Pictures Generation

Pictures Generation


Though many artists in the group were trained formally in traditional disciplines such as painting and sculpture, they elected to utilize their skills in unorthodox ways – re-examining composition, particularly within popular image production. The ready availability of cameras allowed artists to reconsider photography’s stance as an artistic medium, composing images with conceptual frameworks.

Influenced by the ubiquity of advertising and the highly saturated image culture of the United States, Pictures Generation artists produced work that itself often resembles advertising. In thus challenging traditional art forms that appear handcrafted, these artists situated themselves at the center of postmodern debates about authenticity and authorship while in the process creating art that is slick and has the appearance of mass production. Their works blur the lines between high art and popular imagery.

Important Works

Untitled Film Stills (1977-1980)

Artist: Cindy Sherman

Artwork description & Analysis: For Untitled Film Stills, Cindy Sherman began photographing herself staged in various scenes that appeared to be from classical Hollywood films: a girl arriving in the big city, a girl cooking over the stove, a girl in lingerie dressing herself. The stills seem recognizable, but are taken from no particular movie, mimicking typical cinematic angles, lighting, and dramatization to convey a sense of the familiar. Critics have commented on Sherman’s representation of females as “making strange” – forcing the viewer to be a more critical observer of the constructed re-representation, categorizing Sherman’s work as a feminist intervention. Sherman draws attention to the fact that a woman’s appearance is often associated with her identity: a woman is valued in society to be looked at. The film theorist Laura Mulvey established the term “male gaze” to illustrate the typical perspective of a filmgoer, who assumes the role of male subject. Taking the term from psychoanalysis, Mulvey surmised that vision works as a function of sexual and developmental drives, and male-directed films of the mid-20th century often served to place women in subjugated roles, relegating women to fetishized victims or villainous femmes fatales who were unable to be agents of their own destiny. Sherman’s reworking of these archetypes, as creator and character, interrupts the male gaze and re-establishes the women in the photographs as agents, while simultaneously complicating the relationship as she freezes herself in these multiple roles.

Gelatin silver print.

Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman (1978-1979)


Artist: Dara Birnbaum

Artwork description & Analysis: Birnbaum is one of the best-known Pictures Generation artists to work in video, specifically critiquing television. Her Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman examines the paradoxes implicit in the 1970s “Wonder Woman” television program by cutting up scenes from the show and reposing a disco song about the superhero. In the video, bursts of fire, meant to suggest the deconstruction of ideologies in television, open the piece. Birnbaum repeats TV sequences when character Diana Prince transforms into Wonder Woman, making the superhero appear as a wobbly music-box figurine, without her supposed strength.


Untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am) (1987)

Artist: Barbara Kruger

Artwork description & Analysis: Kruger began her career in advertising – specifically, working in graphic design and layout at Conde Nast – and the juxtaposition of image and text in her work often speaks to her former training. In Untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am) two fingers hold a palm-sized card outward. The card itself is wiped of its original face, as Kruger has clearly set “I shop therefore I am” across the flat red surface. The viewer can probably deduce that the original image displayed a credit card, tying the new text to its appropriation. The statement “I shop therefore I am” links the excitement of sponsored consumerism and constructed female identity. As popular formats like films, ladies’ magazines, and department store advertisements dictate what is appropriately feminine and desirable, Kruger ironically turns the upbeat slogan against itself by displacing image from attractive arrangement. The interruption of bold text and bright crimson stop the viewer, forcing them to ask what representation and identity mean for women in a consumer society, and how advertising tries to shape this identity.



The movement came about within the same period and context as Conceptual artPop art, and Minimalism and expressed a strong interest in realism in art, over that of idealism and abstraction. Ultimately, the Photorealists were successful in attracting a wide audience, but they are often overlooked by art historians as an important avant garde style.

