Pictures and the Past

Pictures and the Past

A fresh take on the group of artists known as the Pictures Generation, reinterpreting their work as haunted by the history of fascism, the threat of its return, and the effects of its recurring representation in postwar American culture.

The artists of the Pictures Generation, converging on New York City in the late 1970s, indelibly changed the shape of American art. Rebelling against abstraction, they borrowed liberally from the aesthetics of mass media and sometimes the work of other artists. It has long been thought that the group's main contribution was to upend received conceptions of authorial originality. In Pictures and the Past, however, art critic and historian Alexander Bigman shows that there is more to this moment than just the advent of appropriation art. He presents us with a bold new interpretation of the Pictures group's most significant work, in particular its recurring evocations of fascist iconography.

In the wake of the original Pictures show, curated by Douglas Crimp in 1977, artists such as Sarah Charlesworth, Jack Goldstein, Troy Brauntuch, Robert Longo, and Gretchen Bender raised pressing questions about what it means to perceive the world historically in a society saturated by images. Bigman argues that their references to past cataclysms--to the violence wrought by authoritarianism and totalitarianism--represent not only a coded form of political commentary about the 1980s but also a piercing reflection on the nature of collective memory. Throughout, Bigman situates their work within a larger cultural context including parallel trends in music, fashion, cinema, and literature. Pictures and the Past probes the shifting relationships between art, popular culture, memory, and politics in the 1970s and '80s, examining how the specter of fascism loomed for artists then--and the ways it still looms for us today.

Publication Date: 
June 24, 2024