The Art of the Curious Nineties

The decade is back big-time—but whose ’90s is it, anyway?

Nikki S. Lee, Hispanic Project (25), 1998, Fujiflex print, 21¼" x 28¼". ©NIKKI S. LEE/COURTESY SIKKEMA JENKINS & CO., NEW YORK

Nikki S. Lee’s Hispanic Project (25), 1998, is featured in the upcoming “Come As You Are” exhibition at the Montclair Art Museum.


At a dinner party several years ago, a group of artists who emerged in the 1990s were talking shop. They traded stories about museum shows they’d seen as students. Each named an exhibition that later influenced the kind of artist he or she became.

That conversation came to mind when I heard about the upcoming exhibition “Come As You Are: Art of the 1990s,” opening February 8 at the little-known Montclair Art Museum in Montclair, New Jersey. The show’s curator is Alexandra Schwartz, who founded the hundred-year-old institution’s department of contemporary art four years ago and has been researching this exhibition ever since. She borrowed its title from a popular song by Nirvana, that archetypal ’90s band from Seattle, capital of ’90s grunge.

Schwartz conceived the show after noting that the 20th anniversary of the 1993 Whitney Biennial was not far off. Now 42, she saw that exhibition as an undergraduate at Harvard. Largely reviled at the time for privileging thorny topical issues like race, sexuality, and AIDS over aesthetics, and almost completely disregarding traditional painting and sculpture in favor of installation and video, it now sits in the pantheon of super-historic exhibitions.

In the catalogue for “Come As You Are,” Schwartz calls that year’s biennial “a crucial juncture in my intellectual formation,” and confesses to a kind of nostalgia for the ’90s, “one of the most controversial, but indisputably rich, periods in the recent history of art.”

In this she is not alone. Jens Hoffmann, the 40-year-old deputy director of the Jewish Museum in New York, included the biennial in his recently published book, Show Time: The 50 Most Influential Exhibitions of Contemporary Art. Most of those shows took place in the ’90s, when, he says, curators began to inhabit a creative, rather than just a scholarly, role, making exhibitions “as vehicles for intellectual, cultural, social and political investigation and expression that transformed how art and the public interrelate.”

The New Museum's “Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star,” 2013, installation view. BENOIT PAILLEY/COURTESY NEW MUSEUM, NEW YORK

The New Museum’s “Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star,” 2013, installation view.


Just two years ago, New York’s New Museum mounted “NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star.” The exhibition’s title also came from alternative-rock music—specifically a 1993 album by the ’80s post-punk band Sonic Youth. One of the show’s four curators, the museum’s Italian-born artistic director, Massimiliano Gioni, is 42—the same age as Schwartz. What the 1993 Whitney Biennial was to her, that year’s equally politicized Venice Biennale was to him.

That Biennale’s director was Achille Bonito Oliva, who put Helena Kontova, then the publisher of Flash Art magazine, in charge of the Aperto or “open” section dedicated to emerging artists. It was the Aperto that excited Gioni. “It was there, in the Arsenale, that I got a sense of one era coming to an end and another beginning,” he wrote in an essay that he contributed to the 2011 Phaidon anthology Defining Contemporary Art: 25 Years in 200 Pivotal Artworks. The exhibition, he says, “redrew the map,” bringing artists from China, Africa, India, Thailand, and more. He calls it the “very first really global and multicultural biennial.” Judging from the frequency of such shows around the world today, it obviously started something.

Kate Fowle, the 43-year-old chief curator for the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow, considers the ’90s a turning point for contemporary art everywhere. Last summer she organized “The New International,” the last of three exhibitions at the museum focusing on art made after the demise of the Soviet Union. “In Moscow the 1990s can be considered the first decade that ‘unofficial’ or ‘underground’ art was made public,” she says. Her show included artists from Russia, Europe, and America who became established during the decade along with those just coming of age then, and who were addressing the politics and social structure of the time. “The resonances of the 1990s to the current moment,” she notes, “became a focal point because all the crises that evolved at that time in Russia are still playing out now. It was important to show works that Moscow hadn’t seen before, and that had an enormous impact on me.”