Photorealists, along with some practitioners of Pop art, reintroduced the importance of process and deliberate planning over that of improvisation and automatism, into the making of art, draftsmanship, and exacting brushwork. In other words, the traditional techniques of academic art are again of great significance, and painstaking craftsmanship is prized after decades of the spontaneous, accidental, and improvisational.

Important Works:


Self Portrait: 1967-68


Artist: Chuck Close

Artwork description & Analysis: A large, unshaven man with unkempt hair smoking a cigarette constitutes this work’s subject matter, which is Close’s self-portrait. Through the use of black and white, Close emphasizes his slovenly appearance and highlights the labor that goes into making art, as well as the unglamorous nature of being an artist. In this manner, he turns the long tradition of artists’ self-portraiture on its head.

With his exacting work method, Close first puts down a light pencil matrix for scaling up a photograph and then sketches in the image with an airbrush; he finishes the work by hand painting in the many details. Close introduced the human element into Photorealism through his numerous, enlarged portraits.

The Woman Eating (1971)

Artist: Duane Hanson

Artwork description & Analysis: This sculpture is a life-size woman seated at a cafeteria table, plainly dressed, with her bags and packages by her side. The woman is dressed in actual clothes and her belongs, also, are real objects. Overweight, not particularly attractive, Hanson’s statue goes against the grain of artists beautifying the female form. Likely to fool the eye, it is only when the viewer gets up close to the work that the tiniest of brush strokes reveal the work’s artificiality. Hanson’s statues are usually located in the refined spaces of art museums and galleries, which renders imagery of ordinary folk into fine art. Hanson admitted to presenting a social message via his sculptures, expressing a sense of the resignation, emptiness and loneliness of suburban existence. Here, there is an aspect of pathos to the solitary woman eating alone, especially if we consider that within a museum she becomes an object of study and inadvertent stares. As with Chuck Close, Hanson focuses on human beings as his subject matter, rather than the reflective glass and chrome of other Photorealists. Hanson makes his viewers question who is worthy of being an artistic subject; what is the viewer’s social relation to the statue/person and any other association between the strange presence and us.

Polyester resin, fiberglass, polychromed in oil paint with clothes, table, chair and accessories –


McDonalds Pickup (1970)


Artist: Ralph Goings

Artwork description & Analysis: Here, the artist Ralph Goings has selected a rather pedestrian view as his subject – a jeep, McDonald’s, and the American flag. Goings paints these icons of the American highways with great attention to detail, aided in large part by using photographs. He paints such ordinary subjects with great care so that together with the artist we consider what in fact comprises American culture. In lieu of the great cathedrals of Europe with their vaulted arches, America – he seems to suggest – has these “golden” arches to herald its cultural heritage.

Oil on canvas

Conceptual Art

1960s to present

Conceptual art is a movement that prizes ideas over the formal or visual components of art works. An amalgam of various tendencies rather than a tightly cohesive movement, Conceptualism took myriad forms, such as performances, happenings, and ephemera. From the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s Conceptual artists produced works and writings that completely rejected standard ideas of art. Their chief claim – that the articulation of an artistic idea suffices as a work of art – implied that concerns such as aesthetics, expression, skill and marketability were all irrelevant standards by which art was usually judged.

Conceptual artists were influenced by the brutal simplicity of Minimalism, but they rejected Minimalism’s embrace of the conventions of sculpture and painting as mainstays of artistic production. For Conceptual artists, art need not look like a traditional work of art, or even take any physical form at all.

Important Works

One and Three Chairs (1965)


Artist: Joseph Kosuth

Artwork description & Analysis: A physical chair sits between a scale photograph of a chair and a printed definition of the word “chair.” Emblematic of Conceptual art, One and Three Chairs makes people question what constitutes the “chair” – the physical object, the idea, the photograph, or a combination of all three.

