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.



Immersive Installation

While Young British Artists (YBAs) like Damien Hirst had already cemented a name for themselves in the previous decade, their practices in the ’90s explored new veins of Minimalism, Conceptual, Performance, Body and Installation art. Collector and gallerist Charles Saatchi would mark the apotheosis of Britart in the 1997 exhibition “Sensations” at the 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 Maurizio Cattelan. When invited to participate in the 1996 group show “Crap Shoot” in 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 Marcel Duchamp was plain in the title Another Fucking Readymade (1996), pushing the viability (and legality) of appropriation to new limits.

Others produced more subtle provocations. Also working in London, Mona Hatoum recast the old macho forms of Minimalism into enveloping installations that implicate the viewer in politics and history. Light Sentence, a work from 1992, evokes—but should not be reduced to—the artist’s Palestinian roots: a cage of wire-mesh lockers in which a light bulb rises and falls ominously.

  • 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 Rachel Whiteread. A concrete casting of a terrace house slated for demolition in a working class neighborhood of London, her 1993 House stands as one of the decade’s most important artworks. The Pompeii-like sculptural installation conjured feelings of destruction, memorialization, and exclusion, and it made Whiteread the first woman to win the prestigious Turner Prize. Other female YBAs earned significant attention in the field of painting, with Jenny Saville’s graphic, large-scale paintings of bodies undergoing plastic surgery among the most prominent.



Identity Politics

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 Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe, which were supported fiscally by the National Endowment for the Arts. The resulting conflict helped to catalyze the country’s (arguably ongoing) “culture wars.” In 1993 it was the 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 Daniel Joseph Martinez, which read “I Can’t Ever Imagine Wanting to Be White.”

Fred Wilson, too, was motivated to challenge white sociocultural authority with a landmark intervention at the Maryland Historical Society in 1992. Through jarring juxtapositions of historical objects, Wilson reorganized the institution’s collection to reveal a hidden history of oppression and violence towards African Americans. Called “Mining the Museum,” his approach empowered the artist to act as ethnographer, seeking out the stories of people historically denied a political voice. 

Glenn Ligon, another artist featured in the 1993 Whitney Biennial, gave voice to the experience of oppression in exceptionally savvy ways. Untitled (I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against a Sharp White Background) (1990) characterizes his successful text paintings, which afforded Ligon much-deserved footholds in major museum retrospectives and representation in top galleries. Meanwhile, Lorna Simpson, Adrian Piper, and MacArthur “genius” grant winners Kara Walker and Carrie Mae Weems made powerful work that broke down gender and racial stereotypes of the black woman, one of the most marginalized identities in American culture.



Relational Aesthetics

Where Ligon’s message grows more potent with each additional layer of text on canvas, the sculptures of Felix Gonzalez-Torres take the opposite tack, diminishing piece by piece until nothing remains. A Cuban-born gay artist, Gonzalez-Torres was a member of the New York-based Group Material, whose mission was to collaborate for political and educational good. Many of his works raised awareness about issues like gun violence and the AIDS crisis, a disease that took the artist’s own life in 1996. His celebrated candy spills consist of wrapped candies—formed with specific, symbolic weights—poured within a gallery space for visitors to take. With time, the pile disappears completely. The gesture is a contradictory one, suggesting themes of generosity and loss, presence and impermanence.

Installations by González-Torres or Pepón Osorio—another of the 1993 biennial cohort— fall within the scope of Relational Aesthetics, a term that the French curator Nicolas Bourriaud identified as essential to art from this moment. The work of artists like Gillian WearingDouglas Gordon, and others represented this kind of relational art, which probed the “whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space,” as defined by Bourriaud. Certainly the audacious performances of Vanessa Beecroft—including the nude and scantily clad women that had filled the Guggenheim’s rotunda in VB35 (1998)—testified to how museums became the crash site of politics and bodies. Kiki Smith, an accomplished artist across a number of media, also made some of her most disturbing and powerful works during the period in representations of violated or hybridized human bodies.

French artist Pierre Huyghe has proved one of the boldest practitioners of this genre of art. His most famous work, The Third Memory (1999), involved recreating the set of Dog Day Afternoon, a 1975 film documenting a failed Brooklyn robbery, so that the accused could retell the events it reproduced. The resulting story was a hybrid between history and its documentation.



Globalization & New Media

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 John Baldessari and Douglas Huebler teaching at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). These practices ranged from Mike Kelley’s multimedia explorations of pop culture, memory, and repression, and Paul McCarthy’s challenging mixtures of high and low culture to Catherine Opie’s unflinching photographs of the LGBT community and the swirling, vibrant paintings by Asco member Patssi Valdez.

Doug Aitken, another L.A. artist, has proved one of the most innovative pioneers of video installations, a practice with powerful immersive potential for viewers. Diamond Sea (1997), a multi-panel video and sound work, was shown at the 1997 Whitney Biennial, while his multi-room Electric Earth (1999) won the International Prize at the Venice Biennale in 1999. Bill Viola’s mystical, contemplative works were also crucial in installing video and New Media at the center of contemporary art practice. Even more operatic, if also more controversial, was the extravagant “Cremaster Cycle” series by Matthew Barney, a series of five feature-length films, with related visual materials like sculptures, drawings, and books, which create a complex and arresting aesthetic universe.

Photography, too, reached towards immense size and complexity. Andreas Gursky touched the nerve of postmodern aesthetics when he began to manipulate his vast photographs—often capturing globalized systems of commerce—with digital technology. Canadian photographer Jeff Wall based his large-scale color transparencies on cinematic and documentary approaches, staging scenes that nod to banner works of art history, like A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai) (1993).

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 William Kentridge was addressing localized issues, but their universal themes carried his reputation widely across international channels during that decade.

If the diversity and cultural complexity of the era could be encapsulated in a single artist, Julie Mehretu would be a strong candidate. One might regard her MacArthur Grant, record sale prices, and biennial praise as indicating the art world’s acceptance of once-excluded groups, including her own Ethiopian-born, female, and lesbian identity. Then again, her monumental acrylic paintings—bright, wiry abstractions often built around architectural projections—can resonate with anyone living in the age of globalized spectacle and the swirl of information.


—George Philip LeBourdais


Revisit previous decades with our rundowns of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.


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