The ‘90s: The decade that never ended (2023)

Private View | Exhibition

The ‘90s: The decade that never ended (1)

It’s amazing how little art has changed since the decade of grunge rock and Ally McBeal. We’re stuck in a rut and can’t move on writes Jason Farago.


How long does it take for the present to become history? Once our museums and universities were guardians of the past, but now they seem ever more concerned with the here and now. But what was once new must inevitably turn old, and historically minded curators are beginning to turn their gaze to the 1990s: a decade that feels like only yesterday and yet like ancient history all at the same time.

They’ve been coming thick and fast, these ‘what were the ‘90s?’ surveys. In 2013, the New Museum in New York presented NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, which filled the museum’s entire building with art from the year of Bill Clinton’s inauguration. Last year, the Centre Pompidou’s satellite space in Metz unveiled 1984–1999: The Decade, which showcased the generation that put French art back on the global art world’s map. And opening this week at New Jersey’s Montclair Art Museum is Come As You Are: Art of the 1990s, a hotly anticipated full-scale survey of the last decade of the last millennium.

The passing of the 1990s into history may feel a little sudden but this wave of 1990s shows marks a welcome effort to impose historical rigour on a period we still sometimes call ‘contemporary’. By insisting on the distance between then and now, and by placing the works in the context of their times – Clinton and Blair, Bosnia and Rwanda, grunge rock and Ally McBeal – these shows do the great service of showing how this art came to be. Yet these exhibitions do something else too: they reveal that the gap between then and now might not be as gaping as presupposed, and that, in aesthetic terms at least, the ‘90s are still going strong 15 years past their expiration date.

Dream of the ‘90s

If you want to understand the art of the 1990s, you have to start not with aesthetics but with economics. The 1980s, especially in New York but also in cities from Cologne to Tokyo, was a period of media excess and frenzied stock market speculation, typified by aggressive large-scale painting that sold for lots of money. But in 1991 the art market crashed spectacularly, closing galleries right and left. Prices fell by more than 50% for many contemporary artists, and average art prices didn’t recover their pre-crash height until 2003. (Now they are even higher, of course.) Art in the 1990s, in economic terms but also in aesthetic ones, went through a period of retrenchment and rethinking. “Value in everything is being questioned,” said Mary Boone, the influential 80s art dealer, in the midst of the crash. “The psychology in the 80's was excess; in the 90's, it's about conservation.”

What typified the art of those days? Race, sexuality and multiculturalism were hotly debated at the start of the decade, notably at the controversial Whitney Biennial of 1993, of which the most famous artwork was an admissions button, designed by Daniel J Martinez, reading “I Can’t Imagine Ever Wanting to Be White.” The rise of the World Wide Web had a strong influence on art production. So did celebrity culture, especially in Britain, where the Young British Artists hit the galleries and the tabloid front pages. The big theme was globalisation. That was reflected not only in the art of the time, but in the institutions that arose from it: the 1990s was the decade when biennials, from Johannesburg to Montreal to the South Korean city of Gwangju, became central nodes in artistic production and transmission.

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The ‘90s: The decade that never ended (2)

Polish artist Piotr Uklański’s Dance Floor from 1997 lights up the Guggenheim in New York (Alain Wibert/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

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Both the New Museum’s show and the current Montclair exhibition look only at art produced in the United States. That’s a shame, since the 1990s was the decade when national boundaries came crashing down as a meaningful way to delineate artistic style. The decade’s most important art book was Relational Aesthetics (1998), by the French curator Nicolas Bourriaud, who argued that art had become no longer a collection of objects but “a state of encounter… The work of every artist is a bundle of relations with the world, giving rise to other relations, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum.” Those words describe well the art of many French artists who came to the fore that decade, but they apply just as well to Douglas Gordon of the UK, Rirkrit Tiravanija of Thailand and many others.

Only a small number of the iconic artists who came of age in the 1990s worked in traditional media: Elizabeth Peyton, say, who won renown for her delicate drawings of Kurt Cobain and Leonardo DiCaprio. Most of the artists we now think of as representing the ‘90s abandoned a commitment to any one medium, and began creating objects, events or experiences that visitors interacted with directly. So Félix González-Torres assembled mountains of sucking candies, which gallery-goers consumed one by one. Rirkrit Tiravanija served a curry to gallery visitors, gratis. Piotr Ulkański turned the floor of a gallery into a light-up dance floor. In 1997, Jeremy Deller collaborated with a brass band in Manchester, who played acid house arranged for tubas and trombones. The artist’s reaction was a classically ‘90s one: “I realised that I didn't have to make objects anymore. I could just do these sort of events, make things happen, work with people and enjoy it.”