MoMA Poll (1970)


Artist: Hans Haacke

Artwork description & Analysis: For the Museum of Modern Art’s 1970 exhibition Information, Haacke conceived of a questionnaire in which museum visitors would be invited to vote on a current sociopolitical issue and submit their answers via written ballot, and deposited in one of two transparent boxes, allowing people to approximate the quantity of submissions. The poll asked, “Would the fact that Governor Rockefeller has not denounced President Nixon’s Indochina Policy be a reason for your not voting for him in November?” This question, which was not revealed to the museum before the opening of the show, drove at the heart of MoMA as an institution since Governor Rockefeller was a major donor to the museum as well as a board member. There were visibly twice as many YES ballots as NOs, making the result all the more striking given the location and context of the poll itself. Haacke’s MoMA Poll is a key early example of Conceptual art’s politically motivated vein of institutional critique, and should by no means be mistaken for an impartial survey. Set in motion by the artist, the work had an unforeseeable conclusion, and was only completed by the audience. In this way, Haacke emphasizes that it is not just up to the artist to make a work of art. This work demonstrates the belief that artistic production is in fact a collective, not an individual, process.

Minimalist Art



Minimalism emerged in New York in the early 1960s among artists who were self-consciously renouncing recent art they thought had become stale and academic. A wave of new influences and rediscovered styles led younger artists to question conventional boundaries between various media. The new art favored the cool over the “dramatic”: their sculptures were frequently fabricated from industrial materials and emphasized anonymity over the expressive excess of Abstract Expressionism. Painters and sculptors avoided overt symbolism and emotional content.

Minimalists distanced themselves from the Abstract Expressionists by removing suggestions of biography from their art or metaphors of any kind. This denial of expression coupled with an interest in making objects that avoided the appearance of fine art led to the creation of sleek, geometric works that purposefully and radically go against conventional aesthetic appeal.

Minimalists sought to breakdown traditional notions of sculpture and to erase distinctions between painting and sculpture.

Important works:

Die (1962)


Artist: Tony Smith

Artwork description & Analysis: The artist’s specifications for the sculpture were as follows: “a six-foot cube of quarter-inch hot-rolled steel with diagonal internal bracing.” The dimensions were determined, according to Tony Smith, by the proportions of the human body. Smith explained that a larger scale would have endowed Die with the stature of a “monument,” while a smaller one would have reduced it to a mere “object.” Weighing approximately 500 pounds and resting on the museum floor, the sculpture invites us to walk around it and experience it sequentially, one or two sides at a time. Like other examples of Minimalism, its unreadable surface and frank lack of visual appeal come across as almost hostile in its undermining of traditional understandings of art as something aesthetically or emotionally appealing, showing the artist’s rejection of Abstraction Expressionism’s hands-on approach to art making.

The sculpture’s deceptively simple title invites multiple associations: it alludes to die casting, to one of a pair of dice, and, ultimately, to death. As Smith remarked, “Six feet has a suggestion of being cooked. Six foot box. Six foot under.” Rationality, evoked by Die‘s purely geometric configuration, is countered by the sculpture’s brooding presence. Meaning becomes relative rather than absolute, something generated through the interplay of word and object. Weaving together strains of architecture, industrial manufacture, and the found object, Smith radically transformed the way sculpture could look, how it could be made, and, ultimately, how it could be understood.

Steel – National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


Two Open Modular Cubes/Half-Off (1972)


Artist: Sol LeWitt

 LeWitt was a key intellectual of the Minimalist group and is most known for his open-air, modular structures. He once wrote that “the most interesting characteristic of the cube is that it is relatively uninteresting.” This comment speaks to what Minimalist artists aimed to achieve, which was to use objects in and for themselves, not as symbols or as representations of something else (as Frank Stella put it on another occasion: “What you see is what you see.”) This lack of meaning is especially the case in works that remain untitled or that have purely descriptive titles, as do LeWitt’s. The modularity, absence of color, and geometric starkness of his pieces all fit within the Minimalist aesthetic, as do their placement in the center of the gallery or museum space.

