press release

The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA

Don’t Look Back: The 1990s at MOCA comprises works from MOCA’s permanent collection that identify the recent decade’s key concerns and transformations, including many that have not been on view since originally shown and acquired. If the 1980s were shaped by the advent of identity politics, producing significant works that examined the nexus of race, gender, and sexuality, the 1990s both extended and challenged these ideas. Many artists turned to large-scale installations as a way to convey a complicated interface between the public and the museum, or to articulate the realms of overlap and dissonance in individual and public identities. The exhibition includes works by Catherine Opie, Cady Noland, Sarah Sze, and Paul McCarthy, among others, and explores the complexities of the period by dividing the presentation into six thematically grouped sections, titled: Installation; The Outmoded; Noir America; Place and Identity; Touch, Intimacy, and Queerness; and Space, Place, and Scale.

Installation is a loose, descriptive term for works of art that are not limited to one discrete medium, like painting or photography. Installations create overall environments, and as such they both demand and create their own separate spaces. Sometimes installations are modeled on the diorama as something you look into from a fixed position. Other times, installations imagine a viewer who is mobile or immersed within the space. As loose as the term may be, installation has become one of the dominant modes of artistic expression from the 1990s to the present.

The Outmoded
Rotary phones, slide projectors, 35-millimeter cameras, VHS tapes, and boxy sedans with banquette seats: images of all of these objects appear in this exhibition and all were still very much in use during the 1990s. One effect (largely unintended) of the inclusion of everyday objects in contemporary art is that, given the extremely rapid technological development of the past two decades, such objects now appear as historical artifacts. The 1990s can be seen, in retrospect, as the decade within which analogue gave way to digital.

Noir America
While most Americans are taught from a young age that our country is “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” many artists have focused instead on the darker side of the American story. Our country’s love affair with guns, Hollywood tales of good and evil, and television’s superheroes and antiheroes unfolds before us daily in mass media. Artists have critically engaged with these narratives, showing them to be alternately macabre and ludicrous. In almost all of the works in this exhibition that deal with violence, artists have resisted the urge to be accusatory or moralistic in tone. Rather, they have sought to implicate themselves and the viewer in the culture at large, provoking questions about our collective role in this dark underbelly of the American psyche.

Place and Identity
During the 1980s, the advances of the civil rights and women’s rights movements were felt strongly by artists. Many artists moved away from concepts of universality and instead began to explore the concept of difference through an examination of identity, history, and memory. During the 1990s, many artists continued these lines of inquiry, delving into the ways that geography, history, economics, sexuality, and gender profoundly shape our sense of individuality, even as all of those forces also make us part of multiple, and sometimes competing, communities. Artists working in the 1990s sought to situate and describe their particular positions in a world that was becoming, in large measure due to the Internet, progressively international in scope.

Touch, Intimacy, and Queerness
In 1990, the activist group Queer Nation was founded in New York and chapters developed quickly across the country. Their chant—“We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!”—swiftly entered the lexicon of popular culture. In the wake of the AIDS crisis, which had been particularly devastating to the arts community, Queer Nation’s protests, such as a kiss-in outside the Academy Awards in 1991, marked a new era in the civil rights agenda for the LGBTQ community. By using the term queer instead of homosexual, the activists signaled a societal sea change. As artists began to explore themes and issues pertaining to queerness, many integrated touch and intimacy into their works through a subtle insistence on the body and its central role in matters of sexuality and identity.

Space, Place, and Scale
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, artists began to confront the scale of industrial buildings. New York artists started living and working in downtown Manhattan lofts while Los Angeles artists were able to occupy entire buildings previously used for light industry or storage. This shift in scale led to ambitious works that imagined the museum and other institutional spaces, rather than domestic spaces, as the primary site for contemporary art. This impulse can be seen in land art, minimalist sculpture, and, ultimately, the many installations that came to dominate 1990s art. As artworks began to occupy whole rooms, notions of space, place, and scale became increasingly dominant themes.

Don’t Look Back: The 1990s at MOCA is organized by MOCA Chief Curator Helen Molesworth.