Last August the Centre Pompidou-Metz opened “1984–1999. The Decade” (on view through March 2), a group exhibition put together by the independent curator Stéphanie Moisdon. The show historicizes the work of a loosely connected group of artists—among them Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Liam Gillick, and Angela Bulloch—associated with the ’90s art movement “relational aesthetics,” a form of art-making that involves multiple disciplines, takes shape only with the participation of viewers, and is arguably the only significant new direction for art that came out of the decade in question.

Schwartz was in Metz for the opening. “The installation was designed by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster,” she says, “and was actually part of the show. It’s more focused on relational aesthetics in Europe, particularly France. My show has Rirkrit Tiravanija, Jorge Pardo, and Andrea Zittel, and focuses on work made in America.” There’s a reason for that. As Schwartz says, “The ’90s were the last time you could do a nationally based show, when the globalization of the art world and the rise of international biennials and fairs were not so much a part of the landscape as now.”


Rirkrit Tiravanija,
untitled (Blind), 1991, 20 glass bottles with wax seal in cardboard box.


Relational aesthetics endured. In 2008, the Guggenheim Museum’s chief curator, Nancy Spector, commissioned new works for an exhibition called “theanyspacewhatever” from ten artists identified with the practice: Philippe Parreno, Pierre Huyghe, Gillick, Pardo, Carsten Höller, Bulloch, Maurizio Cattelan, Douglas Gordon, Tiravanija, and Gonzalez-Foerster. In this case, the works weren’t from the ’90s, but the artists and the interpersonal ideas involved were.

Personally, until I became aware of all of these shows, I had little desire to revisit the ’90s, even though they were extremely productive, even exciting, years for me. I’m still trying to reckon with the post-Watergate, pre-AIDS culture of the ’70s.

What started with the art of the ’90s is still with us, even if the politics are different. “Some of the artists who were doing things that were shocking then we take for granted now,” says Gary Carrion-Murayari, 35, another curator of “NYC 1993,” which I thought a rather tepid recapitulation of that year’s Whitney Biennial. Times have changed. “Nobody’s protesting Chris Ofili today,” he says. “But we are indebted to what was important at that time, things we didn’t experience, and we try to get at what these works meant at that moment.”

For Schwartz, “The 1990s felt like a very fertile time for art that engaged in social and political issues. The market today is so consuming that these alternative voices don’t have as strong a platform as they did then. The rise of contemporary art as a global phenomenon with enormous economic might also happened then.”

But, she says, the biggest game-changer was the digital revolution. “Come As You Are” includes work by Julie Mehretu, Sharon Lockhart, Kara Walker, Andrea Fraser, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Elizabeth Peyton, but it gives pride of place to nearly forgotten Internet art by Mark Napier, Mark Tribe, Aziz + Cucher, and Prema Murthy, among others, as well as one of the first Internet works to intervene with a digital institution. Just before 9/11, the married couple Keith and Mendi Obadike invited users of eBay to bid on Keith’s blackness. The company pulled the sale after four days, claiming it was inappropriate. “It’s significant that Internet art didn’t last because there was no object to sell,” Schwartz says. “Today, many painters use technology. So that was really a big change.”


Mark Napier, Riot, 1999.


In fact, the Nineties took place on what now seems an intriguing distant planet, when the art world didn’t cater to money in the same way that it does today. The Clinton years were ones of discourse and dissension. They saw the birth of the Internet, the death of privacy, the advent of globalism, and the colonization of cyberspace. Bookended by the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the attacks of September 11, 2001, the ’90s don’t easily come into focus. That may be because they were years of transition. Stuff happened.

While communism collapsed in Europe, genocide took place in both Bosnia and Rwanda. Bombings of the World Trade Center and a federal building in Oklahoma City brought terrorism to America. Los Angeles burned after the Rodney King verdict, the Supreme Court gained an archconservative in Clarence Thomas despite revelations of sexual harassment by Anita Hill, and Lorena Bobbitt cut off her husband’s penis. The divisive Culture Wars peaked and died, Viagra went on the market, and rap went mainstream, anticipating the disappearance of a progressive underground.

