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Postmodernism and history.

A Fortnightly Review of

Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
24 September 2011 – 15 January 2012

By Anthony Howell.


Grace Jones. Maternity dress by Goude and Lopez. Image by J.P. Goude.

POSTMODERNISM EVOLVED OUT OF concept art – it was a concept about art itself.

But what it meant in architecture and design was different from its interpretation in visual art. For an art student at the time it could mean projecting a slide onto a minimalist cube, or it could involve a novel fusion of disparate disciplines, whereas in architecture the term might be associated with a novel use of traditional elements – walls peeling away from each other, roofs turned upside down or buried beneath forests, the working innards of an edifice such as the Pompidou Centre exposed as elements to complicate the outside, or, as in Philip Johnson’s AT&T building, a sheer high-rise culminating in a ‘Chippendale’ pediment, as if the building were a vast wardrobe – hailed as a seminal idea in 1978.

At the time I failed to see why. Since the invention of the girder, sky-scrapers had been going up hundreds of floors, all austere and modern, and then blooming into Gothic cathedrals, in a mock-Victorian fashion, to embellish the penthouse.

POSTMODERNISM WAS A MOVEMENT pioneered by Italian critics and designers, but at the same time it was an extension of London panache as expressed by the ‘swinging sixties’. It could be argued that Joseph Losey started it all with his film of Peter O’Donnell’s comic strip heroine Modesty Blaise in 1966. This emphasised sets and costumes over story line, and what sets!  An op-art cornucopia for the eyes.

In poetry it was hardly acknowledged. During the late ’60s and the ’70s there was a still a division between traditionalists and modernists in literature: narrative, meaningful poetry being opposed to poetry that focused on the materiality of words while creating texts with no readable significance. If the term was used, it was done superficially. John Ashbery featured in a ‘postmodernist’ anthology.  I remember thinking at the time that only the week before he had been a modernist!

Today, there are poets on both sides of the Atlantic who consider themselves ‘post-divisionist’ (I am one of them) – that is, aligned with neither camp, and prepared to mix narrative and meaning with abstraction and wordplay. Such work has been going on since the ’60s, and even before the ’60s, but it has taken till the end of the noughties for this tendency to be acknowledged, even though it can clearly be seen (thirty years on) as a postmodern conjunction of opposites.

The ‘po-mo’ upheaval marked a return to the baroque.  In the V&A exhibition, Jeff Koons’s Louis XIV is shown with his elaborately curled wig enveloping and extending his head.  His face is framed in these waves, reminding me of Deleuze’s essay on The Fold. This points out how folds and embellishments characterise the baroque, which accompanied Leibniz’s promotion of calculus and binary mathematics (tables of calculations rather than just one specific answer). Postmodernism accompanied the emergence of the computer, with its reliance on digital systems and binary codes – so it’s small wonder that the IT development should usher in a new mannerism, a return to rococo.

Ron Arad. Concrete Stero (1983). V&A.

IN 1974, ALESSANDRO MENDINI set alight a sculpture of an austere chair atop a flight of steps, both chair and steps being made out of the same material. Such minimalism was to go up in smoke. Decoration and clutter were the rage. Modernism’s Utopian ‘Brave New World’ was a world which eschewed history. But with postmodernism, history was back, bigged up! Everything had to have a retro look. On the Radio, Donna Summer’s 1979 hits compilation, has her sitting on a Bakelite wireless. Looking at that cover today, we need to remember that such a thing was distinctly vintage at the time the image was made.

Corbusier was out. Modernist blocks got demolished. Las Vegas was in. Glitzy, trashy bricollage was espoused by architects and designers. In 1968 Nathan Silver designed a wonderful adhocist chair made from a chrome-plated tractor seat, steel gas pipe and plastic insulating foam. As Robert Venturi put it, this was the time of both/and rather than either/or. Significant advances had been made in manufacturing. There were new plastics, new reinforced resins and transparent acrylic substances in which one could float perfectly preserved roses – as in the 1988 Miss Blanche armchair by Shiro Kuramata. Technological innovation (and glue) enabled kooky fusions of forms (as with some of the Memphis products).

Reinforcement is a key word when it comes to this movement. There are Ron Arad’s concrete-embedded amps and record players. As for the architecture, well, for me at any rate, much of it seems like window dressing – honoured though by elevated status. Charles Moore’s 1976 piazza in New Orleans, for instance. Sure, it expresses the Italian community that it serves, but in a shallow way, with the addition of the odd classical portico and a broken column or two.

