorly in YTJ; a lot of this has to do with context and installation: his photographs are small and intensely formal, and in the slapdash cacophony of the third floor, they are almost easy to miss. The side gallery in which they hang is shared with Matt Keegan’s work, presumably because they both engage the Pictures legacy (Keegan with Barbara Kruger explicitly referenced), but it is to the detriment of Lassry’s presentation. Though I won’t go into it here, I had problems with the installation throughout YTJ.

UPDATE: Several weeks before Cotter or I wrote about this, Regina Hackett, also quoting CultureGrrl, posted about Smith’s exclusion. I had also read the AiA interview she cites, and it was influencing my thoughts, but I couldn’t remember the source of the “qualitative exclusion”. To reiterate, it seems like it would have been a minor thing to include Smith in such a sprawling show, and also satisfied historical accuracy.

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3 Responses to “Historical Erasure Follow-Up: Holland Cotter”

  1. Fauna Says:

    You were obviously out in front on this one. Very nice.

  2. Philip Smith Says:

    My omission from the Pictures Generation is indeed mysterious especially since I am one of the original Pictures artists. I’m not sure why the Met is intent on erroneously rewriting art history.

    Thank you so much for addressing this issue.

    Philip Smith

  3. the power Says:

    Hi Philip,

    Yeah, it’s very disturbing. I don’t think anyone would have said, “Why is Philip Smith in the exhibition?” had you been included. It would presumably have been an accurate portrayal of the historical moment. I don’t claim any expertise on the subject matter nor have I done additional research. I’ve simply expounded upon the materials presented by the museum, describing what can be seen and read by any lay visitor to the (arguably) most important museum in America. The title of the exhibition is “The Pictures Generation 1974-1984”: it’s very title emphasizes the historicism of the curatorial conceit; this is not an attempt to re-frame the theoretical and critical language surrounding the movement, in which case the inclusions and exclusions of the curator could be seen as a strong, thesis-driven imagining of a canonical moment. That’s something we might expect of the Walker or LA MoCA, but not the Met.

    And yet the omission is further obfuscated by the didactic materials, ie. the museum-sanctified context. This historical revision seems ethically reprehensible. Although I don’t claim the classical definition of the “curator” as the primary modus operandi any longer–to care for and preserve, etc.–I think that some of that moral obligation must still be in place. If there is a silver lining to the situation, although for you personally I doubt this is the case, I would hope that the discourse surrounding Eklund’s decision serves to highlight the mechanisms by which these sort of narratives come to fruition and fossilization. As arbiters of meaning, critics and curators, as well as artists, define the ideas and ideologies that a culture valorizes. This is a great example (controversially) of how this plays out in a very visible, recognizable form.

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