Enameled aluminum – Tate Gallery, London

The X (1965)


Artist: Ronald Bladen

 Bladen was older than the other Minimalists and is sometimes considered a father figure for the movement. This work is typical of his output, which is characterized by large-scale sculptures that are often monochromatic and made up of simple shapes, much like the works of other artists in the group. Bladen’s works differ slightly at times from more mainstream Minimalism, as his pieces frequently moved beyond basic geometric shapes that were most often used by others in the group. The finish on the works was, however, typically slick, retaining a factory-made quality that erased the hand of the artist, thus setting the work apart from AbEx and modernism. The “X” is an inherently negative symbol, as the letter is used to eliminate or “x things out.” Its use here, along with the choice of monochrome black as a color, suggests the negation of traditional art, while its imposing size (24 feet) towers over the viewer to an even greater extent than works by Serra, something which is more evident in a gallery or museum setting.

Painted Aluminum – Estate of the Artist


Kinetic Art

Around since the 1910’s gained more popularity in the early 50’s.

Kinetic art marked an important revival of the tradition of Constructivism, or Constructive art, that had been a presence in modern art since the 1910s. Parts of the movement also revived its utopian optimism, talking once again of the potential for art to spread into new areas of everyday life and to embrace technology in ways appropriate to the modern world.

But the movement also borrowed much from Dada, and in this respect parts of it were highly skeptical about the potential of technology to improve human life. Artists who were inspired by Dada used their work to express a more satirical attitude to machines and movement. They suggested that rather than being humanity’s helpmate, the machine might become her master.

Kinetic art – art that depends on movement for its effects – has its origins in the Dadaist and Constructivist movements that emerged in the 1910s. It flourished into a lively avant-garde trend which attracted a wide international following.

At its heart were artists who were fascinated by the possibilities of movement in art – its potential to create new and more interactive relationships with the viewer and new visual experiences. It inspired new kinds of art that went beyond the boundaries of the traditional, handcrafted, static object, encouraging the idea that the beauty of an object could be the product of optical illusions or mechanical movement.

Important Pieces:

Arc of Petals (1941)


Artist: Alexander Calder

Painted and unpainted sheet aluminum, iron wire, and copper rivets – Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, Italy


Homage to New York (fragment) (1960)


Artist: Jean Tinguely

Painted metal, wood, rubber tires – Destroyed

Artwork description & Analysis: Homage to New York was constructed in three weeks in 1960 in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and involved the talents of several artists and engineers, among them Robert Rauschenberg. It was blown to pieces in a public performance of noise and light in only 27 minutes. Consisting of several mechanized parts that result in the self-destruction of the artwork, it contained pieces of metal, wheels, bicycle horns, and motors. The parts jutted out into space to create an entanglement of abstracted forms. The machine fragments worked together to complete tasks that eventually led to its destruction. Homage to New York is typical of the anarchic and satirical side of the Kinetic art movement, and reflects the skepticism among many of its followers about the possibility of mechanization and modernization. Homage to New York is like a mechanized Frankenstein that turns on its own and destroys itself in a parable for the modern world.


Some examples of kinetic art projects you could do.





Another kind of art that was popular at this same time was Op Art. Optical art.

Here’s a tutorial we can try.

Color Field Painting

Color Field Painting marks a major development in abstract painting, since it was the first style to resolutely avoid the suggestion of a form or mass standing out against a background. Instead, figure and ground are one, and the space of the picture, conceived as a field, seems to spread out beyond the edges of the canvas.

The style was championed most enthusiastically by critic Clement Greenberg, who acclaimed the advances it achieved in the realm of form and composition. Bemoaning what he saw as the increasingly imitative, academic qualities of some action painters, he argued that Color Field Painting represented the way forward. His advocacy of the style proved highly influential.

