Theses Doctoral

Finesse: Louise Lawler's Pictures

Pires, Leah

This is a study of the early work of the American artist Louise Lawler and her collaborators, including Christopher D’Arcangelo, Sherrie Levine, and Jenny Holzer. It centers on the New York art world between 1978 and 1983—a moment hailed as the end of avant-gardism and the birth of postmodernism—and examines the legacy and transformation of conceptual art and institutional critique by a new generation of artists during this period. Lawler’s practice is analyzed in relation to her Pictures Generation peers, so named for their affiliation with the non-profit space Artists Space (which mounted the influential exhibition "Pictures," curated by Douglas Crimp, in 1977) and the commercial gallery Metro Pictures, founded in 1980. The work of Pictures artists is united by its appropriation of images and texts that were culled from everyday life and modified through photographic strategies such as cropping, captioning, and juxtaposition. These artists, many of them women, developed a critique of representation—in Gayatri Spivak’s words, of "standing-for" and "speaking-for"—located at the crossroads of feminism and postmodernism. Though Lawler’s practice was understood as institutional critique at the moment of its emergence, she has since been historicized as a Pictures artist. This study understands her as a double agent who deliberately operates between and across spheres usually kept separate. In so doing, she refigures the practice of critique as a subtle form of maneuvering that I, following the artist, term finesse. The key contribution of Lawler’s work is a new understanding of power, informed by the politics of identity and difference, which accounts for the crucial importance of subjectivity and positioning in the act of critique.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Alberro, Alexander
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 3, 2019