picgeneration-banner-826l18020-9l374.jpg
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.
 

cindy-sherman-640.jpg
CINDY SHERMAN, UNTITLED FILM STILL #8. ESTIMATE £50,000–70,000.

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. 

picgeneration-843l18020-69mkn.jpg
RICHARD PRINCE, UNTITLED (COWBOY), 1999. ESTIMATE: £700,000-900,000.

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.

picgeneration-1200l18020-levine-wall.jpg
SHERRIE LEVINE, CARIBOU SKULL. ESTIMATE £400,000-600,000.

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. 

picgeneration-826l18020-9l374.jpg
CINDY SHERMAN, UNTITLED FILM STILL #57. ESTIMATE £200,000–300,000.

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.

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos & news.
Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's

We use our own and third party cookies to enable you to navigate around our Site, use its features and engage on social media, and to allow us to perform analytics, remember your preferences, provide services that you have requested and produce content and advertisements tailored to your interests, both on our Site as well as others. For more information, or to learn how to change your cookie or marketing preferences, please see our updated Privacy Policy & Cookie Policy.

Close