At the New Museum, a time capsule from the garbagey, abstract, political New York art scene of 1993
“In the end, this show is not meant to be a definitive history of the 1990s.”
Such was the disclaimer offered to the press by director of exhibitions Gary Carrion-Murayari at the opening of the New Museum's new, big exhibition “NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star.”
It is by no means a definitive history. While the year 1993 may be historically arbitrary, what this art world cross-section offers instead is a turning point. “It’s a moment in which you can see the 80s coming to an end and a new era, for better or for worse,” said curator Massimiliano Gioni.
To put it in global art-history perspective, 1993 marks the half-way point between 1988’s “Freeze,” the London exhibit that launched the "Young British Artists" movement, which would become such a force in the art market; and 1998’s “Sensation,” Charles Saatchi’s Y.B.A. world tour.
The ensuing market shift is reflected in the exhibition title, borrowed from the 1994 album by Sonic Youth. Gioni told press that the album was criticized by fans as a sell-out, and it was, at least, a transitional document. Sonic Youth, a survivor among the bands that formed in New York City's integrated downtown film, fashion, art and music scene of the 1980s, is full of references to the band's early career; listening closely between tracks, you can faintly hear traces of tracks from the band's 1987 album, Sister, playing; like all Sonic Youth albums, it featured album art from the art scene they lived in. Singer Kim Gordon said the album was a return to the band's "art-core" roots.
1993 also just preceded the mass migration of shopfront and battered loft galleries from the East Village and Soho to the remote precincts of West Chelsea, where the whole scene would get an architectural and stylistic makeover, and where much of the Manhattan art world remains headquartered.
At the New Museum, the year takes shape in installations, figurative painting, sculpture, photography, and a melange of cubic TVs. Twelve square monitors on the top floor give equal weight to political, pop, and art world events: Clinton implements “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”; Björk releases her second solo album; Andrès Serrano opens a solo show at Paula Cooper.
The internet reached its first birthday that year, as we’re reminded by a stone-age computer displaying a BBS (bulletin board) log-in screen for The Thing, a network that formed an international community of artists. (Net art would emerge a year later). A glimpse of that future lies nearby, with work by the then-emerging, now wildly influential Alex Bag; her sharp, confessional-style parody video Untitled (Spring 94) gestures toward video artists who emerged with the internet, especially Hennessy Youngman and Ryan Trecartin.
But in the moment chronicled in this show, there’s a sense that art hadn't accelerated yet. Downstairs, one passes through several realms of humbled, intoxicating grief. Nari Ward’s graveyard of 300 garbage baby strollers, as Mahalia Jackson’s intensely soulful rendition of Amazing Grace plays on a loop in the gallery, feels like a funeral procession. It’s a barn burner.
There’s a more inviting melancholy to Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ strands of light bulbs and gray-sky billboards. The added warmth of Rudolf Stingel’s orange carpet and Kristin Oppenheim’s haunting vocal lullaby of the Beach Boys’ Sail on Sailor simply indulges sad feelings. “Simpatico” might be the closest word to describe this. With the inescapable association of Torres’ work with his death from AIDS, the added works feel like an homage to Torres himself.
It’s hard to imagine the disproportionate toll that the AIDS epidemic took on this small community in New York City that year, when reported cases were at an all-time high. We can get a small sense from Nan Goldin’s grim portraits of H.I.V.-positive friends, and H.I.V.-positive activist Gregg Bordowitz’s furious experimental autobiographical documentary Fast Trip, Long Drop. (Though, somewhat carelessly, these are grouped in the same room with racial and feminist work by Lorna Simpson, Nicole Eisenman, and Sue Williams.)
None are so painful as the quiet, all-encompassing despair summoned by Derek Jarman’s masterpiece Blue. Jarman wrote the script four months before his death, after having gone partially blind from AIDS-related complications; his favorite actors Tilda Swinton, John Quentin, and Nigel Terry coolly read memories from his life and illness, over an unchanging blue screen. It’s almost impossible to stare into the blue light, but you have to face it. “In time, no one will remember our work,” Jarman says in the last lines.
