In the Footsteps of Warhol : Avant-Garde artists take a look at the New Criticality


“Forest of Signs: Art in the Crisis of Representation,” marks the official unveiling of what the avant-garde’s been up to for the past 10 years.

A crash course in a movement that’s been dubbed the New Criticality, “Forest of Signs” gives Los Angeles its first comprehensive look at a generation of artists fed on the philosophy of Andy Warhol, the advertising industry and the flickering box that converts reality into a series of easily digestible images, the TV set.

The show at MOCA, surveying work by 30 young American artists from Los Angeles and New York, takes its title from a poem by Charles Baudelaire, and many of the ideas it explores are French imports as well. French writers Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes and Paul Verdier--all of whom serve up a provocative blend of history, art theory, Structuralism, Semiotics, sociology and psychology--developed many of the ideas at the heart of this exhibit.


With strong links to Pop art and ‘70s Conceptualism, “Forest of Signs” explores a wide range of ideas including linguistics and the manner in which signs and symbols resonate in the collective unconscious, the uses and abuses of new technologies, and the ownership and pirating of images.

This work calls into question the importance of originality and sincerity (criteria by which society has traditionally evaluated the value of a work of art). It also reevaluates the romantic archetype of the artist and explores the power structure of the art world--which basically boils down to survival of the fittest--as a metaphor for life. Modern culture’s relentless drive to commodify anything and everything (including artworks--popularly regarded as something pure and wholly separate from the dirty world of money) comes under attack repeatedly.

Inviting a detached, analytical response rather than an emotional one, this exhibit has a veneer of sophisticated cynicism, but in fact, this is intensely political art; repression in all its forms--sexism, racism, corporate fascism--is a central concern. These are but a few of the ideas this ambitious show attempts to address, and as can be seen in the comments of nine participants, “Forest of Signs” does not represent a unified front. There is plenty of healthy disagreement within the ranks of the New Criticality.

MITCHELL SYROP: Frankly, I have my doubts about this show. “Art in the Crisis of Representation”? I’d like to know what the crisis is--I don’t think I’m having a crisis. If appropriation is what the crisis is about, it doesn’t figure prominently in my work and never has. Appropriationism highlights a practice that’s gone on forever, and the controversy around this show is that there is no controversy.

I also don’t think there’s a clear school here, and though Semiotics is being cited as a common thread, I think it’s being blown out of proportion--but then, isn’t that a curator’s job? To blow things out of proportion, to take one common point and create a fiction around it?

My work is about the ambiguity of language, and my sources are much more eclectic than this show suggests. The things I read, the people I talk to--none of it has a hell of a lot to do with “Forest of Signs,” and given a choice, I’d rather see the current show at LACE. Most of these artists showed at LACE long before they showed at MOCA, so if I wanted to find out what’s really going on, that’s where I’d go.


HAIM STEINBACH: “Forest of Signs” is one of the most important shows of the decade. Over the past 10 years there’s been a turn in the road as far as how artists function in the culture, and this show brings together some of the most important people who’ve brought this change about. Historically, I think it’s a remarkably accurate show, and I feel a deep kinship with this group of people.

Like many of these artists, Semiotics has influenced me quite a bit. Humor is also central to much of this work--it’s often used as a distancing device--and there’s a lot of anxiety in this work as well. We in the 20th Century are very aware of developments in sociology, anthropology and psychoanalysis, and a lot of these artists are involved in those things.

“Forest of Signs” is also about the destruction of the romantic archetype of the artist. The starving, struggling creature who isn’t recognized until he dies--there will always be people who live that life, but increasingly, artists are objecting to the extremity of this 19th-Century myth and refusing to participate in it. The public, of course, is always reluctant to relinquish an archetype, and many people reject this work as cold and cynical. Personally, I find this art extremely hopeful.

CINDY SHERMAN: My work is about identity--how people choose their identities, how environment enhances identity, and the ways that society sees itself. As to my own identity, I’m very different from my work. I’m extremely shy, retiring and a homebody and I’m not remotely intellectual. I’ve never been a reader of books and my sensibility has been completely shaped by mass media. I watch a lot of TV and movies, and flip through magazines. Bad TV and manipulative advertising are valid language systems that can’t be ignored, and I watch the worst TV shows I can find to remind myself of just how bad it is. Whatever books I have, I simply look at the pictures. It’s not that I think reading is unimportant--I wish I was more literate--but my mother was a reading teacher and maybe this is my way of rebelling.

Commodification also interests me, and I try to address it in my work in a roundabout way. I don’t make art about the art marketplace, but I try not to make my work too accessible, sometimes to the point that I challenge people as far as wanting to own some of the pieces. These difficult pieces are my response to the popularity some of my work from a few years ago was experiencing.

Is the work in this show cynical? Yes, I think it is. This art came out of a boring era--the ‘70s--and there’s an anger in the work that’s a response to that. My work seems to be growing increasingly cynical, although generally I wouldn’t describe it as cynical. There’s a humor and poignancy in my work that tempers any underlying cynicism--but then, I’m always wrong in my interpretations of my work. I always think it’s not nearly as affronting as other people seem to find it. People tell me I have a real whacked-out sense of humor.


MATT MULLICAN: My father was a Surrealist painter and his generation really believed they were pioneering a new way of seeing things, but my generation is too aware of how the world works to harbor that illusion. At the same time, I don’t think this generation of artists is any more savvy about commerce than the last one was. This commodification business seems to be a big deal in the art world right now, but I find art that critiques its own market a bit boring. There have to be other things going on as well.

