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Prema Murthy, “Bindi Girl” (1999) (courtesy of the artist and the Montclair Art Museum)

MONTCLAIR, NJ — To devote a show to an era is to delimit the era in question, carving it off from surrounding epochs and ascribing some measure of thematic or aesthetic continuity to it. Come As You Are: Art of the 1990s at the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey is one of the first exhibitions to treat the ’90s as an object of historical inquiry. Described on its website as “the first major American museum survey to examine the art of this pivotal decade in its historical context,” the show marks our own radical break with a decade at once familiar and unfamiliar. It is an especially laden enterprise in that it presumes to historicize something so close to us — a period that we might otherwise mistake for the very era we occupy.

But Come As You Are is deeply and convincingly historical, and its catalogue succeeds in situating the artworks on display within a context that is only barely recognizable to us, its heirs. The ’90s were marked by various points of turbulence that have now evolved into unremarkable if not unproblematic features of our daily lives: a changing geopolitical order, precipitated by the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union; the “digital revolution,” which linked spatially disparate societies for the first time; the emergence of a global art scene and the series of international festivals and events it spawned; and the advent of so-called “identity politics,” a newfound sensitivity to the questions of race, class, and sexuality so long neglected by artists and humanists.

By now, we’re thoroughly defamiliarized to the issues that the innovations of the ’90s first raised — to the ways in which female bodies or bodies of color are exposed to certain prejudices on the one hand and the ways in which digitalization renders traditional notions of place and physicality obsolete on the other. But when the central contradictions of contemporary life first emerged, artists grappled powerfully with these tensions. How is it that, in an era enabling such radical incorporeality, oppression founded on such explicitly physical traits as skin color and genitalia persisted? The works in Come As You Are strive to account for this paradox and the challenge it continues to pose.

Anthony Aziz and Sammy Cutcher, “Man with a Computer” (1992) (courtesy of the artists and the Montclair Art Museum) (click to enlarge)

One of the most striking of these strivings is Gary Simmons’s Erasure Series. “Black Chalkboards (Two Grinning Faces with Cookie Bag),” a chalkboard adorned with eerily skeletal sketches of the iconic “watermelon grin” once used to caricature African American visages, invokes and distorts a symbol of racial prejudice. The piece strips the cartoonish image of its anatomical origins, decontextualizing it and leaving it to float ethereally against a dark, disorienting backdrop. The resulting forms are pale and grotesque, more ghostly than human: the faces of a lingering racism which haunts us even when it’s detached from the bodies with which it was originally linked. In Simmons’s work, signs have outstripped their referents. There is no longer anything concrete to which they correspond.

Like so many other ’90s images, Simmons’s spectral “watermelon grins” are no longer constrained by the physical world they were once called upon to represent. Accordingly, their valence within the aesthetic order of the decade was more than ever a function of the roles their audience assigned them: their meaning derived not from their resemblance to any real-world object but rather from their appeal to — and repudiation of — a racial construct. Fittingly, many of the works in Come As You Are are sites of explicit exchange between artist, viewer, and broader social structures — works with participatory components.

Alex Bag, “Untitled Fall ’95” (1995) (courtesy of the Montclair Art Museum, Team Gallery and Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York)

Prema Murthy’s “Bindi Girl,” one of the prime examples of internet art on display in the exhibition, presents viewers with an interactive avatar, the eponymous Bindi Girl. When “Bindi Girl” was first created, users could go to the project’s website and manipulate the figure, prompting her to assume a series of erotic poses while traditional South Asian music played in the background. “Bindi Girl” attempts to account for the puzzling fact of our simultaneous power and impotence vis-à-vis the images that come to characterize us to foreign audiences: although we wield more control over the meaning and interpretation of images now that we have repudiated strict isomorphism, marginalized communities continue to find themselves at the whims of the dominant cultural and aesthetic imagination. In an information-based society, signs come to supplant the lived realities of the people they purport to depict. More often than not, globalization amounted to — and continues to amount to — the imposition of Western images onto non-Western locales.

With “Bindi Girl,” Murthy calls the portraits painted for Western fetishization into question, thereby reclaiming some measure of agency over the proliferation of orientalist portrayals of Indian women. As life moved online, sexuality became increasingly pornographic, a matter of pictures more than bodies. Eroticism followed suit, placing more stock in the vague stuff of cultural inflection than in any tangible physical experiences. For this reason, Murthy’s intervention, conducted at the level of the image, has undeniable force.

Another notable example of internet art on display in Come As You Are is “Blackness,” Mendi and Keith Obadike’s effort to expose the absurdities of an art market that trades in experience — and that often attempts to appropriate the “exoticism” associated with foreign or marginalized cultures in an act of untenable racial tourism. The Obadikes facetiously auctioned their “blackness” off on the then-new website eBay, wryly remarking in the product description that they don’t recommend using their blackness “while seeking employment” or “voting in the United States.” Attempts to transform a lived experience of oppression into an art object, “Blackness” demonstrates, are patently absurd and insulting (though that didn’t stop oblivious white bidders from vying for the “piece”).

