Young artists who came of age in the early 1970s were greeted by an America suffused with disillusionment from dashed hopes for political and social transformation to the continuation of the Vietnam War and the looming Watergate crisis. The utopian promise of the counterculture had devolved into a commercialized pastiche of rebellious stances prepackaged for consumption, and the national mood was one of catatonic shell-shock in response to wildly accelerated historical change, from the sexual revolution to race riots and assassinations. Similarly, the elder generation of artists seemed to have both dramatically expanded the field of what was possible in the field of art while staking out its every last claim, either by dematerializing the aesthetic object entirely into the realm of pure idea or linguistic proposition as in Conceptualism, or by rivaling the cataclysmic processes and sublime vistas of the natural world itself as did the so-called earthworks artists such as Robert Smithson, who died in 1973.
What these fledgling artists did have fully to themselves was the sea of images into which they were born—the media culture of movies and television, popular music, and magazines that to them constituted a sort of fifth element or a prevailing kind of weather. Their relationship to such material was productively schizophrenic: while they were first and foremost consumers, they also learned to adopt a cool, critical attitude toward the very same mechanisms of seduction and desire that played upon them from the highly influential writings of French philosophers and cultural critics such as Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, and Julia Kristeva that were just beginning to be made available in translation. Among these thinkers’ central ideas was that identity was not organic and innate, but manufactured and learned through highly refined social constructions of gender, race, sexuality, and citizenship. These constructions were embedded within society’s institutions and achieved their effects through the myriad expressions of the mass media. Barthes infamously extended this concept to question the very possibility of originality and authenticity in his 1967 manifesto “The Death of the Author,” in which he stated that any text (or image), rather than emitting a fixed meaning from a singular voice, was but a tissue of quotations that were themselves references to yet other texts, and so on.
The famous last line of Barthes’ essay, that “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author,” was a call to arms for the loosely knit group of artists working in photography, film, video, and performance that would become known as the “Pictures” generation, named for an important exhibition of their work held at Artist’s Space in New York in 1977. The show featured 45-rpm records and projected short films by the California artist Jack Goldstein, who sampled and looped canned sound effects or film snippets that triggered Pavlovian responses of fear and dread in the imagination of the viewer. Slightly later, Richard Prince zoomed in on what he termed “social science fiction,” the hyperreal space depicted in countless advertisements featuring gleaming luxury goods and robotic models. Cindy Sherman and Laurie Simmons worked at the intersection of personal and collective memory, rummaging through the throwaway products of their youth—from B-movies to dollhouses that served as training manuals for who and how to be—in search of moments that both never existed yet were indelibly stamped in the mind. The image-scavengering of these artists was not restricted to the child’s play of popular culture: Louise Lawler stalked the corridors of power in search of hidden treasure, while Sherrie Levine shot over the shoulders of photography’s founding fathers not as a dry Duchampian gesture, but in order to create something akin to musical overtones—a buzzing in the space between their “original” and her “copy” that effaced the distance between objective document and subjective desire.