Some of the art of the 1990s looks decidedly dated. Net art went the way of “You’ve got mail.” Slick, digitally altered large-format photography has gone out of fashion, too; Sam Taylor-Wood (now Taylor-Johnson) gave up art completely and is now directing the softcore Hollywood flick Fifty Shades of Grey. But what’s surprising – and a little disturbing – is how much art from the 1990s could have been made last week. It’s not just that the themes of the ‘90s, from the meaning of identity to the impact of economic transformations, are our themes too. It’s also the style and the feel of the ‘90s that endures, so much so that these historical exhibitions of ‘90s art can feel almost comically fresh.

The ‘90s: The decade that never ended (3)

A new show at New Jersey’s Montclair Museum concentrates on US art of the ‘90s, including Alex Bag’s video installation Untitled Fall ’95 (Alex Bag/Team Gallery/EAI)

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What if the 1990s, far from being ancient history, are actually still going on? The social practices of gallery spaces that arose in that decade remain the lingua franca of contemporary art everywhere, and video installations that were innovative in the ‘90s now form part of every contemporary exhibition. Since then… what’s new? There has been a noted turn to performance in the 21st Century, and a market-happy revival of abstract painting, but other than those small trends the ‘90s settlement endures. People will still queue for a free curry in an art museum; the only difference is that they snap it with their cameraphones before eating.

For the political theorist Francis Fukuyama, history ended in 1989 – the big questions had all been answered, and the ‘90s were the first decade of a final era of democratic capitalism. By the start of the 21st Century, of course, Fukuyama’s thesis was brutally discredited, and endless crisis has brought history roaring back to life. But if we cannot speak of an end of history, can we perhaps speak, in a Fukuyaman sense, of an end of culture? Art will continue to be produced forever; that isn’t in doubt. But the regular succession of periods and movements that typify art history might be done for – and the ‘90s may turn out to be much more than a point on a timeline, but the first decade of a much, much longer era of stasis.

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Why was the 1990s called the good decade? ›

For almost four decades, American citizens lived in terrorizing uncertainty. Tensions finally began to decrease in 1990, and the official collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1992 meant a newfound sense of peace and safety that Americans were unacquainted with.

What is the decade of the 90s known for? ›

The 1990s is often remembered as a decade of relative peace and prosperity: The Soviet Union fell, ending the decades-long Cold War, and the rise of the Internet ushered in a radical new era of communication, business and entertainment.

Why do the 90s feel so recent? ›

The '90s were the most 'advanced' pre-Web era in terms of culture, which is why it might seem so appealing to those who didn't experience it.” Revisiting favorite moments of the past can also offer opportunities for thoughtful reexamination.

When was the last good decade? ›

The '90s: The Last Great Decade is a documentary on the National Geographic Channel (NGC) that examines the 1990s.

What is the 90s era called? ›

Known as the "post-Cold War decade", the 1990s are often culturally defined as the period from the Revolutions of 1989 that marked the end of the Cold War until the Global War on Terror ("GWOT"), which included the September 11 attacks, the War in Afghanistan, and the Iraq War.

Which decade was the best to grow up in? ›

Any millennial will tell you that the 1990s were (arguably) THE BEST decade to grow up in. We '90s kids are very big into nostalgia, and it's pretty easy to see why. So many things from the '90s have had a great effect on pop culture and society as a whole.

Why 90s kids are so special? ›

90s kids have school friends, not Facebook friends. We were the last generation of kids who truly knew how to be kids. These days, playing outside has been replaced by sitting inside texting, playing video games and surfing the internet.

Why does Gen Z Love the 90s? ›

Insider (previously Business Insider) says Gen Z brought the '90s back because it feels “impossible to grow up in today's economy.” Old-school trends like drive-in cinemas are making a comeback, and '80s-themed show Stranger Things is once again turning the internet upside down. '90s tunes are back, alright.

What was the biggest trend in the 90s? ›

Slip dresses, bomber jackets, scrunchies and plaid flannel shirts were all the rage during the '90s — and many of these fashion trends are working their way back into vogue (although some of these pieces may have never left your closet).

What are 5 facts about the 1990s? ›

  • PalmPilots were a harbinger of what was to come. ...
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower hit the New York Times List. ...
  • We first fell in love with Tara Lipinski. ...
  • You were not allowed to bring Furbies to work (per the NSA). ...
  • The theme song to Friends was a one-hit wonder. ...
  • Michael Jordan won 6 NBA titles. ...
  • Everyone wanted a Hummer.
Jun 3, 2022

What was 90s culture like? ›

Americans spent more, borrowed more, and went more deeply into debt. They drank more coffee, smoked more cigars, and turned gambling into a national pastime. Children struggled to deal with the pressures of the adult world to which they were increasingly exposed, and many were forced to adjust to new step-families.