Clement Greenberg was perhaps the first to identify and celebrate the emergence of Color Field Painting. He did the most to explore it in his 1955 essay, ‘American-Type Painting,’ in which he argued that the style advanced a tendency in modern painting to apply color in large areas or ‘fields.’ He considered this particularly important since it returned to what he saw as one of the most important innovations of the Impressionists – the suppression of value contrasts (contrasts of light and dark hues), to describe depth and volume. Many Abstract Expressionists adopted an “all-over” approach to composition – approaching the canvas as a field, rather than as a window in which to depict figures – but none pushed this as far as the color field painters.

Other Artist

East-West (1963)


Artist: Kenneth Noland

Artwork description & Analysis: Kenneth Noland is often known for his exacting symmetry. Throughout his career he shifted from targets to chevrons to stripes, and experimented with many other styles in between (most notably the shaped canvas), but he always maintained a visual balance to his work.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art 1870-1970 (1970)


Artist: Frank Stella

Artwork description & Analysis: By 1970, Color Field artists like Frank Stella, Kenneth Noland and the late Morris Louis had long established their style as the next phase in modern abstraction. Stella in particular was best known for his Color Field spectrums, in which bands of varying colors were situated in such a way as to render the canvas a three-dimensional field of pure color. What made these paintings unique, and thus a distinctive characteristic of most Color Field work, was the absence of any representation or figurative forms.


Nature Abhors a Vacuum (1973)


Artist: Helen Frankenthaler

Artwork description & Analysis: Helen Frankenthaler played a crucial role in the evolution of Color Field Painting. Some time in or around 1952, Clement Greenberg invited Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland to pay a visit to Frankenthaler’s studio in order to witness her technique of staining untreated canvas with paint. This seminal moment marked a turning point for Abstract Expressionism, and soon this new group of artists were simplifying the painting process by applying large bands (or waves, circles, lines, etc.) of uniform color to the canvas, and Color Field Painting advanced further.


No. 2, Green, Red and Blue (1953)


Artist: Mark Rothko

Artwork description & Analysis: Although Rothko never considered himself a Color Field painter, his signature approach – balancing large portions of washed colors – matches up to critics’ understanding of the style. Rothko considered color to be a mere instrument that served a greater purpose. He believed his fields of color were spiritual planes that could tap into our most basic human emotions. For Rothko, color evoked emotion. Therefore each of Rothko’s works was intended to evoke different meanings depending on the viewer. In the time No. 2, Green, Red and Blue was made, Rothko was still using lighter tones, but as more years passed and Rothko’s mental health increasingly declined, his Color Fields were constituted by somber blacks, blues, and grays.

Information gathered from:

Abstract Expressionism


Abstract Expressionism” was never an ideal label for the movement, which developed in New York in the 1940s and 1950s. It was somehow meant to encompass not only the work of painters who filled their canvases with fields of color and abstract forms, but also those who attacked their canvases with a vigorous gestural (the use of movement to express thought) expressionism. Still Abstract Expressionism has become the most accepted term for a group of artists who held much in common. All were committed to art as expressions of the self, born out of profound emotion and universal themes, and most were shaped by the legacy of Surrealism, a movement that they translated into a new style fitted to the post-war mood of anxiety and trauma. In their success, these New York painters robbed Paris of its mantle as leader of modern art, and set the stage for America’s dominance of the international art world.

Key Ideas:

