NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star

The latest exhibition to open at the New Museum in New York City captures a specific moment in time highlighting the intersection of art, pop culture and politics.

The year 1993 is marked in many people’s minds by several major events: the creation of new countries in the Balkans; the retirement of Michael Jordan from basketball; the inauguration of Bill Clinton as the 42nd president of the USA; the implementation of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy for gay service members of the military; the height of the AIDS crisis; the ceasefire between Hezbollah and Israel; the signing of the Maastricht Treaty, establishing the concept of a single European currency, and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Nelson Mandela and President F.W. de Klerk. The list goes on, but it is for these and other seminal turning-points that curators Massimiliano Gioni, Gary Carrion-Murayari, Margot Norton and Jenny Moore have chosen this year specifically as the focus for NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, a group exhibition at the New Museum, New York.

The exhibition draws its subtitle from the album that the New York rock band Sonic Youth recorded in 1993, and captures the complex exchange between mainstream and underground culture across disciplines that came to define the art of the era. The New Museum’s show includes the work of 75 artists, all of whom produced work that year, as well as a number of historical reconstructions of important installations and exhibitions from 1993. Other works will be revisited and reinterpreted – highlighting the ways in which certain actions, events, attitudes and emotions reverberate towards the present. These works sketch out the intersection between art and the world at large that defined the 1990s and continues to shape artistic expression today.

In 1993, The Whitney Biennial and the 45th Venice Biennale, with its theme of the “Cardinal Points of Art”, were the two major talking points of the international art world. Damien Hirst, Louise Bourgeois, Nam June Paik and Andres Serrano all featured in the Venice Biennale, but it was one particular New York artist who brought the most attention – both in Venice and in New York – with an installation at an abandoned fire hall in Harlem in the latter, and an installation of box-like forms created out of debris and abandoned fire hoses for the former. Nari Ward, a Jamaican-born artist, exhibits Amazing Grace, the work created in 1993 for his New York exhibition for NYC 1993. Consisting of 365 abandoned strollers that Ward collected over the course of a year and a half on the streets and then re-configured into the shape of a ship’s hull, the piece has not been exhibited in New York since its initial showing, and it still maintains the ability to shock and inspire. Norton reasons that its appeal resides in its germaneness: “The issues that it deals with – freedom, loss, community, the urban environment, hopefulness – can relate to and elicit emotions from anyone, during virtually any time period.”

Roberta Smith stated in a 1993 review of the Whitney Biennial: “With its persistent references to race, class, gender, sexuality, the AIDS crisis, imperialism and poverty, the work on view touches on many of the most pressing problems facing the country at the dawn of the Clinton Administration and tries to show how artists are grappling with them.” This statement could be applied to NYC 1993, which touches upon those same issues. It would be easy initially to criticise the curatorial intent of the exhibition; how does one isolate one year in one city as the basis for a show? By decontextualising an arbitrary time frame, you divorce those issues from their history and framework. Norton argues that the exhibition was not intended to be a history lesson on the year, and instead to be an analysis of the interlocking topics and events, and how they influenced the art world that year: “It takes the shape of a kind of vertical cross-section of artistic production in New York City that will continue to transform and rewrite itself into the future.” For Norton and the other curators, the intent was to create a time capsule; a snapshot of a particular moment in time and history.

For this reason, they commissioned the creation of a visual timeline (compiled and written by Claire Lehmann and designed by NY-based “This Is Our Work”). The timeline consists of 12 monitors, one for each month of the year, streaming a montage of various news clips and images that illustrate the various events of that year. This was perhaps the last year when one could really say the world was not quite yet a global village, as, with the launch of the Mosaic web browser in 1993, the internet as we know it was completely revolutionised. The software enabled the wider public access to the World Wide Web, virtually expanding the information and visual image network and database. Saying this, looking at the list of exhibiting artists, one can see the great diversity and range – in age, sexuality, gender and ethnicity. The process of selection was lengthy and arduous for the curators; a process Norton describes: “We went through piles of exhibition listings and reviews from newspapers and periodicals … we also spoke to people who were active participants in the art community of that time, asking them to share their memories of that year and describe what they were doing.” The result is as comprehensive and pertinent a list as one could imagine a museum to manage, without the show becoming exhaustive.

The work on display by female artists indicates the extensive range of the exhibition: Hannah Wilke (who died that year), whose autobiographical works dealt directly with female iconography as well as the effect of cancer on her own body; the performative, body-based work of Cheryl Donegan, referencing both video and gestural painting; the more traditional yet highly stylised and idealised portraits of Elizabeth Peyton, and the critical performance and media work of Coco Fusco. References to gender and sexuality abound, but so do allusions to and outright mentions of the political and cultural climate. The image of Wilkes, so vividly suffering from cancer, are stark and disturbing in their honesty, and remind the viewer of the harsh reality of physical disease: not just of cancer but of AIDS as well. This emphasis on the body and bodily functions, especially as tied to sexuality, is present in many of the exhibiting artists’ works including those of male artists like Mike Kelley and Robert Gober.