Graphics and design interest me greatly, and my work is essentially about the language and fabric of signs. I devised a language of signs that could accommodate different ways of interpreting the world, and a lot of my early signs were taken straight out of the culture--the international signs you find at airports, for instance. Because of that, I was called an appropriator when that was the hot word.

Because I use words like God, heaven and hell in my work, people seem to perceive me as some mystic off in the countryside inventing systems that have nothing to do with reality. I have a funny image, maybe because I’ve used hypnosis in a lot of my work, and that’s made people see me as some kind of shaman. But if you want to talk about mass media, hypnosis is right there.

In a funny way, I’m the oddball in every show. I was recently in a show called “The Spirit in Abstract Painting,” which was the exact opposite of this show in many respects. But then, all these group exhibitions are abstractions. They take one aspect of various artists’ work and blow it up so there’s a visible link between artists who are actually very different. I feel more of a kinship with this group of artists than I’ve felt with many groups I’ve been lumped in with, but there aren’t real strong links in our work, other than the fact that none of us are concerned with painterly issues, and we’re not hands-on artists. I do most of my work in my notebooks and have things fabricated all the time.

MIKE KELLEY: Most of these artists use the vocabulary of mass media rather than the traditional high art vocabulary, but beyond that, you can’t make generalizations about this show because there are great differences among the artists it includes. My work, for instance, is basically about glossed-over degradation, while Matt Mullican--who represents the opposite end of the spectrum--is a spiritual artist.

Much of this work deals with the commodification of the art world--a fact that seems to shock many people but doesn’t faze me in the least. The art world functions just like the business world and always has. The only difference is this cultural myth that artists are ‘special people’--which, of course, they’re not.


This work is often described as cold, but I find it highly emotional. My generation doesn’t see corporate stuff as devoid of emotion--there’s an intense emotionality to the repressive corporate mentality.

BARBARA KRUGER: My work is about how pictures and words have the power to tell us who we can and can’t be--I try to dislodge that power in my work. I’m often described as a political artist, but really, isn’t there a politic in every conversation we have? Every deal we close? Every face we kiss? Politics is in every exchange of power between human beings.

I’ve also been described as a conceptual artist, but I come out of graphic design, and formally, my work is almost entirely shaped by having worked for years with words and pictures as a graphic designer. I didn’t have an art education and don’t think about the art world. I write a monthly column for Artforum, not about art but about TV and movies because those are language systems I understand.

I’m also extremely interested in journalism, and if I had tons of money I’d start a new daily newspaper in New York. Journalists have tremendous power to construct histories--as do television writers and museum curators--and the ways in which histories come to be written is very important for me. For the past two years I’ve co-organized a series of panel discussions on the regulation of fantasy, sexuality and the law, journalism and the construction of the news, and we have a book coming out on all this in two months. It’s called “Re-Making History” and it’s a compilation of essays on the ways that gender and race have come to bear on history.

My piece for this show is based on the Pledge of Allegiance, which I’ll present juxtaposed with questions such as: Who is beyond the law? Who is bought and sold? Who laughs last and dies first? It will be on a large exterior wall, so people who know nothing about MOCA will read it, and I find that extraordinarily exciting. I’m very happy the MOCA curators have allowed me that wall.

GRETCHEN BENDER: The advertising industry, politics merging with entertainment--art has to infiltrate these things that the media does so beautifully, and that’s what this show is about. Pop art explored much of this territory during the ‘60s, but Pop worked in a different way; Pop tended to flatten things, but these artists take a more active, guerrilla tactics approach. This culture has an incredible capacity to neutralize anything and everything, so it’s very hard to make an effective statement of any kind, but my hope is that art will become more dangerous and politically active.


Women are very prominent in this field of art making because women aren’t as invested in the idea of the heroic, and this is very anti-heroic art. That women do well with this kind of work could also have something to do with the fact that we’ve been excluded from the culture in so many ways for so long that maybe we’ve learned to analyze the culture more deeply--in an attempt to understand why we occupy the position we’ve been given.

STEPHEN PRINA: In some respects I don’t believe in the idea of mass media. Mass media is often discussed as if there’s something apart that can be identified as mass media, but in fact, it’s enveloped the entire culture. Everything is in channel and you can’t get outside of it, so I don’t think in terms of low and high culture; they completely permeate one another.

The mechanism of translation--how one thing gets translated into something else--is a central concern in my work. For instance, I took a phrase to Berlitz Translation Service and had it translated into all 61 languages they had at their disposal. Linguistic systems are also of interest to me, as is the system of exhibition and how it leads to the interpretation of artworks. I see this exhibition as a means of clarifying issues that may not be immediately intelligible; how a subject is constituted, for instance.

ROBERT LONGO: “Forest of Signs” is about what’s been going on while everybody was out buying Neo-Expressionist paintings. This is art about media literacy and not ignoring what you know, and all these artists are very tuned in to the landscape that we live in--and, that landscape has a great deal to do with the media. We’re the children of ‘The Medium is the Message,’ and we want to know what’s under the surface of the images that surround us. I wanna know what’s going on when a slick advertiser tries to sell me Jello.

This work is often discussed in terms of Semiotics, but Semiotics hasn’t been important for me. People like Baudrillard--that stuff makes no sense to me, and though I don’t reject Semiotics, I don’t read it. But then, I’m not a reader--I make images.