Political instability in Europe in the 1930s brought several leading Surrealists to New York, and many of the Abstract Expressionists were profoundly influenced by Surrealism’s focus on mining the unconscious. It encouraged their interest in myth and archetypal symbols and it shaped their understanding of painting itself as a struggle between self-expression and the chaos of the subconscious.
Most of the artists associated with Abstract Expressionism matured in the 1930s. They were influenced by the era’s leftist politics, and came to value an art grounded in personal experience.
Having matured as artists at a time when America suffered economically and felt culturally isolated and provincial, the Abstract Expressionists were later welcomed as the first authentically American avant-garde (new and unusual or experimental ideas.) Their art was championed for being emphatically American in spirit – monumental in scale, romantic in mood, and expressive of a rugged individual freedom.
Although the movement has been largely depicted throughout historical documentation as one belonging to the paint-splattered, heroic male artist, there were several important female Abstract Expressionists that arose out of New York and San Francisco during the 1940s and ’50s who now receive credit as elemental members of the canon.
Important Pieces:
Mountains and Sea (1952) is one of  Helen Frankenthaler’s most important works and first major paintings executed when she was only twenty-three. Not only is it monumental in size at 7 x 10 feet; it also reflects the artist’s departure from traditional mediums and surface and the onset of her signature technique. Rather than treating paint as a layer meant to sit on top of the canvas, she thinned oils (and later switched to acrylics) with turpentine to the consistency of watercolor. She would then place large swaths of unprimed canvas onto the floor and through a highly physical dance of pouring, dripping, sponging, rolling and mopping, would apply the liquid washes. The effect was one of staining – the paint would completely sink into the canvas creating an integrated, transparent effect. Much like the other Abstract Expressionists, this process allowed for both control and spontaneity.

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Excavation (1950) is one of Willem de Kooning’s most renowned works, and a true depiction of his Abstract Expressionist style. In it, we see a multitude of outlined forms that are abstractions of familiar shapes right on the periphery of recognition: fishes, birds, jaws, eyes and teeth. De Kooning has said of his work, “I paint this way because I can keep putting more and more things in – drama, anger, pain, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas about space.” After this frenzied pile up of imagery, de Kooning would then, with signature chaos and deliberation, remove, scrape and add paint until he unearthed what he wanted. The resulting piece presented a true excavation of the artist’s mind and movements in the moment.

De Kooning remains one of the most seminal gestural “action painters” who worked often with broad brushstrokes and in light, pastel palettes. He sought authenticity of experience, not only in the making of his paintings but also in the representation of the experience on canvas.

Oil and enamel on canvas – The Art Institute of Chicago


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 Jackson Pollock, Number 1 (Lavender Mist) is one of thirty-two paintings that debuted in Pollock’s 1950 solo exhibition at Betty Parson’s New York gallery and was the only painting that sold. In it, a chaotic composition of black, white, russet, orange, silver and stone blue industrial paint is built up in random web-like layers that blend visually together to give off the illusion of a lavender glow.

The piece is exemplary of Pollock’s famous “drip” works in which paint was poured, splattered and applied by the artist in an extremely physical fashion from above to a canvas which lay on the ground. This process of expressing an internal emotional turbulence through gesture, line, texture, and composition represented a breakthrough for Pollock in his career and helped put the New York School of painters to which he belonged on the map. These paintings became the impetus for critic Rosenberg’s coining of the term “action painting.” This type of unlikely combination of chance and control became tantamount to Abstract Expressionism’s evolution.

Oil on canvas – National Gallery, Washington DC


It’s all in your mind…

Art and dreams collide in the Surrealist Movement.

The Surrealists sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Disdaining rationalism and literary realism, and powerfully influenced by psychoanalysis, the Surrealists believed the rational mind repressed the power of the imagination, weighting it down with taboos. Influenced also by Karl Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution. Their emphasis on the power of personal imagination puts them in the tradition of Romanticism, but unlike their forebears, they believed that revelations could be found on the street and in everyday life. The Surrealist impulse to tap the unconscious mind, and their interests in myth and primitivism, went on to shape many later movements, and the style remains influential to this today.


Surrealist imagery is probably the most recognizable element of the movement, yet it is also the most elusive to categorize and define. Each artist relied on their own recurring motifs arisen through their dreams or/and unconscious mind. At its basic, the imagery is outlandish, perplexing, and even uncanny, as it is meant to jolt the viewer out of their comforting assumptions. Nature, however, is the most frequent imagery: Max Ernst was obsessed with birds and had a bird alter ego, Salvador Dalí’s works often include ants or eggs, and Joan Miró relied strongly on vague biomorphic imagery.