If there wasn’t any radical break with the past in art, as there had been in the ’60s and ’70s, the ’90s may nevertheless stand as the last time there was real excitement in art. Think of the shows we regard as landmarks now. Not only the 1993 biennials at the Whitney and in Venice, where identity politics held sway, but Paul Schimmel’s “Helter Skelter” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, one of the freakiest shows of 1992 and possibly the darkest ever. It gave serious credibility to Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Raymond Pettibon, Liz Larner, Lari Pittman, and others who took their subject matter from pop culture and twisted it till it screamed.

“Sensation,” at the Royal Academy of Art in London in 1997, didn’t just give a name, and a world stage, to young British artists like Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, and Chris Ofili, and it didn’t just give Mayor Rudolph Giuliani a hissy fit when the show arrived in New York. It changed art, and possibly art collecting as well. So did “Traffic,” the 1996 group exhibition at CAPC musée d’art contemporain in Bordeaux, France, that took passive viewing off the table and led curator Nicolas Bourriaud to coin the term “relational aesthetics.” One could say that such participatory art, where viewers “activate” environments created by the artists, predicted the social-media networks of today. And Thelma Golden’s 1994 “Black Male” show at the Whitney challenged racial attitudes by mixing work by white artists with that of African Americans like Glenn Ligon, Gary Simmons, and Lorna Simpson, who had never shown in a museum before.

Diana Thater, Ginger Kittens, 1994, two flat-panel monitors, two DVD players, one synchronizer, green gels, installation view. FREDRIK NILSEN/COURTESY 1301PE, LOS ANGELES

Diana Thater, Ginger Kittens, 1994, two flat-panel monitors, two DVD players, one synchronizer, green gels, installation view.


But museums weren’t the only places where the artists who came to prominence in the ’90s were wreaking havoc. Exhibitions also took place in publications, and in hotels like the Carlton Palace in Paris, where the young Hans Ulrich Obrist staged an exhibition, or the Gramercy in New York, where the Gramercy International Art Fair, the forerunner of New York’s Armory Show, began in 1994 as the brainchild of four art dealers—Pat Hearn, Colin de Land, Matthew Marks, and Paul Morris. Many of those participating in the fair represented a new generation of dealers producing shows for artists their own age.

Among them, Stuart and Shaun Caley Regen stepped up to present Matthew Barney’s first show in Los Angeles. David Zwirner brought Jason Rhoades to New York, Gavin Brown promoted the work of Elizabeth Peyton and Tiravanija, and Andrea Rosen did the same for Gonzalez-Torres (who died of AIDS in 1996 and whose work is included in all three of the current ’90s revival shows) and John Currin at her first gallery in SoHo.

“The most important show for me when I was starting out was Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s first at Andrea Rosen,” says Jens Hoffmann. “But if there’s a nostalgia for the 1990s now, it may be coming out of a longing for something more discursive that was lost along the way. Theory and politics don’t matter so much anymore. We have other issues to grapple with.”

For me, a child of the ’60s, a life-changing exhibition was “New York Painting and Sculpture, 1940 to 1970” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which I stumbled into in 1969. It included Robert Rauschenberg’s Monogram (1955–59), the stuffed goat with a paint-spattered nose and a rubber tire circling its middle like a belt. Encountering it, I was dumbstruck. I was an English major. I didn’t know something like that could be art. But clearly it couldn’t be anything else.

That’s still my reigning definition of an artwork—something that can’t explain itself any other way. And that’s still the kind of experience that points the way forward.

So I can understand why people who came of age in the ’90s might regard them as pivotal. I’m newly curious myself. Memory is faulty. I can also see why those years would attract curators of that generation. The decade’s history hasn’t been written yet. Their shows are closing the gap.

Linda Yablonsky is a roving critic and journalist based in New York.

A version of this story originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 70 under the title “The Curious Nineties.”

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