While the AIDS crisis is represented through a few individuals here, social history is more often reflected by whatever happened to be in the commercial gallery system at the time; the show becomes more of an art-world yearbook than a cultural portrait. A small handful of artists here attempted to show work outside the commercial gallery system—Peter Halley’s downloadable computer print, Alex Bag’s videos, Marlene McCarty and Donald Moffett’s civil rights poster In Honor of Allen R. Schindler—but they’re often overshadowed when they're situated near or next to work that doesn’t have much to do with them. Curators have included Devon Dikeou’s series of black bulletin-boards with white plastic letters spelling the names in group shows of the time. It’s an affirmation of the art world’s revolving door; by the same token, only art worlders will appreciate it.
Parallel to the music at the time, the rising class of mainstay artists included a handful of freaks. Charles Ray’s crowd-pleasing Family Romance is an installation of four statues, lifelike and nude and including hair, of a nuclear family; the oddness is enhanced by the fact that the two parents are shrunk to the height of their daughter and son, and thinned out proportionally. Equally disturbed is Paul McCarthy’s nearby Cultural Gothic: an animatronic diorama, the work presents a dour father standing proud behind his son as the boy humps a goat. (Age suits the piece. It creaks, and the robot's jerky thwacking rocks the whole platform; one imagines a conservator's nightmare back at the Rubell Collection in Miami.)
Speaking of goat sex, three ceiling-mounted TVs display Matthew Barney’s silly and effortless DRAWING RESTRAINT 7, in which burly men in faun costumes roll and mash their bodies in the backseat of a car. The costumes aren't used so much to embody characters as an outlet for uninhibited movement. It’s reminiscent of the childlike sensibility in a lot of Paul McCarthy’s video work, but sexier, and with the look of a Hollywood production–an ascending slickness often shunned by the art scene in the '80s and revealing another inflection point in the exhibit between the past and what the future would bring.
Also weird: Nayland Blake presents costumes for a screenplay titled “Asses Together”- use your imagination! Andres Serrano’s morgue photos toy with death for shock value, sharing a room with John Currin’s pasty-textured, deathly women in bed.
The general grime is echoed in the show's connection with the Sonic Youth album, which inspired Rolling Stone to write: "Paying homage or tossing garbage — you decide." Garbage is everywhere. A relatively tame Mike Kelley (who had just done the album art for Sonic Youth’s album Dirty a year before) presents a series of garbage drawings, which faces Jason Rhoades’ trashed garage (a genre of art-making that’s been very popular again recently), and the two add new context to Cindy Sherman’s “Sex Picture” dumpster mannequins.
Along with many of the aforementioned artists, the 1993 Whitney Biennial would introduce a new politically-minded cast of characters, whose tactics would come to dominate the more abstract rebellions that had previously characterized the lower Manhattan art scene. Thelma Golden, in that year, became the Whitney’s first black curator. Coco Fusco’s drawings document reactions to her performance Undiscovered Amerindians with Guillermo Gómez-Pena, in which the two displayed themselves as caged natives. (A caption: “‘Oh please!’ Begged the gentleman at the Whitney Biennial. ‘Let me feed the girl in the cage a banana so my wife can take a picture! I’ll pay $10!’”) Nearby, 1993 Whitney Biennial fellow alum Pepon Osorio has recreated his equally facetious Scene of the Crime, a decked-out Hispanic Harlem apartment containing a dead body; today, you notice the body less than the wall decor.
You’ve got teen angst from Sadie Benning, a fuck-you to misogyny from Cheryl D (Whitney Biennial 1994), and a quiet homage to women’s work from Janine Antoni. As is typical of political work which can’t afford subtlety, critics complained of joylessness. But by 1999, Arthur Lubow retrospectively wrote in the Times that, along with the 1994 “Black Male” show, the 1993 Biennial is “now regarded by many as one of the valuable records of their time.”
In many ways, this show reflects more of 2013 than 1993. Ann Hamilton, for instance, is represented here by a vitrine of burned books left over from tropos, a 1993 installation at the Dia Foundation. Enacting a typically zen premise, Hamilton attempted to overwhelm the senses with translucent windows and an animal-hair rug. None of that is communicated by what's in the New Museum, but it's an intentional tie-in to last year's Armory blockbuster Event of a Thread. That show, drawing multitudes to its humongous silk curtains and rows of double-seater swings, certainly did the job, but whatever it stood for was confused; it wasn’t so much easier listening as amplified beyond recognition.
As for the concept of selling out, that term has long been out of style, which may be the brightest line to draw between now and then.