In the mid- to late-1970s, Nancy Dwyer and a circle of friends lived the life of young artists in downtown Manhattan. They worked jobs to make ends meet and they dedicated themselves to creating art. "I think I was conscious that I was part of a movement, but I didn't give it much importance," Dwyer, UVM associate professor of art, says. "Looking back, the exceptional part to me is just how serious we were as artists."
Critics, collectors, and art historians have since affirmed that not only was this circle serious about their art, they were serious artists. Their movement has come to be known as the Pictures Generation, named for a 1977 group exhibit titled "Pictures" at Artist's Space in SoHo.
In April, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, not generally regarded as a bastion of contemporary work, ushered the 1970s movement into its marble halls with "The Pictures Generation: 1974-1984," the first major museum exhibition to focus on the tightly knit group of artists. Dwyer, a member of the UVM faculty for the past five years, has two pieces on display in the 30-artist show.
Dwyer says the full impact of being in the exhibit didn't really hit her until she stepped into the museum. "As I was walking by some Roman antiquities, I was realizing 'I'm in a show where Roman antiquities are,'" she says and laughs. "All of a sudden it started seeming pretty big to me. Going up those great stairs that are at the center, the feeling just built as I was walking in."
Dwyer considers the 1970s mindset driving her own art and her fellow artists. "It was a time when we were realizing that we're being lied to in the media," she says. "How do you gain control over that? How do you have an identity as a human in America? We took that on through our artwork."
While Dwyer's work in more recent years — which includes sculpture, painting, public art, and installations — is frequently rooted in text, she sees a direct connection to what she was doing 30 years ago. "For me it's a straight shot," she says. "I think I was dealing with language all along. I was trying to distill the picture to its essence and to its implied meaning, almost iconic meaning. I was kind of making icons out of pictures. So, what's the most common icon in our world? It's a word."