- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

NEW YORK (AP) - In the 1970s, the art world was enmeshed in a vast series of lines, dots and amorphous figures: The conceptual had taken over.

Gone were clear representations with clear meaning, and for some, specifically a powerful group of New York artists known as the Pictures Generation, it was time to return art to reality.

Five years in the making, “The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984” at the Metropolitan Museum Art is based on a 1977 exhibit at the Artists Space in New York City and takes its name from the Pictures Generation. This small group of New York based artists looked at the scope of the images around them, in advertising, media and art, and realized that the art world wasn’t engaging with, or criticizing, what had become an image-obsessed world.

The show includes 30 artists _ Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo, Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince, Barbara Kruger and James Welling perhaps have the most name recognition of the bunch _ and displays no new works. Rather, it traces the relationship between these artists and the ways they moved their image-centered art, particularly photography, from the fringes to the center of the art world in the decade between 1974 and 1984.

It’s a complicated, huge show spread over nine rooms, six filled with photography, painting, prints and a few sculptures, and three rooms with video.

Douglas Eklund, associate curator, said the “show feels democratic.” And it does, although at times the “democratic” borders on the overstuffed.

The themes remain true to variations on the issues of media, feminism, identity, consumerism and history, but one current seems to underlie: How mixing advertising, media and art alters the identity of the image and confuses issues of emotion.

Our reactions are stalled as we try to process how to react to what looks and feels like something from a magazine: Welling’s series “And Should” (1974), where Winston cigarette ads are cropped and superimposed over photographs; David Salle’s “Untitled” (1973), a series of four portraits of women in their kitchens with small coffee ads pasted bottom-center; Sherman’s self-portrait “Untitled Film Still #7” (1978), where, martini in hand, she looks every bit the movie star; or “Untitled (living rooms)” (1977), Prince’s seemingly misplaced photographs of an average suburban living room.

Similarly, Longo’s stunning life-size charcoal and graphite works from his “Men in the Cities” (1981) series have a glossy advertising feel to them. The works show people in various stages of movement, most of their faces hidden. The pieces emit a palpable energy, the kind so coveted by advertising because the emotion is ambiguous: It could be anger, it could be ecstasy. It all depends on your reaction to what the work is selling, so to speak.

More than 20 years later, these may seem like dated issues, but at the same time, in an increasingly media overwhelmed world, the “What is art” issues posed by “The Pictures Generation” beg important questions about our emotional reactions to the images before us.

“The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984” runs through Aug. 2 and will not travel.

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