“Postmodernism”: a garish pink-and-green neon of the title fizzes at the entrance to the V&A’s exhibition, a valiant attempt to grapple with that slipperiest of eras. “Style and Subversion 1970–1990”: the show’s subtitle implies a seismic struggle, but can such a thing really begin and end so neatly?
Modernism, cool and clean-cut, had hung on too long; by 1970, change was overdue. Accordingly, “Death to Modernism,” the name of the exhibition’s opening section, became a rallying cry for disaffected designers, artists and architects. In 1974, for the cover of Casabella, Alessandro Mendini set fire, spectacularly, to one of his own starkly simple Lassù chairs. In 1978, Chicago-based architect Stanley Tigerman produced a small photocollage titled The Titanic, depicting Mies van der Rohe’s Crown Hall sinking into Lake Michigan. Charles Jencks went so far as to give modernism an exact time of death—3:32 p.m., March 15, 1972, the moment when a moribund modernist housing project in Missouri was detonated and imploded.
Ruins were seen as sustenance, a route to salvation. The V&A includes a re-creation of the facade of Jencks’s Garagia Rotunda (1976–77), with its broken pediments and other elements borrowed from antiquity; it is shown alongside the earlier Adhocist chair (1968)-by Jencks’s collaborator Nathan Silver-fashioned of a tractor seat, wheelchair parts and handlebars, perhaps from discarded gym equipment. Also reconstructed is the famous entrance to the first International Venice Architecture Biennale (1980) by Hans Hollein, with its Edenic hodgepodge of Classical and Art Deco columns. A more apocalyptic tone is struck by the display of a Rauschenberg Combine beside post-punk fashion designs of Rei Kawakubo and Vivienne Westwood. Not to mention, blazing away on a wall, the opening sequence of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982).
Cutting through the disaffection are some positive notes. In 1967, the Italian architect, critic and teacher Bruno Zevi wrote, “Whoever decides to abandon the modern movement can choose between Versailles and Las Vegas.” The duo of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown chose the latter. While their pioneering concept of the building as “decorated shed”-to which the architect might apply facades and styles like changes of clothes-is not explored enough in either the exhibition (which features only a few photographs) or catalogue, their vision of Sin City, represented by a video, models and photomontages, reflects the more tolerant side of postmodernism, the leveling idea that no one dictum should be esteemed above any other.
Also joyful are the designs of the Italian Memphis Group, fronted by Ettore Sottsass, and of the lesser-known Studio Alchimia: clocks embedded in miniature towers, impractical bulbous teapots, candy-colored home appliances. This is familiar esthetic territory—postmodernism’s predilection for anything kitsch, ironic or rehashed. More unexpected are costumes worn in Blade Runner and by Annie Lennox, Grace Jones and the outrageous German countertenor Klaus Nomi. Also present is the “Big Suit” that David Byrne famously donned in the film Stop Making Sense (1984). Though these “looks” cut a wide swath through 1980s pop culture, there is no explanation of their significance, beyond constituting a frivolous interlude.
The exhibition’s examples of media-centric art (Richard Prince, Jenny Holzer, Cindy Sherman) are few, doing little to establish an understanding of such practices as bricolage and appropriation, and the critique of consumerism. Furthermore, latter-day examples marshaled to argue the survival of a postmodern spirit, such as Ai Weiwei’s Han Dynasty Urn with Coca-Cola Logo (1994) and a coffin in the shape of a Mercedes by Ghanaian cabinetmaker Samuel Kane Kwei (1993), fail to convince. The exhibition functions best when sticking to facts and to concrete examples of architecture and design, rather than extrapolating beyond an already nebulous web of interconnecting disciplines. Hip-hop, for example, is taken as an indication of cultural crossover, and the original turntables used by Grandmaster Flash in the late 1970s accordingly placed on display. If you understand Baudrillard’s theory of simulacra as an analogue of sampling, the turntables might work, at least in theory—but they will not function without the absent mixer, a piece of equipment that facilitates the postmodern cut, blend and mash-up.
Photos: Two views of the exhibition “Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970–1990,” 2011–12; at the Victoria and Albert Museum.