Sharon Lockhart, “Untitled” (1996) (Copy Photograph © The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The work of painter Julie Mehretu takes up a similar project. Her paintings depict unraveling cityscapes that appear to float in space, unmoored to any particular landscape. Murthy and the Obadikes’s provocative internet art suggests that race and sex are no longer bound to the anatomies that once defined them but have resolved instead into images, chains of associations. Mehretu’s works point to a parallel spatial development: globalization, her paintings intimate, has done away with national boundaries, and the specificities of particular built environments have given way to the ubiquitous figure of the anonymous metropolis, as familiar as it is unidentifiable.

These works and many of the others in Come As You Are serve as powerful reminders that our shift away from a more embodied existence has not yet eliminated the harmful consequences of racism and sexism that originally discriminated on the basis of bodies: “performance is never entirely free; not all performing subjects have the capacity to perform equally,” writes Jennifer A. González in her excellent essay on performance art in the exhibition catalogue. Though aesthetically compelling, the real merits of Come As You Are are conceptual. The thorough and thoughtful scholarship in the catalogue and throughout the show contextualizes the art of the ’90s without distancing us too much from the set of problems and challenges that originated then but continue on into our own age. Ultimately, the pieces that comprise Alexandra Schwartz’s beautifully curated and important exhibition also craft their own avenues of resistance. If images often serve to reinforce the existing order, the disruptive images on display in Come as You Are also served to uproot it. The new versatility of images cuts both ways.

Come As You Are: Art of the 1990s continues at the Montclair Art Museum (3 South Mountain Avenue, Montclair, New Jersey) through May 17. 

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Becca Rothfeld

Becca Rothfeld is assistant literary editor of The New Republic and a contributor to The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Daily News’ literary blog, The Baffler, and Slate, among other publications. She...

15 replies on “What Was Art of the 1990s All About?”

  1. “a shift away from a more embodied existence”…..what does that mean? Its this sort of empty rhetoric that really gets fatiguing. No, people are still laboring and suffering and dying and being born. So…what does that mean exactly? And racism and misogyny are not historical relics. Beyond that the premise of the show is pretty silly.

    1. I tend to agree with you about statements like that being empty rhetoric. But this is part and parcel with nearly all art writing (see my note below to Simone).

      What psychomotikon wrote below about computer technology becoming more prevalent may be true, but to me that’s something different than saying we’ve “shifted away from a more embodied existence.” I work on computers all day, have social networks, am on smartphones constantly, but I’m still a bodied person engaging with a tool, a manmade thing. I don’t see how this is (or was in the 90s) “disembodying us from presence”. If we’re talking about the way computer technology preoccupies our lives, then why not look at the way sex, relationships, religion, jobs, and every other sphere of life does the very same thing? At the very least those statements can cease being empty rhetoric if the writers and artists labor to clarify, give examples to, and fill those statements with more meaning instead of just throwing them out there and expect everyone else to “get it”.

      These kinds of curatorial lenses are dicey. They can provide interesting ways of finding common threads and noticing themes. But the true context often includes much more than the specific lenses they offer, and in some cases the lens causes some works to be excluded that don’t fit the criteria. This has been talked about a lot already, but curating is itself a kind of artistic and meaning-making endeavor. Just like looking at one artist’s work is like looking at the world through that artist’s temperament, experiences, and agendas, looking at shows in this way is looking through curators’ temperaments, experiences, and agendas.

  2. @steppxxxxz:disqus IMO not empty rhetoric at all. Much of the art in the ’90’s was focused on exposing race and gender-based prejudices that fueled dominant thinking both within the the art world and in society generally. While it is true that we are still corporeal humans technology is increasingly disembodying us from presence — and for many of us — our labor is digital, remote, and performed seated at a keyboard or typing onto a screen. Trends point to more blurring of human and machine in the future and what role race, gender and location play is still up for grabs.

    I’d recommend you make the journey to Montclair for this exhibit. It’s really excellent.

    1. being less present is different than being disembodied. Art in any event is not really about moral instruction. I fear this is a big problem with how the west thinks about art today. I believe adorno said the radical aspect of art is not to be found in its opinions but in its form. Exposing race and gender prejudice is great…except it doesnt make for great art. Thats agit prop…and while there is a place for that, again, its not what art does. But the topic being this notion of disembodied, I wan to return to that……….we are NOT blurring human and m,achine for christ sake……….this is just empty nonsense, its just jargon, its nothing. We are all just as embodied as ever and we are not machines. Our consciousness may be more caught up in a cyber world and the simulacra of the attention economy as someone put it. And capturing attention is what this system is based on………but thats political, not biological.

      1. Broader philosophic discussion. Presence can be a commercial competition among brands and political interests but the nature of being isn’t static. Technology not only changes material culture but has capacity to infiltrate decision making and perception, social relations. It’s already accomplished that ansd the process will only
        accelerate. I haven’t even mentioned commercialized genetic manipulation. Biological may become politics by other means.