IN ART, THINGS WERE allowed to allude to the emotions, which is not to say they got emotional. A polka-dotted hologram of Boy George, created in 1987 by Edwina Orr and David Trayner epitomises the postmodern look – calm and blank – according to Jean-Claude Lebensztejn. However, The Other Figure by Giulio Paolini features two identical casts of classical busts on plinths looking down, calmly enough, at a third cast which has smashed – since copying and appropriation techniques have developed which enable these casts to be easily reproduced. Without doubt, there’s a melancholy aura to this work.  It’s no more than an aura, an allusion. But you’d never associate a Donald Judd with melancholia.

As often as new techniques were exploited, old techniques were revived. Architects returned to etchings and lithographs in order to promote their designs. Furniture would incorporate a seventeenth century embellishment into a more minimal whole. History was enfolded into the present and illusion employed to create the hyper-real (Baudrillard’s term for the image of reality rather than reality itself).

The most beautiful manifestation of this tendency is the set of three photographs – before, during and after – relating to the way Jean-Paul Goude turned his girlfriend Grace Jones into a synthetic identity for the cover of her album Island Life. Goude added length to her limbs, and created a statuesque emblem from an exhausted and pregnant Grace, who was in ‘reality’ resting her arms on a trestle and with her foot supported by a plastic cube.  With great art, he set about fabricating her image by collaging it together out of disparate photographic fragments – but what a wonderful idea, a collage of the same subject! All this is very intellectually explained by the notices which accompany the exhibits, so we duly learn that ‘the slippage between the commercial idiom and contemporary fine art’ is expressed by the curators contrasting the photography of Duane Michals with that of Helmut Newton,

Hollein, façade from Strada Novissima (1980).

OF COURSE THE ARCHITECTS are the really big players in this game, and their aims are refreshingly diverse. While Rem Koolhaas could promote grandeur, Frank Gehry could glory in whimsical higgledy-pigglediness  – as envinced by his bewildering house in Santa Monica. Purity of line is replaced by plurality of line. And actually, it’s not so baroque. With baroque there is always a unity in diversity. Here, in Santa Monica, diversity is celebrated for its own disjunctive sake. It is mannerist though, for the mannerists celebrated novelty and pooh-poohed the classical trinity of any union of time, space and action. Similarly the late ’60s, the ’70s and the ’80s spawned a host of fantastical science fiction movies and split time narratives – Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner came out in 1982, Peter Ackroyd’s novel Hawksmoor in 1985.

Pride of place in the exhibition is given to a full-scale recreation of Hans Hollein’s impressive columns for the Venice architectural Biennale of 1980 – a show entitled Presence of the Past.  In the ‘Strada Novissima’ – a street of facades – he exhibited a garden column made of natural greenery, a ruined column, a skyscraper column and a fake column with fancy marbling – representing his own time.  The aim, it transpires, was ‘to replace a homogenous idiom with a plurality of competing ideas and styles.’

Paolo Portoghesi was the pioneering designer and critic who curated that Biennale, and one of the finest items in the show is his 1983 Tea and Coffee Piazza. This is a set where each vessel is formed of a hexagonal, though no two hexagonals are alike. The reflective surface of the material – which might be chrome or silver – dissolves form, so that one vessel melts into another. The entire set has a compact yet fragmented unity that binds its several parts together. It has so much unity, in fact, that I am not sure that it deserves to be included in this exhibition.

Otherwise, there’s a lot of bombast, a lot of curves, a lot of colour, but it all gets frightfully samey after a while.  Postmodernism was a trend, rather than a movement, and a very trendy one at that. Peter Shire’s 1981 Bel Air chair stands out as having a formal strength in its vigorous  anti-symmetry.

Frank Schreiner. Consumer’s Rest (1990).

AMONG THE WITTIER PIECES are maquettes for some of his Best supermarkets by James Wines and SITE. This is architecture as entertainment: the aforesaid supermarket buried in a forest, another built on an earthquake fault-line with a “collapsed wall” creating an avalanche of bricks. Supermarkets provide postmodernists with inspiration. There are (post-Warhol) product pieces, of course, but my favourite item in this vein is Frank Schreiner’s Consumer’s Rest chair: it’s also on castors, and made out of the same sort of wire frame as any shopping trolley. Postmodernism at its best is a damn good joke. Fuck the pomp and circumstance.

