For Charles Clough, a solo show that raises the question: What was the ‘Pictures Generation’ really?

Clough (second from right) greets visitors to his new show. (Melissa Smith)
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Not long ago art collector Dorothy Vogel invited Louis Newman, director of the David Finlay Jr. gallery, to her apartment for dinner.

Vogel is one half of a legendary art-collecting couple, famous for having priceless works of art not only hanging on every inch of the walls of a small Upper East Side apartment, but also stowed under their bed and couches and in the closets; when the furniture was getting in the way of new acquisitions, they started getting rid of furniture.

During the visit, Newman saw a small painting he liked, by Charles Clough.

"That’s how I found out about Charlie,” he told me as he stood in his gallery on Saturday, at the opening of a show of Clough’s recent work. "I saw this painting and I’m like, ‘It’s Abstract Expressionism.’ And she said, ‘You have to remember we started out in that realm and with that circle of artists and all, but it wasn’t affordable to us so that’s why we went in a different direction.’”

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Clough was not, in fact, an Abstract Expressionist, nor was he part of the Minimalist school, arguably the movement best represented in the Vogels’ collection. In fact, the question of what kind of artist Clough is has vexed many who attempt to classify him.

Clough's work from the '70s and '80s has recently been associated with what has come to be known as "The Pictures Generation," a group that was coming into prominence well after the Ab-Exers and included friends and collaborators of Clough's.

But Clough was not originally grouped with them. When curator and critic Douglas Crimp curated an exhibition called "Pictures" in 1977, he brought together works by five artists: Sherrie Levine, Jack Goldstein, Phillip Smith, Troy Brauntuch, and Robert Longo. The exhibition tapped a vein of figuration developing among many artists in a New York City art scene that was awash in Minimalism.

It was only three decades later, when Douglas Eklund, curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, included Clough in an exhibition he curated called "The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984." Eklund expanded Crimp’s circle of five artists to include some 25 more who had worked around the same time and place, among whom arguably the most famous is Cindy Sherman, an addition of his, and Longo, one of the original five.

Sherman and Longo are long-time friends and collaborators with Clough. The three started the Buffalo-based Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center in 1974, a space strongly identified with the Pictures group. But before now, Clough has not been a prominent figure in the discussion of this group of artists compared to these two artists, who continue to reap the benefits of art-market megastardom. And in fact, Clough’s inclusion in the Met’s "Pictures" show came largely out of his longtime friendship with Longo.

“I think Longo was key person within Doug Eklund’s dialogue. And Robert pushed for me,” Clough said when I asked about why he’d been chosen to participate in the show. “There could be so many different ways of approaching the art of the '70s. It seems to be a very subjective grouping that Doug [Eklund] came up with. I’m grateful I was in it."

"Ideologically, what Hallwalls was about was a curatorial project where we were all over the place: painting, sculpture, all the conceptual stuff, earth art, body art—what else was there?—the 70s were calling it eclectic, pattern and decoration for example… There were so many dogmas involved. There was [Clement] Greenberg’s dogma and then there was Michael Fried’s dogma, and then there was the conceptual artist with their rules. Everybody’s got their rules and my critical position is more of affirmation and inclusion. And so I’ve always retained a painterly approach—throughout storms of dogma and various points of view."

Compared to other artists in the Pictures group, Clough's practice is relatively staid. He's stuck with gestural painting even as contemporaries like Sherrie Levine have adopted postmodern appropriation, too, like taking a photograph of a photograph.

As a result, Clough's contemporary work doesn't scream of association with the rest of the group. The thick slabs of color smeared and daubed on canvases in his current show are, from a style standpoint, almost indistinguishable from the Ab-Ex methods of, say, a Clyfford Still, which would account for Newman's initial misidentification of Clough at that dinner at the Vogels'; these works, used alone as a guiding logic in categorizing Clough's work, would place him in the neo-expressionist camp with artists like Louise Fishman, perhaps.

“I didn’t think Charlie really belonged to the Pictures Generation because he’s really an abstract painter,” Walter Robinson, the editor-in-chief of Artnet magazine, told me at the opening Saturday. “Then, he was reminding me back in the early '80s he was making these abstract finger-paint pictures on top of magazine pages. If a museum would do a group show of post-modernist abstraction, he could play in that group of artists.”

Eklund’s grouping was predicated on the belief that each generation riffs off the last; that the Pictures artists, though stylistically disparate, were all paying homage to the same concepts of kitsch and appropriation, reacting to the culture in which they lived, and that was what guided their artistic production. And so the fact that you can look at Clough’s work and not see an aesthetic through-line linking him to the other Pictures artists either disqualifies him from the grouping or is completely inessential to the larger point, depending where you stand.

“It’s a legitimate grouping of his work because he in fact was part of that seminal grouping of artists,” said Paul Hasegawa-Overacker, better known as Paul H-O, who’d been roving around the gallery, camera man in tow, interviewing people about the show. “They were literally hanging and painting the sign of Hallwalls when it first started in this place called the ice house. Robert Longo is quite articulate about the influence of Charlie Clough about the way that Robert thought. It was Charlie who was giving him Artforum and Art in America, all these different magazines and saying, ’Take a look at this’ … Charlie being a little bit older than Robert was actually in a lot of ways somewhat of a mentor.”

Clough is quick to admit the influence of friends and fellow artists as well.

“You know the whole Pictures Generation, in the early '70s in Buffalo, I started Hallwalls with [Robert] Longo and [Cindy] Sherman,” Clough told me, verifying his association with Pictures from, at least, the standpoint of time and place. “At that time, I was interested in deconstructing painting, basically. I did various things with painting and photography, combining them, gluing photos onto walls in installations where the photo revealed and the paint concealed. Gestural responses are crucial to my way of working.”

Of course, finding oneself in a clearly demarcated position in the art-criticism taxonomy is good for business, but it can come with its own set of problems.

Artist Patrick O’Connell had shared studio space with Clough around that time, and reminisced about the broader swath of artists associated by Eklund with Pictures. “There were lots of things that were not, well, included. It was so broad in its inclusion that it became impossible unless you were very familiar with the work to focus on that moment,” he said. “It was a totally bizarre exhibition, because it was really defined by any of us who were breathing below 14th street.

Douglas Crimp provided a broader view of the meaning of the Pictures exhibit.

"I guess it has proved to me that all of us who participate are making art’s meanings—the viewers of art, the critics of art, obviously the artists and the museums that make exhibitions—all of these constitute meaning in works of art. Meanings don’t inhere in the objects themselves. They actually have to do with reception.”