It was the decade when grunge swept over popular music, when Bill Clinton moved into the White House, when “Titanic” shattered box-office records, when personal computers and cell phones began to proliferate.
And amid it all in the 1990s, a different, lesser-known shift was taking place in art studios and on computer screens across the globe.
“(The ’90s) was a really important transitional decade for art,” explains Alexandra Schwartz, the curator of contemporary art at the Montclair Art Museum. “What artists were doing was very engaged with social and political issues.”
You can see it in the pieces on display at “Come As You Are: Art of the 1990s,” the new exhibit that Schwartz has curated for the museum. The show — which features 65 works by 45 artists — is the first exhibit by a major museum to examine art from the decade in a historical context. It opened this past weekend and runs through May 17.
Don’t expect walls lined only with paintings. Like the mishmash culture of the decade itself, the exhibit features everything from video pieces to massive photographs to computer graphics to an office chair that spins wildly in a glass case. It also includes well-known as well as lesser-known artists.
The show is a personal one to Schwartz, who was a college student in the ’90s. During her junior year, she attended the 1993 Whitney Biennial, a celebrated art show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. That year’s edition was famous for the limited number of paintings on display. Instead, there were video pieces and installations — and many of the works were by women, minorities, and unknown artists.
“It was a very controversial show,” Schwartz recalls. “It got terrible reviews, but it was very influential. It showed a lot of artists dealing with socio-political issues. It was really engaging with what was happening.”
The ’90s, Schwartz remembers now, was “a moment when art and life were closely intertwined.”
“I feel like that has kind of been lost,” she explains. “The art world is so global, and the market is so strong. I wanted to look back at a moment you could argue was a lot more idealistic. There was a closer connection between art and political and social issues.”
Schwartz says three themes become apparent about ’90s art when you walk through the new exhibit in Montclair:
1. Artists were dealing with “identity and identity politics” of the time — which sprung from incidents like the Rodney King beating and Anita Hill’s testimony.
2. The decade saw the true rise of the Internet, and artists were utilizing digital technologies and reflecting upon them in their work.
3. Globalization was taking off, and the world was becoming increasingly smaller.
“What was really interesting is all of these issues are still really important and salient today,” Schwartz says. “A lot of them started to come up during the ’90s. But we are still trying to figure out a lot of these questions.”
“(The title) is about how people present themselves, who they really are, how they move throughout their work,” Schwartz explains. “It’s thinking about identity.”And the exhibit’s title is taken from “Come As You Are,” the 1991 hit by Nirvana, the leaders of the grunge movement and arguably the most iconic band of the decade.
One of the first pieces you see as you enter the exhibit is “Man With Computer,” an early digitally altered photograph by Aziz + Cucher — the team of American artist Anthony Aziz and Peruvian artist Sammy Cucher. The 1996 piece features a chiseled nude male pointing his finger in the air with one arm and holding an old gray laptop under the other — “like the Statute of Liberty holding the book,” as Schwartz puts it. The only thing is: His genitals have been erased.
“It’s really fascinating, thinking about identity, masculinity, and race,” Schwartz said. “But it also brings in digital technology.
Two of the biggest pieces in the show are installations — three-dimensional art designed to transform the space in which it’s displayed. Near the museum’s entrance is Jason Rhodes’ 1993 work “Red,” a mixed-media display featuring supermodel photos and a giant red dollar bill.
Then there’s Mark Dion’s 1998 work “Department of Marine Animal Identification of the City of San Francisco (Chinatown Division).” (Yes, that’s really the title.) Dion conducted research with a team of collaborators on the biological and geographic origins of fish sold in the city’s Chinatown district and then created an installation that looks like a laboratory featuring a desk cluttered with files and a shelf filled with jars of fish samples. This is the first time it’s been exhibited since it was made.
Installation art was an important facet of ’90s art, Schwartz explains.
“There’s a relationship to sculpture because it’s 3-D, but it’s really distinct,” she says. “They’re tailored to the space. They’re really engaging with everyday objects.”
The exhibit also features another current of the ’90s art scene: pieces made for the Internet.
“These were projects that people could access for free,” Schwartz explains. “It was really kind of figuring out how the Internet worked. They were on the frontlines, when the Internet was brand new. They were wondering what the implications were. As we know, the implications were enormous.”
Another one of the show’s most striking pieces is a 57-minute color video: “Untitled Fall ’95” by Alex Bag, an artist now based in Glen Ridge. Bag plays a series of characters in the piece — an art student, a shop girl in London — and even uses puppets at one point. Underneath the screen are three beanbag chairs on shag carpeting.
Schwartz notes that it’s reminiscent of the fact that reality TV essentially started in the decade — with shows like MTV’s “The Real World” — and also serves as a precursor of sorts to YouTube.
“I taught a class at Montclair State three years ago,” Schwartz recalls. “The younger students said that even though they knew this was way before YouTube, if they didn’t know any better, they’d think it was a YouTube video.”
Among the larger photos in the show is an untitled 1996 piece by Sharon Lockhart featuring a young guy standing in a hotel room.
“He looks very grungy, totally anonymous-looking,” Schwartz says. “He could be in Dubai, Indiana, Spain — you really have no idea. It’s speaking to the globalization of the economy. There was a multinational economic model that was developing.”
And maybe the most eye-catching piece of the show is 2002’s “The Siege Perilous” by Glenn Kaino. That’s the one that features an Aeron chair, spinning wildly inside of a Plexiglas case.
Schwartz says many of the younger artists she talks to these days are “almost nostalgic for the ’90s — the idealism, the social engagement.” She notes that the art world has changed significantly since the decade ended, with the global art market becoming so powerful.
“It created a system of art stars who make tons of money,” Schwartz explains. “But in a lot of cases, the work is apolitical — it’s easily digestible. Political engagement was kind of lost along the way.”