Come as You Are: Art of the 1990s

February 8 - May 17, 2015


Wall panel text from the exhibition


Introductory panel

An overview of art made in the United States between 1989 and 2001 -- from the fall of the Berlin Wall to 9/11 -- this exhibition showcases 65 works by 45 artists, including installations, paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photography, video, and digital art. It is organized around three principle themes that may be traced chronologically: "identity politics" dominated the early nineties; the digital revolution, the midnineties; and globalization, the late nineties. The exhibition features artists who came of age during this decade and reflected the increasingly heterogeneous nature of the art world at this time, when many artists of color, women artists, and LGBTQ artists attained unprecedented prominence. The exhibition's title refers to the 1992 song by Nirvana (the quintessential nineties band, led by the quintessential nineties icon, Kurt Cobain), and speaks to the issues of identity that were complicated by the effects of digital technologies and global migration.

The nineties was a decade of tremendous social, political, and economic change. Its defining event was arguably the digital revolution, which altered everything from everyday communication, to international commerce, to global geopolitics. The nascent 24-hour news cycle magnified a chain of events that rocked the United States during these years, including the economic recession from 1987 to the midnineties; the collapse of communism beginning in 1989; the First Gulf War, the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill controversy, the Rodney King beating, and the Los Angeles riots in 1991-92; the election of Bill Clinton in 1992; the resurgence of the political right and the NAFTA treaty in 1994; the dot-com bubble of the mid-to-late-nineties; the presidential impeachment and acquittal in 1998-99; and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Artists grappled with these events, both addressing them directly and situating them within the context of changes particular to the art world, including the "culture wars" surrounding artistic freedom; the impact of new technologies on art-making; and the expansion of the global art market. As they explored these issues, artists also experimented with new art forms, including installation art, digital art, and participatory art (sometimes known as "relational aesthetics"). Come as You Are argues that amidst, and indeed because of, these dramatic societal shifts, the 1990s constituted a turning point for the institution of art itself.

Come as You Are: Art of the 1990s is organized by Alexandra Schwartz, Curator of Contemporary Art, with Kimberly Siino, Curatorial Assistant.

Come as You Are: Art of the 1990s is made possible with generous support from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. 

Corporate support provided by Chase and J.P. Morgan. 

Major funding provided by the Susan V. Bershad Charitable Fund, Inc., Patti and Jimmy Elliott, Holly English and Fred Smagorinsky, Tracy Higgins and James Leitner, Karen G. Mandelbaum, Robert Nossa and Jennifer Odell, Sarah Peter, Ann and Mel Schaffer, Denise and Ira Wagner, Margo and Frank Walter, Furthermore: a program of the J. M. Kaplan Fund, and the Judith Targan Endowment Fund for Museum Publications. 

Additional support is provided by the exhibition Leadership Committee: James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai, Eileen and Michael Cohen, Barbara Lee Family Foundation, Metro Pictures, New York, Andrea Rosen Gallery, and an anonymous donor. 

All Museum programs are made possible, in part, by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, a Partner Agency of the National Endowment for the Arts, and by funds from the National Endowment for the Arts, Carol and Terry Wall/The Vance Wall Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, and Museum members.

Share your impressions of the exhibition or favorite 1990s memory on social media with #MAM90s!



The early 1990s in the United States were dominated by debates about "identity politics" and "multiculturalism": imperfect shorthands referring to conversations about racial, cultural, class, sexual, and gender identities and difference. Although the roots of these debates stemmed from the mid-twentieth-century civil rights, feminist, and gay rights movements, during the nineties they took on new aspects, spurred by events including the renewed racial tensions surrounding the 1991 Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings; the 1992 Rodney King beating and subsequent Los Angeles riots; the ongoing AIDS crisis; and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) censorship controversies.

During this time, a number of major art exhibitions focused on questions of identities and difference, helping to bring these debates, and the artists who engaged in them, to widespread public attention. Among the most influential were: The Decade Show: Frameworks of Identity in the 1980s (1990), co-presented in New York by the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Studio Museum in Harlem; Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s (1992) at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the 1993 Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the 1993 Venice Biennale, Italy; Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art (1994), at the Whitney; and Bad Girls and Bad Girls West (1994) at the New Museum and at the University of California, Los Angeles, respectively. A pitfall of these exhibitions, and their reception in the mass media, was that the art in question was sometimes considered simply for its engagement with issues of "identity," rather than as complex, multilayered works. Nevertheless, these exhibitions represented a watershed in contemporary art, testifying to a time when artists were engaging deeply with complicated, sometimes controversial issues, making them a major point of focus for cultural institutions and the general public.



The mid-1990s saw the precipitous development of digital technologies. Heralded by the launch of the first commercial Internet browser, in 1993, the digital revolution transformed all aspects of contemporary life, including the production of, discourse around, and market for art. While the Internet made it possible for artists to disseminate their work worldwide simply by creating a website, it allowed galleries and auction houses to sell, and museums and collectors to buy, work on an accelerated, newly global scale.

The digital revolution also led to the development of Internet art, a genre whose life span was essentially limited to the nineties. Most Internet art was both made with and designed to be viewed from personal computers, accessible by anyone with Web access, anywhere: a fact that both determined its democratic spirit and, from a practical point of view, required major adaptations to its format in order to be screened in an art gallery. But what ultimately set Internet art apart from more traditional art forms was the fact that there was no object to buy or sell. While this quality allowed artists to work outside the market's constraints, it was a key factor in its growing obsolescence, since there existed few means to fund it. Its demise might also be attributed to the fact that, as much as Internet artists thrived on experimenting with new technologies, the speed with which those technologies evolved also meant that their work was constantly being outmoded, often becoming unviewable not long after its creation. As Internet artists realized that they needed a more technologically stable, permanent, and salable platform for their work, they adapted. While some developed technologies that allowed digital works to be sold on computer hardware and screened in galleries and homes, others incorporated digital technologies into larger, multidisciplinary practices, including installation, photography, printmaking, video, and computer modeling.



The late 1990s were marked by the rise of globalization in the political, social, and economic realms. A key catchphrase of the turn of the twenty-first century, this term refers to the shrinking of the world which resulted from the growth of global capitalism following the demise of Communism, combined with the birth of the Internet and its transformation of how ideas, people, money, and objects circulate.

In the art world, globalization led to both a rapid acceleration of the market and a ramping up of the star system for artists, and, in an apparent contradiction, a move from what social theorists call the "center" to the "peripheries." In this "postcolonial turn," artists from nations previously governed by the major European colonial powers -- and generally marginalized within the art world -- gained unprecedented prominence on an international stage. The globalization of the art world was scrutinized through a growing number of international group exhibitions. These shows' monumental scale and, quite literally, global ambitions were born of and played into the accelerating international art market; yet they also attempted to critique the effects of economic globalization and post-colonialism in general, and on the art market in particular. These exhibitions included Magiciens de la terre (Magicians of the Earth) (1989) co-organized by the Centre Pompidou and the Grande Halle de la Villette, Paris, a controversial show that sought to draw connections between contemporary Western art and that of Africa, Asia, and Latin America; the 3rd Havana Biennial (1989), which in its attempt to represent cultures from every corner of the world forged a new model for the many international biennials that followed it; and Trade Routes: History and Geography, the 2nd Johannesburg Biennial (1997), which explicitly tackled globalization and post-colonialism. A key point of tension in this period's history rests in the relationship between "identity politics" and "multiculturalism" in the United States, and "post-colonialism" and "globalization" internationally: all debates that illuminate how artists of the nineties addressed issues of identities and difference.

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