In 1977, the exhibition Pictures was unveiled in the independent Artists Space gallery in New York. Organised by art critic Douglas Crimp, the show identified a group of young artists who shared a specific way of interpreting and working with images. Often found or appropriated, and rarely original or unique, images and their endless layers of meaning helped them to question the assumptions of authorship, authenticity and originality, the foundations of the monetisation of art and other factors influencing its market value.
“We don’t look for the sources of the originals”, but rather “structures of meaning: underneath each picture there is always another picture”, Crimp explained. Despite it including the work of just five artists: Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo and Philip Smith, his exhibition Pictures would be hugely significant. In addition to orienting the development and reception of subsequent art, it identified a generation of artists, among them Cindy Sherman, Louise Lawler and James Welling, who reacted before visual stimuli and stereotypes created by the culture industry and mass consumption in New York, at that time bearing the effects of gentrification and real estate speculation.
At a time of disillusionment and scepticism towards utopias and grand narratives, characteristic of so-called postmodernism, these artists eschewed the use of photography as simply recording reality and even ironically viewed the credibility and apparent neutrality of images and languages. They used photography and the appropriation of images precisely to examine their roles, messages and codes of representation in films, magazine pages, books, billboards and other mass culture supports. In their work, the photograph is not merely a result. It is a stage in a critical process that entails actions such as the mise en scène, reframing and quote; moreover, the photographic medium enabled them to question reality, create fiction, defy notions of identity and put forward fresh questions on the nature of representation, singularity in art, and gender, race and history. In the form of photographic installations as opposed to autonomous images, their works are often laced with ambiguity and numerous possible readings.
From the 1980s, many of these artists would be represented and came together in the shows organised by the Metro Pictures gallery, located in Soho, an industrial neighbourhood which had been occupied by the art community since the 1960s but also started to attract commercial galleries. The urban and cultural atmosphere during those years of transformation, set to deserted streets and demolished buildings, as well as the mise en scène of daily life, are depicted in the film Permanent Vacation (1980), shot by Jim Jarmusch in 16mm.