In the 1970’s, new approaches to image making challenged the long held notion that painting was the highest form of visual expression. Many critics suggested that painting no longer had the ability to effectively communicate or hold a meaningful message. Pronouncements about the death of painting were everywhere. Coming to its defense in 1979, Barbara Rose curated an exhibition at the Grey Art Gallery in New York titled American Painting: the Eighties where her beliefs in the traditions of Modernism were made clear. Most striking was her attack on the medium of photography and on any painting technique that mimicked mechanically reproduced imagery: “Photography and the slick painting styles related to it answered the appetite for images; but they did so at the enormous price of sacrificing all the sensuous, tactile qualities of surface, as well as the metaphorical and metaphysical aspects of imagery that it is the unique capacity of painting to deliver.” Artists coming of age in the 1970’s were thrust into a world of transition and change. Their take on the world was decidedly different from the generation that came before them.
In her catalog forward and essay, Rose described her frustration with the artistic developments of the era stating that no medium was as moving as painting. Such an overreaching and dogmatic point of view stems from an inability to fully grasp the complexity of the historical moment. Assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate, recession, and the energy crisis contributed to the disillusionment and loss of faith in institutions. However, a previous generation of artists had firmly established the precepts of minimal and conceptual art, precepts that could seem at odds with the realities of political and economic culture. In the 1970’s, artists were on shaky ground and surrounded by a veritable flood of ideas.
A similar upheaval and reassessment of tradition occurred in the area of photography. In contrast to Rose’s fear, photography was no enemy of painting. Earlier generations had laid a foundation that saw the rise of a Modernist aesthetic as well as the gradual acceptance of both photojournalism and documentary photography. Yet in the 1970’s, many photographers sought a new vision. In 1975, William Jenkins confronted the long-held romantic ideal and curated New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. Consisting mostly of young American photographers like Nicholas Nixon, Stephen Shore, and Lewis Baltz, this show expanded further on the utopian landscape tradition first established by photographers, like Ansel Adams. In fact, this new critical eye that photographers had cast toward the manmade environment conveyed a close connection between their work and the broader concerns of contemporary art.
Another key event was the rise of color photography. William Eggleston’s solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976, curated by John Szarkowski, opened the floodgates. The Memphis-series (1969-70) features an image of a green tricycle that had been photographed at a low angle, giving this otherwise miniature child’s toy a monumental scale. Two houses built in the typical ranch-style, typical of American suburbia, are dwarfed in the background. What this image depicts is clear enough, yet its full meaning is as elusive as any New Image painting by Neil Jenny, Susan Rothenberg or Robert Moskowitz. As a technological inevitability, color helped broaden the interpretive and conceptual scope of the medium. Within a brief span of time, many art photographers had moved to color.
In 1981, curator Sally Eauclaire documented this transition in New Color Photography that was exhibited at the International Center of Photography in New York City. Many New Color photographers considered the image as a window to reality, a means to describe the mundane and to project the experience of mass culture to the viewer. Like painters, the photographers of the 1970’s worked in a loose affiliation and lacked a singular voice. New Color photographers were never really a group at all: the conceptual goals of Eve Sonneman’s pictures were very different from Jan Groover’s more formal compositions.
Other photographers shared more in common with those artists who were part of the Pictures Generation, such as Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, and Barbara Kruger. Post-studio, post-painting, and post-modern, they were the first generation to grow up immersed in consumer culture and then appropriated visual culture through the genres of photography, film, and performance. By doing so, they recognized that mass media determined much of our experience of the world.
The era saw a remarkable expansion of pluralistic possibility. Then as now, the pace of change magnifies generational difference. Put simply, the aspirations, experiences, and behaviors of one generation can seem at odds with another. It is a wonder that we understand each other at all. As Millennials and the yet-to-be-named Post-Millennials come of age, the aesthetic upheavals of the 1970s will surely reappear.