What was a popular activity in the 90s? ›

Kids everywhere partook in backyard baseball games with their friends, trampoline jumping (if you or a friend were lucky enough to have one), sprinkler runs to cool down on those hot days, tree house builds, kiddie pool tinkering, super soaker wars, skip it record-breaking, hoola-hooping and so, so much more.

What is 10 years called decade? ›

A decade is a period of ten years, especially one that begins with a year ending in 0, for example, 1980 to 1989. ... the last decade of the nineteenth century.

What is the end of a decade? ›

Culturally, we say “the eighties” or “the twenties.” In other words, people commonly think of a decade (such as the 1980s, 1990s) as years ending in 0 to years ending in 9. So, 2010 to 2019; 2020 to 2029.

Is today the end of a decade? ›

Some say the old decade ended on December 31, 2019, and the start of the new one began January 1, 2020. For others, the new decade doesn't start until January 1, 2021; the old one concluding on December 31, 2020.

What was cool in the 90's? ›

11 Trends That Made You Cool in the 90s
  • BOY BANDS. NSYNC and Backstreet Boys pretty much ruled the world. ...
  • NINTENDO. The late '90s marked an uprising in video gaming. ...
  • FANNY PACKS. ...

What big things happened in the 90s? ›

  • Hubble Space Telescope. ...
  • 1991 — The Gulf War is waged in the Middle East, by a U.N.-authorized coalition force from thirty-four nations, led by the U.S. and United Kingdom, against Iraq.
  • 1991 — The World Wide Web publicly debuts as an Internet service.
  • 1991 — The Cold War ends as the USSR is dissolved.

What is the meaning of 90s kid? ›

For me, a '90s kid is someone born during between January 1, 1990 and December 31, 1999, as simple as that. It's a "mathematical" qualification, which means that (generation-wise) a '90s kids is most likely to have grown up with a majority of early '2000s programs (part '90s, part 2000s shows)

What was the hardest decade to live in? ›

The Great Depression was a social and economic disaster that brought misery to millions worldwide, making the 1930s one of the worst decades in history.

What was the most fun decade? ›

The 1980s were a time of great pop culture including some of the best movies, music, TV shows, and toys of all time. It is the decade most often associated with nostalgia and the style, and memories of the decade, continue to live on.

At what age do you truly grow up? ›

But take heart — nearly everyone does finally grow up and take on the responsibilities of adulthood by about age 30, including your own emerging adult child.

Why are 90s babies called Millennials? ›

People born between the early-1980s and late-1990s. Typically, Millennials represent the children of baby boomers and their birth rate was closer to that of the baby boomers than Gen-X – for this reason they are sometimes referred to as the 'second baby boom'.

Why do people like the 90s? ›

Arguably, the 1990s produced some of the best - or at least, the most influential - television, music, and movies. Indeed, many movie critics have made the case that 1999 was the best year ever for movies, featuring high-quality films that have become part of the cultural dialogue.

What was family life like in the 1990s? ›

In the 1990's marriage rates had fallen whilst, divorce had risen. 1990's was a decade that saw rapid change, popular culture was becoming increasingly popular along with new gadgets for adults and children. Life seemed to sway away from the 'traditional' family life and this was becoming normal.

What is Gen Z mentality? ›

They are pragmatic and value direct communication, authenticity and relevance. They also value self-care. They may be more likely than older people were when they were the age of the Gen Zers to question rules and authority because they are so used to finding what they need on their own.

What are Gen Z most known for? ›

Gen Z Terms and Definitions

Pew Research recently defined Gen Z as anyone born 1997 onwards. Gen Z grew up with technology, the internet, and social media, which sometimes causes them to be stereotyped as tech-addicted, anti-social, or “social justice warriors.”

What makes Gen Z happy? ›

Gen-Z is driven by their passionate desire for a better world. While they pursue happiness through new, tech-mediated experiences and social networks, the things that reflect their present state of happiness have little to do with technology.

Why was everything so baggy in the 90s? ›

Having long been a symbol of rebellion since the years of James Dean, denim, and more specifically, baggy denim, would go on to represent the idea of rebellion throughout much of the '90s.

