The Internet Was Born Here 

The Westreich and Wagner Collection at New York’s Whitney Museum

Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy), 1980-84 

Bernadette Corporation, Creation of a False Feeling, 2002

The SSENSE #90sReport is a look at the decade that has become this moment's aesthetic power source.

Before the World Wide Web blossomed into a riotous bouquet of potential, it was imagined as something quite different—a whisper of an idea trapped inside Kurt Cobain’s grunge, or Marc Jacobs' iconic collection for Perry Ellis. The Internet moved the underground up. Communities once relegated to the far fringes soon had ample space to flourish in the wild expanses of cyberspace.

Ricci Albenda, I was just thinking, 2009

A similar phenomenon happened in the neighborhood that plays host to the new Whitney Museum of American Art. In the 1990s, the Meatpacking District, largely emptied of the industry that gave the area its name, became known for BDSM clubs like the Mineshaft, which were packed tight with leather-clad gay men and the transgender sex workers that became the Meatpacking’s hallmark citizens. But by the end of the decade, very little of that was left. The Meatpacking District, like Chelsea that borders it, became the epicenter of a New York that commodified its grit and traded on it readily. The Lower West Side of Manhattan has become an Instagram-themed amusement park, filled with galleries and museums coexisting perhaps too symbiotically with high-end retail. Yet a new exhibition winks at why the 90s remain at the core of this new order.

Jeff Koons, Come Through with Taste-Myer's Dark Rum⎯Quote Newsweek, 1986

The exhibit "Collected by Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner"—a recent donation to the Whitney from collectors Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner—features works from this time of cultural upheaval and transition. One of the reasons the show is worth seeing is that the couple exhibited a particularly powerful prescience, buying works from relative unknowns like Jeff Koons and Christopher Wool that would in time become record-breaking market successes. The Wagners have been careful to note their works were amassed in contrast to the speculative nature that contemporary collecting has taken on, where art is tantamount to colorful avatars for cash. Either way, both the Wagners and the artists they collect have become institutions beyond themselves.

Steven Parrino’s Untitled (1997) seems like it could easily be on a Vetements inspiration board.

In the 1980s, Koons and Richard Prince, picking up where Warhol left off, began creating work that subverted and recast the familiar language of advertising. In the Wagner exhibit, an early Koons, Come Through with Taste–Myer’s Dark Rum–Quote Newsweek (1986), one of several alcohol ads that he appropriated for his “Luxury and Degradation” series, juxtaposes a rum ad with mention of Newsweek magazine. Down the wall, one of Prince’s cowboys stakes a similar claim to Koons: in poking, prodding, tearing apart, and reconstituting the familiar, we access the new.  

Steven Parrino, Untitled, 1997

Ten years later, the Bernadette Corporation, a New York and Paris-based art collective, produced a receptive retort to this comment on the steady deluge of images we’re confronted with. The group of cultural provocateurs emerged in the mid 90s as the worlds of art and fashion sped towards each other. Their Creation of a False Feeling (2002) is a visual puzzle rendered in glossy imagery borrowed from the fashion world. This visual language is an anticipation of social media, of Instagram’s encouragement that we scrub our reality with crops and filters. 

Another work from the exhibition, Steven Parrino’s Untitled (1997), seems like it could easily be on a Vetements inspiration board. The folded, sagging canvas appears to lurch, a crumpled mass of black enamel with the slickness of fetish leather shifting violently on its frame. Parrino’s meticulous deconstruction finds its match in Demna Gvasalia’s torn apart and pieced together dresses, jackets, and jeans.

Christopher Williams, Rollerstacker, R-136MR, Manufacturer: The Kaynar Company, Los Angeles, CA, 90054. Date of production: 1975. Vancouver, BC, April 6, 2005 (NR. 1, 2 &3), 2005, 2005

Jeff Koons, Junkyard, 2002

This renewed interest in the 90s is due to more than just youthful nostalgia. Now, like then, we seek to reinvent using known parts. In examining the things we know, we often learn something new. However, the results may not always be pretty. As I stood in front of Parrino’s Untitled, two older women slowed but never came to a complete stop. “I don’t like that,” one uttered. Deconstruction feels right partly because it feels familiar. And because we were alive but unaware of the 90s the first time around, this is finally our chance to stake that claim. 

Text: Kevin Pires
Images Courtesy of The Whitney Museum of American Art