The documentary photography of Annie Leibovitz, the films of Derek Jarman, and the performance/video works of Matthew Barney highlight the development of media-based work during the early 1990s. Norton states that, as a result of the economic crisis of the late 1980s: “A new chapter was unfolding in which multiple voices were being heard and listened to, and where new media was expanding.” Barney, who graduated from Yale in 1991, is best known for The Cremaster Cycle, a five-part film project begun in 1994 and completed in 2002. His preceding work illustrates his development, and it is fitting that Drawing Restraint 7 (1993), a ritualised performance investigating the effect of restraint through the filmed performance of two wrestling satyrs in the back of a stretch limousine, is on show. Winner of the Aperto Prize at the Venice Biennale that year, 1993 was a seminal moment in Barney’s career, and the curators have done well to identify this year in particular as important to his oeuvre.

Media-based performance works were de rigueur in the early 1990s, but that is not to say this was without reason. This was a turbulent era and the more traditional media were deemed inadequate, as they often are, to depict this. The difference between a Peyton portrait and a Nan Goldin candid portrait is perhaps most indicative of this divide: Peyton’s work, though progressive in many ways for her emphasis on the androgynous and idealised, pales in comparison to the dichotomy of Goldin’s photographs. The latter manages to have an “in-your-face” quality, yet simultaneously portray a softness and vulnerability to her subjects (her friends).

This exhibition highlights the shortcomings in the art world network as a result of the physical/geographical divide between countries: British artist Jo Spence, whose series The Picture of Health? (1982-1986) directly dealt with her battle with cancer and then later, with The Final Project (1990-1992), her death, was working on the same themes and issues in her work that Wilke did in Intra-Venus (1992-1993). Working in completely different countries, and isolated from each other’s practice, they both created works on a similar theme: their own personal demise. The social and cultural climate, heady as it was with issues of mortality, could be said to have created an international artistic climate preoccupied with death.

Félix González-Torres’ photographic mural of two doves in flight, muted though it is, provides respite from some of the heavier installations and works on exhibition. González-Torres, well known for his installations which require the active participation of the audience – whether taking a cellophane wrapped piece of candy or a sheet of paper – has on exhibition a static work. The mural acts as a backdrop to hanging strings of lightbulbs; the strings arranged at the discretion of the owner. The materials allude to, again, death – the lightbulbs are ephemeral, they will burn out, but there is potential for renewal with the bulbs being replaced. Pointedly, Pepón Osorio’s large-scale installations avoid being heavy-handed: Scene of the Crime (Whose Crime?), exhibited at the 1993 Whitney Biennial, is a recreated domestic interior, cordoned off by police-tape, showing the aftermath of a murder. Osorio was born in Puerto Rico but moved to the USA at the age of 20, and he references both his and the Puerto Rican community’s sense of identity as tied to the country through his work. The room of Scene of the Crime (Whose Crime?) is adorned with traditional chucherias (knick-knacks) and photographs, firmly establishing it as a home environment, albeit one ruined by domestic violence.

“Domestic” and “personal” stopped being insular words in the early 1990s, with artists like Osorio, González-Torres and Goldin visually presenting the chaos and imperfections of everyday life. González-Torres stated in an interview with Maurizio Cattelan that “there is no private space anymore. Our intimate desires, fantasies and dreams are ruled and interpreted by the public sphere.” Rather than shy away from the issues at hand, these artists wholeheartedly embraced the weaknesses and painful events of their own lives and the New York community as a whole. The Whitney Biennial was incredibly pertinent in this regard, showcasing controversial (and often critically slated) works that probed social and political matters of the period. Osorio’s installation was just one of the works that generated a furore; the LA artist Daniel Joseph Martinez created an equally provocative work, though opposite in terms of scale. Martinez had small white buttons handed out at the entrance of the Biennial, each printed with a single word. The words placed together formed the sentence: “I can’t imagine ever wanting to be white.” The work is disquieting on many levels, even more so when one remembers that this is barely a year after the Rodney King-sparked riots in LA, and the year of a new trial against the four police officers for Civil Rights violations. Issues of race were not just at the forefront, but were inflaming the nation.

It is interesting to note that the response from critics to the Whitney Biennial at the time was brutal: LA Times art critic Christopher Knight described it as “a Biennial that puts its faith in a gruesome kind of art, which perceives the audience as morally, socially and intellectually deficient, and in desperate need of immediate artistic treatment. Forget ‘multicultural’ or ‘politically correct.’ This is the Patronizing Biennial, brought to you by the Therapeutic Museum.” Either we, as viewers, have softened or perhaps we just become accustomed to nudity, sex and controversy, as many of the works now exhibited in NYC 1993 just don’t seem that scandalous. That in itself is an interesting curatorial achievement for the New Museum team of curators; they have managed to get a handle on society’s ability and propensity to forgive and forget. If anything there is a slight nostalgia to many of the works for, as Norton says with regards Ward’s Amazing Grace: “With the passage of two decades, another layer has been added to this work as one wonders where the children that once occupied those strollers might be today.” It is this layering that makes NYC 1993 both relevant and a success.

NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star runs until 26 May. Please visit for further information.

Niamh Coghlan