Are the 90s coming back 2022? ›

The '90s are back — and the decade's style is getting a glamorous makeover. Why Gen Z are finding icons in Kurt and Kate. IT'S BEEN IN THE AIR as of late — slip dresses, Doc Martens and shrunken sunglasses are in.

Is the 90s style coming back? ›

Bike shorts, bucket hats, and spaghetti straps—oh, my! It's been over 30 years since the '90s first started (!!), and everything from the era is starting to feel brand-new again. All the looks you loved back then—or covet now while binge-watching old sitcoms—are officially back and more stylish than ever.

What hobbies were popular in the 90s? ›

In the 1990s, people had fun by swimming, skateboarding (although that was being seen as less and less cool until the late 90s), rollerblading (which enjoyed popularity that was basically the mirror opposite of skateboarding), played NES / SNES / Genesis games in the early part of the 90s, and if they were at least ...

What was invented in the 90s? ›

Smartphones, the digital camera, targeted Internet searches and the World Wide Web itself, emojis, even SnapChat and Instagram are all built on the ideas that came about in the 1990's. Read on to discover some of the best technological advances of the '90s.

What did 90s kids grew up with? ›

You grew up with some of the most iconic movies and television series to date (The Lion King, Full House, Rugrats, oh my!) and downright bizarre toys that were the coolest things since sliced bread. And with no social media or high-speed internet, the '90s were the last decade of pure innocence.

What is half a decade called? ›

A demi-decade is a period of time considered to be equivalent to half a decade, roughly five years. Prototypically this milestone falls in years which end in the number 5, since the most common perception of a decade is the run of years ending in digits 0 to 9.

What is every 5 years called? ›

quin·​quen·​ni·​al kwin-ˈkwe-nē-əl. kwiŋ- : consisting of or lasting for five years. : occurring or being done every five years. quinquennial noun.

What is every 20 years called? ›

vicennial. / (vɪˈsɛnɪəl) / adjective. occurring every 20 years. relating to or lasting for a period of 20 years.

What decade are we in now? ›

The 2020s (pronounced "twenty-twenties" shortened to "the '20s" and referred to as the twenties) is the current decade, which began on January 1, 2020, and will end on December 31, 2029.

What is 30 years called? ›

AnniversaryLatin-derived term
30 yearsTricennial
35 yearsQuintricennial
40 yearsQuadragennial
192 more rows

What year is the next decade? ›

The 2030s (pronounced "twenty-thirties"; shortened to the '30s) is the next decade in the Gregorian calendar that will begin on 1 January 2030, and will end on 31 December 2039.

Was the 90s the last great decade for music? ›

Now, the music industry is living off the music made in that era, as artists' back catalogs from the '90s and earlier decades are witnessing huge paydays. So, with all things considered, it's safe to say the '90s were the last great decade for music.

Why were the 1990's known as the decade of money mega spending and special effects? ›

The Decade of Money, Mega-Spending and Special Effects:

Although the average film budget was almost $53 million by 1998, many films cost over $100 million to produce, and some of the most expensive blockbusters were even more.

What is the decade after the 90s called? ›

The aughts (American English) or noughties (British English) are terms referring to the decade 2000 to 2009. These arise from the words aught and nought respectively, both meaning zero.

What was popular slang in the 90s? ›

You might say, “Hey, home skillet,” or, “'Sup, home skillet?” Either phrase was an appropriate form of greeting for a 90s teen.

What was the most listened to song in the 90s? ›

These are the ten most popular '90s songs on Spotify
  • Blackstreet – 'No Diggity' (30.91 million)
  • Red Hot Chili Peppers – 'Under the Bridge' (33.62 million)
  • Oasis – 'Wonderwall' (34.35 million)
  • Goo Goo Dolls – 'Iris' (35.66 million)
  • Nirvana – 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' (50.65 million)

Why is 90s music still popular? ›

The beauty of 90s music was both its diversity and the way artists took the styles of previous decades, refined them, then added a sonic dimension and attitude that matched both the optimism and, at times, despair of the decade. Grunge extinguished the raging fire that was late-80s hair metal.

What type of music dominated the 90's? ›

The most popular style of music in the '90s was hip-hop, closely followed by rap and contemporary R&B. Hip-hop redefined the Billboard charts in the early '90s and continued to dominate for two decades.


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2. No Doubt - It's My Life (Edited)
3. The Killers - Mr. Brightside (Official Music Video)
4. The Verve - Bitter Sweet Symphony
(The Verve)
5. Alice Deejay - Better Off Alone (Official Video)
(Alice Deejay)
6. Chase & Status - End Credits (Official Music Video)
(Chase & Status)
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