The Most Iconic Artists of the 1990s
The final 10 years of the 20th century have been called the beginning of the end of history. As the Soviet Union fell and the nuclear dread of the Cold War faded (only to be replaced by the constant policing of terrorism), capitalist democracy propelled a decade of steady growth in America. Yet the preeminence of these opposing superpowers was also broken up in the ’90s by the process of globalization—the diffusion of business and culture across national boundaries. With the rise of cable television, mobile phones, and the World Wide Web, multiculturalism became the sign of the times. The art world, too, fragmented and decentered, embraced a rich array of disparate practices and movements.
As the digital age came into full swing, many artists responded by gravitating towards issues of tangible lived experience and identity. Politicized bodies, site-specific installations, and the position of art itself within global culture took center stage in the biennial exhibitions that grew in both number and stature across the world.
While Royal Academy of Art in London, but the most prominent artist in his stable disrupted definitions of art-viewing and patronage far earlier in the decade. Hirst’s 1992 work Pharmacy—a bespoke drugstore with empty pill boxes installed in locales like the Cohen Gallery and Tate London—was meant to dissolve the distinctions between art and life, while also cutting new metaphors for the art market. It alluded to collectors buying work with the same ease they drop change on corner store staples—or with the addictive appetite that drives people to procure recreational pills.
Such critique is even more explicit in the tongue-in-cheek work of Italian-born artist De Appel, Amsterdam, Cattelan decided to steal the entire contents of a nearby gallery and then pass it off as his own work. The inspiration of
Others produced more subtle provocations. Also working in London,
House, Rachel Whiteread, 1992. An Artangel commission. Photo by John Davies.
Hatoum’s work displays one of the YBAs’ chief concerns: how human-scale installations activate new physical and psychological experiences for the viewer. One of the most elegant of these explorations came from
1993 was a watershed year for art across the Atlantic as well. The role of public sponsorship for art in the U.S. had become mired in controversy in 1989, when conservative factions of the public and the political establishment were scandalized by the content of works by Whitney Biennial that endured fierce criticism for what was called a condescending tone and an emphasis on politics rather than pleasure. Its contentiousness might be summed up by one of the museum’s admission buttons, designed by
Where Ligon’s message grows more potent with each additional layer of text on canvas, the sculptures of
Installations by González-Torres or
The disintegration of memory and history reached into the geography of art as well. As LACMA’s 1992 exhibition “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s” contended, New York was not the only incubator of the avant-garde. Los Angeles became a creative hotbed for artists interested in American culture and its relation to human identity, with instructors like California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). These practices ranged from
Photography, too, reached towards immense size and complexity.
As such international and cross-cultural references multiplied, the ’90s in many ways also marked the end of national borders around art production and sale. In time-lapse, drawing-based films about apartheid, South-African artist
If the diversity and cultural complexity of the era could be encapsulated in a single artist,
George Philip LeBourdais
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