Contemporary Art

Who Were the Pictures Generation?

By Martin Dean

T he Pictures Generation took its name from a 1977 exhibition at Artists Space, New York, called simply Pictures. Organised by critic Douglas Crimp, the exhibition showed a selection of artists who had started to examine the relationship between art, mass media and society in their work.


The majority of the artists who comprised the Pictures Generation grew up through the 1960s, an era which saw a rapid growth of consumerism and the explosive proliferation of associated imagery. Through television, cinema, newspapers and magazines, these representative images became ubiquitous. Their co-existence with the political unrest, new ideologies and social transformation which characterised the early 1970s portrayed a reality that was complex, contradictory and both mediated and manipulated by the image itself. 

Drawing on the ideas of cultural theorists like Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes — who challenged the idea of a single source of meaning originating with the author, and instead suggested that meaning was created through an interaction between an artwork and the viewer — the artists of the Pictures Generation examined the effects of recurring images in mass media and their role as the mediators of meaning for the post-Vietnam generation. 


The reproduction and appropriation of images and icons of mass media in works of art was a characteristic approach of the Pictures Generation. Through this process, the images were removed from their original contexts, and made available for a re-interpretation and examination by the viewer. Richard Prince’s work Untitled (Cowboy) takes a promotional image for cigarette brand Marlboro, and removes the logos and branding, stripping the image back to its raw form, and inviting the viewer to investigate the culturally constructed network of meaning associated with the image of the cowboy in isolation.


Sherrie Levine was among the five artists in the original Pictures exhibition. Her work Caribou Skull, through its rendering of a natural motif — itself part of the iconography of the American wilderness — in an opulent gold, brings together the worlds of historical, natural reality and the consumer-driven, fetishised culture of the modern day. 


Cindy Sherman was strongly influenced by commercial image culture and the diffusion of stereotypes through popular imagery. Her Untitled Film Stills depict the artist posing as fictitious movie characters, appropriating and exposing stereotypical female roles in movies of the 1950s and 1960s, ranging from film-noir heroine to sex kitten, lonely housewife and sophisticate. This body of work became one of the most significant series made in the 20th century.

Many of the Pictures Generation artists continue to be active today, with their work adapting to developments in the media landscape. Richard Prince most notably has garnered significant attention for his appropriative work of images created through social media platform Instagram.

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