As one might expect from the V&A, the show emphasises architecture and artefact, and art itself is less comprehensively represented. There’s a fab Andy Warhol dollar, but he’s a modern isn’t he? It was nice to see a Bill Woodrow sculpture there – a guitar cut out of a twin-tub washing-machine. But the ill-focused photograph of Jenny Holzer’s 1985 Times Square piece – Protect Me From What I Want – obviously isn’t the real thing, and it would have been better to have included one of her moving illuminated signs.  There’s a dull Cindy Sherman, an out-of-place Andreas Gursky photograph (not cited in the catalogue) of the Tokyo stock-exchange that merely expresses multitudinousness, and a decent video projection of Laurie Anderson singing through a vocoder – an artificial sound that contrasts neatly with her totally unmade-up face.

However, there is no mention at all of Robert Wilson, and I was surprised that Sylvie Fleury – with her gold-plated shopping trolleys and collections of designer shopping bags and high-heeled shoes with a Mondrian pattern on them which she used to go walking on a Carl Andre floor piece – isn’t in the show.  But then her work is so consistent and conceptual that perhaps she too remains a modern.

THE ART CHOSEN DOESN’T raise the issues that preoccupied artists at the time. I remember how Barbara Reise stood up against Clement Greenberg in Art Forum and demolished his view that art could only be hard edge by asserting that art was anything taken to its own absolute extreme. While primarily concerned with conceptual and minimal art, she also promoted Gilbert and George, Sigmar Polke and John Baldessari (who created an exhibition called I will not make any more boring art in 1971).  Baldessari was a major influence on the postmodernists. Reise also praised COUM Transmissions and Robert Wilson. I remember also how students were exploring new contrasts between hardness and softness (a brick, for instance, resting on a pillow), and how the modernist ‘integrity’ of the stuff  they used was being questioned by sculptors like Anish Kapoor with works as hollow as jelly moulds drenched in grass seeds or covered in pigment.

As an art upheaval, postmodernism heralded in a new way of reading creative practices; and after all, we were sweating our way through Derrida, Baudrillard and Lyotard – more available in translation than Italian writing on the subject.  It was a pretty brainy business. We were taken up with the sexual politics of materials – a preoccupation which led to work like that of Sylvie Fleury.

Without postmodernism’s new take on history, Alison Marchant’s ‘archival art’ might never have surfaced, including her exhibition celebrating the cross-dressing (and very postmodern) Hannah Cullwick and the fetish photography of her eccentric husband Arthur Munby (who were an 1860’s couple similar in a way to Goude and Jones).

LITTLE OF THIS IS brought to mind by the exhibits – though it’s true that the catalogue delves deeper. The basic premise behind what’s on show seems to be that primarily this was a style rather than a movement, a style concerned with banality, hip-hop and sampling.

Celebrating Annie Lennox’s tartan suit, Leigh Bowery’s performance creations, Vivienne Westwood’s Punkature collection, Andrew Logan’s bisexual alternative Miss World dress and David Salle’s costumes for Karole Armitage’s ballets, the exhibition features a wealth of costumed manikins. There is also a glut of architectural fragments. Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, the show already has a slightly fusty, V&A feel to it – full scale recreations of ruined columns are what the V&A does. And boy, those manikins so fit in! As does all that decoration and glitz. Just look down at the mosaic floors, the marbling and the balustrades of the museum. Postmodernism was always so Victorian! And perhaps it emerges out of a similar sense of triumph in the west. We are, or we were, so powerful and diverse! We can afford to promote bad taste.

I think the Romans were rather the same.  I have just returned from Paris, where the Musée Maillol is currently hosting a marvellous exhibition: Pompéi – un art de vivre. It features furniture, cutlery and wall decoration from the city entombed by lava in AD 79. Here, everything is anthropomorphic. Nothing is allowed to simply be itself. Always an animated presence imposes on the furniture and utensils. Handles are hands, feet are paws, spouts are mouths. There’s a set of lamps hanging from a tree – one is a lamp, one is a shell, one is a snail. Then togas flow, with fold upon fold swathing the dignitaries, while on the floor are mosaics which cannot be negotiated, either in or out. They are made solely of cul-de sacs. In the foyer, Sergio Leone’s The Last Days of Pompeii is on sale. Now just how postmodern is that?

A former dancer with the Royal Ballet, Anthony Howell was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement, and he is a frequent contributor to The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice.

Also in The Fortnightly Review: Postmodernism at the V&A Memphis in Kensington, by Keith Johnson.

Exhibition text: Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970-90, by Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt. (US link.)


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