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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Art and Photography: 1990s to the Present

For the 1991 Carnegie International, the painter Christopher Wool adapted one of his recent word paintings to a series of billboards seen around Pittsburgh that read: “The show is over. The audience get up to leave their seats. Time to collect their coats and go home. They turn around. No more coats and no more home.” The quotation—a chilling definition of nihilism by the Situationist writer Raoul Vaneigem—was a perfect epitaph for the just passed Reagan era, and captured the fractious tenor of the early 1990s. Much of the art, film, and music was gratifyingly messy in both form and message, provoking the viewer with uneasy truths about the unraveling social fabric. Seen in retrospect, Sue Williams’ scrawled, slashing paintings of sexual violence—part late de Kooning, part bathroom graffiti—and Cindy Sherman’s grotesque tableaux of medical supply dolls constituted a perfect backdrop to the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill controversy then playing out on Capitol Hill. With its shambling arrangements of cultural detritus, “scatter art” (now called “installation art”) was an aggressive assault on the pristine white cube of the gallery space—a visual analogue to the punk rock that exploded into national consciousness after a decade of subterranean existence.

As the decade mellowed under the lulling influence of the dot-com boom and the end of the Cold War, the art of the mid-1990s reflected both the newly global situation and the increasingly blurred line between the real and the virtual. Andreas Gursky’s spectacular large-scale photographs of frenzied stock markets, rock concerts, and designer shoe displays were like advertisements for the zeitgeist: digitally punched up, relentlessly exteriorized, and tailored for mass consumption. At the same time, however, Gabriel Orozco traveled the globe making fragile, economical sculpture and photographs from the humblest of cast-off materials—recycling the everyday into poetic objects that oscillated in the mind between reality and the imagination (1995.137.2). Tom Friedman’s work (1999.230) was, like that of Orozco, about work, but in a way far removed from the latter’s more casual, European sensibility—feats of endurance and obsessive making (with a heavy dose of showmanship and magic mixed in), from an exploding star form created from thousands of toothpicks to a sheet of paper stared at by the artist for 10,000 hours, in which useless skill and endless labor are pushed toward a bedazzled transcendence.

The “is-it-live-or-is-it-Memorex?” of contemporary existence as simultaneously lived and imagined was a hallmark of photography in the 1990s and an inevitable response to the penetration of the media into every corner of public space and private thought. Artists such as Cindy Sherman and Laurie Simmons, Jeff Wall and James Casebere became key figures in the new work of 1990s photographers such as Sharon Lockhart and Thomas Demand, whose images were epistemological exercises in how we experience memory, history, and identity through the sea of images into which we are born. The ultimate expression of this idea came in the ascendance of large-scale, immersive video installations by Doug Aitken (2004.223), Jane and Louise Wilson, Tacita Dean, and others who converted the white cube of the gallery space into the black box of the moviehouse or psychological experiment, theatricalizing the universal experience of technological and information overload upon an endlessly fractured, constantly regulated and diverted consciousness.