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Jerry Saltz on ’93 in Art

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It shames me to admit now how challenging and difficult I found some of this work at the time. To put it plainly, I was against it before I was for it. John Currin’s exaggerated realism and his twisted women kept me off balance, never knowing if they were sincere or ironic or some new emotion. Wolfgang Tillmans’s stunning large-scale pictures, being shown for the first time, were so offhand I failed to see them as art. I didn’t know what to make of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, either, and his work is key to the era. Poetic, formal, pensive, and subversive all at once, the sculptural stacks of paper that people were allowed to scavenge and piles of wrapped candies that visitors could eat were rife with allusions to temporariness, what it means to give things away for free, and art’s fragility and renewability and ability to transubstantiate.

Every movement that slays its gods creates new ones, of course. I loathe talk of the sixties and seventies being a “Greatest Generation” of artists, but if we’re going to use such idiotic appellations, let this one also be applied to the artists, curators, and gallerists who emerged in the first half of the nineties. They, too, changed art, for the better. Cady Noland’s sculptures and installations pushed my ideas about art as far as any in my lifetime. Noland is the crucial link between eighties appropriation art, like Richard Prince’s, and much that has followed. She arranged beer cans, chain-link fences, pierced pictures of assassins, and detritus willy-nilly into configurations that only later did I grasp as being as formally and politically powerful as, say, Gerhard Richter’s paintings of German statesmen. It pains me that she has more or less absented herself from the art world. And then there was Matthew Barney, with his wildly colored, highly complex proto-narrative videos, showing himself moving through space like some mythic enzyme through the collective body. From the beginning, I reveled in his work. (Currin, however, still freaks me out.) 


That spring, Friedrich Petzel, then a director of Metro Pictures, told me he was about to open a gallery in his Soho loft-apartment. He said, “I have no idea how I will make any money.” He eventually figured it out, in Chelsea. So has Gavin Brown, then a director of 303, where he used to sit at his desk alternately sleeping and yelling at people. In 1993, Brown organized a show of the unknown painter Elizabeth Peyton in room 828 of the Hotel Chelsea. Maybe 90 people saw it, by Brown’s estimation. (One visitor later told me he had sex there.) It reminds me of that saying about the Velvet Underground’s first album—that only a few thousand people bought it, but every one started a band.

For the artistic class of 1993, smallness and being homemade were not problems. They were solutions. There wasn’t much money around—all we had was the ambition and desire to make something special happen, and it did. A new, more open art world came into being. Within a few years, money noticed, and over the past decade, some of these nineties dealers turned themselves into selling machines. Something special happened, but something else got lost along the way. Nineteen ninety-three matters because it looks like numbers of people are starting to pick up the pieces and put them together in new ways again. It’s time to pay attention.


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