        1. nobody said anything about *perception*….you are changing the topic. Marketers and advertisers know people can be manipulated and influenced by image. And nobody said technology did not change culture. I have no idea what you mean by *material culture*. But yes, photography had a profound influence on painting etc. And yes….decision making etc (marketing). And hence social relations. Yes, of course., But …we are still bodies…we are not disembodied. We are affected psychologically and in contemporary society the culture is hugely affected by image…by an *attention economy* meant to capture attention. Stiegler, Beller, and crary all have written on this…and a dozen others. BUT we are not disembodied and its important Id argue to make that distinction and not conflate these things. Our bodies are corporeal. That isnt changed by art or anything else. As for genetic manipulation……….sure….but thats an entirely other topic.

      2. There is definitely a technological culture going on that is enthusiastic about the merging of man and machine, or getting us addicted to virtual experience and keeping us dissatisfied with reality as we experience it. I think that our culture creates through its mass of conflicting messages a kind of alienated, disconnected, disenfranchised confused human. At the same time there is an industry around connecting mind, body, spirit. As you say there is always some commercial entity vying for our attention. I myself don’t feel disembodied, but then maybe we get to a certain point in our lives where we can see the difference, I dunno.
        I agree with Adorno there, form is whats interesting with art. Opinions (and personalities) are just so much hot air. I also agree with you that exposing race and gender prejudice doesn’t make for great art, I would like to add identity politics to that. I really don’t find other peoples obsession with their identity interesting, that’s for them to work out, there is bigger fish to fry.

  3. Its funny, being British and then in my 20’s trying to learn what an artist might be, the 90’s seemed very different to me as it is presented here. Certainly I am unfamiliar with all of the artists mentioned. So while I’m sure its a very interesting show it doesn’t necessarily to encompass that much of what was going on, because as always there was anything and everything going on. I think that the merging of the human and machine was being dealt with far better in the movies like terminator or Tetsuo:the iron man than in the art world as such, and I would say artists still haven’t really explored that theme in any satisfactory way so far. Maybe because its dealt with so much better in film. I reckon the influence of money, deregulation of the banks and the creation and flow of electronic made up money is the real subject of a 90’s art show.

    1. @simonedebrushcutter:disqus I think you make a valid point: New York art scene was (and arguably is still is) a small, parochial, self-referential community. I saw the show with someone who knew many of the artists represented personally and the show reflects an community that was largely connected not only through ideas but because they were friends, schoolmates, partners, etc. Alex Bag’s video (pictured above) referenced NY art school professors in particular. Ironic that a group of artists that focused on the impacts of globalization, post-modernism and the emergence of post-racist social ideals was so tight-knit.

      1. You could say the entire art world is a small, parochial, self-referential community. As you say, the artists on show were all connected. You can say the same for the impressionists, the dadaists, the surrealists, abstract expressionists, the YBAs, the stuckists etc etc. Artists frequently do better in groups, makes them not seem so weird and gives them more social/cultural currency. They all push each other too. I think that in the 90s there was still a vague sense (post hippy, post punk) that things still meant something, that the world could be changed, that art had power. That’s been going on since the 60s at least if not long before. I like to think of dada as punk.
        Its a bit of a problem when curators, scientists or historians leave things out that don’t fit the narrative they are trying to sell. Maybe just ‘Come as you are’ would have sufficed.

        1. I agree that “the entire art world is a small, parochial, self-referential community.” I felt enmeshed with the art world through college as that was my major, and then I experienced a fissure as I felt more disenchanted with the kind of work and critique/analysis I was reading. It was so damned high-minded and asked unrealistic demands on the viewer to meet these artists way more than halfway, requiring all manner of hermeneutics to engage with the work. After reading Dave Hickey I officially waved goodbye.

          After some distance from The Art World I can now engage with it on my own terms, and find many contemporary artists whom I enjoy and connect with, leaving a lot of the ivory tower stuff for career artists and educators to wax philosophical about.

          Unless art is democratic, and acts and interacts with culture more like music scenes do (as you pointed out) then it exists only for itself.

          1. I’m sitting in the same tree. It pisses me off seeing some pile of tat in a gallery being sold to me as though there is something important going on. Faux intellectual posturing pretending to be some kind of science.

            I’ve heard fire being described as 4th dimensional sculpture in lectures. Just because an artist lights a fire doesn’t make it a sculpture. I love Duchamp, but the fact that ‘fountain’ is mostly taking the piss out of the pomposity of the art world seems largely lost. Its a hundred years since then, and I’m not sure there has been anything more radical as an ‘art thought’, it has just been greatly regurgitated in an ‘art is what you can get away with’ kind of way. Particularly since the 90s(maybe).

            I agree very much with your last point, art needs to be more inclusive and yet more magnificent. Thanks for the Dave Hickey recommendation. My favorite art commentator is Matthew Collings, worthwhile checking out his stuff on youtube. Grayson Perry did some good Rieth lectures on BBC Radio 4 couple of years ago, interestingly the first was titled ‘Democracy has bad taste’. His point being that you get Thomas Kinkade style blandness if left to popularism which is undoubtedly true.

    2. Now there’s an idea: Iron Artist of America instead of Iron Chef. I’d definitely watch that series.

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