Once upon a time a hopelessly hopeful (but not utopian) new kind of inclusive and hybrid (but not universal) belief system magically appeared, dedicated to saving architecture and art from the doctrinaire constraints of Modernism. It was called Postmodernism, and was everything that the Modernists found taboo: it included such impurities as theatricality, illusionism, and ornamentality. The sterile forms of Modernism were suddenly seen as dogmatic, brutal, and exhausted. By contrast, Postmodernism was regarded by some as the start of a major historical transition from the modern era to . . . well, no one knew exactly what. In the words of the time, it represented a major paradigm shift.
For many, Postmodernism began with architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s epiphany: Las Vegas is our Versailles. Their book Learning from Las Vegas was published in 1972, just a few years after the widespread student protests, counter-culture communes, and dropouts of 1968 had signaled opposition to the Modernist belief system. By the late ’70s, Charles Jencks’s theoretical texts had appeared, and so had Frank Gehry’s radically deconstructed renovation of his own house in Santa Monica. Postmodern piazzas and colonnades began emerging, along with oxidized copper trim. But what got the most attention was a Midtown New York skyscraper with a Chippendale pediment—the AT&T building, designed by a former glass-box Modernist, Philip Johnson.
In art, which adapted Postmodernism to its own ends, things were less simple. By 1969, Earthworks, scatter-works, Conceptual art, and Duchamp’s Étant donnés—his disturbingly real peephole landscape diorama that embodied what his symbolic bachelors did to the formerly disembodied bride—had changed the nature of advanced art. A startling image of a vulnerable blue Earth taken from the moon seemed to predict a new art of natural substances, ongoing processes, illusory images, and real-time systems. Ransacking, recycling, scavenging, and appropriating from the real world, many artists at that time also seemed to be abandoning abstraction and geometry.
Among the first to be considered Postmodern were the highly politicized San Diego narrative Conceptualists and video artists of the ’70s: Martha Rosler, Eleanor Antin, Helen and Newton Harrison, and Suzanne Lacy among them. While Rosler was merging Vietnam war scenes with suburban living rooms in photocollages or mailing recipe postcards that targeted class disparities, Antin was sending postcards across the U.S. of 100 disembodied boots on their way to war. And while the Harrisons were mapping polluted waterways, Lacy pinpointed the sites of rapes in L.A. on a five-part feminist map. By 1980, Postmodernism—which had started as an insurrection against the worn-out abstract strategies of the New—had become a controversial theory that set academics off hurling insults at one another about whether Modernism would ever end or whether it was already kaput.
At around the same time, painting returned from its stupor in a dizzying array of disguises: New Image painting (Jennifer Bartlett and Robert Longo, for instance), Pattern and Decoration (Robert Kushner and Kim MacConnel), the Italian transavantgarde (Sandro Chia, Enzo Cucchi, and Francesco Clemente), the German painters (Georg Baselitz and Jörg Immendorff), and the Neo-Expressionists, chief among them David Salle. Julian Schnabel straddled the fence—his crockery and paintings on Japanese backdrops were obviously Postmodern, but his swashbuckling paint was, arguably, a Modernist throwback.
Apart from Cindy Sherman, who became the quintessential Postmod poster girl, it was a thorny question of who was and was not PoMo. When appropriation art appeared, and Richard Prince (with his rephotographed Marlboro Man) and Sherrie Levine (with her play-it-again Walker Evans photos) began squabbles over who had been the first to abandon the Modernist dictum of Make It New, PoMo went retro (this stage was later dubbed the Pictures Generation). By the end of the ’80s, the terms were multiplying: post-Postmodernism, Supermodernism, Hypermodernism, Neo-modernism, Anti-modernism, Altermodernism. The one thing everyone seemed to agree about was the major role being played by irony and pastiche.
During the 1990s, Postmodernism got swallowed whole by all the things it had spawned: multicultural art, feminist projects, politicized photoworks, and installations about gender, race, ethnicity, and the Other.
Now, some 20 years later, the ghost of Postmodernism has returned. What once was a radical concept in Western culture that dominated avant-garde discourse for nearly two decades—and signaled a shift from analysis to synthesis, from grids to maps, from the shock of the new to the retrieval of the old—has resurfaced as nothing more than a decorative style that is basically an update of Art Deco.
This revival re-emerged last autumn, spearheaded by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which mounted a major design exhibition, “Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990.” The show, which is at the Swiss National Museum in Zurich through October 28, treats Postmodernism not as an inevitable earth-shattering, paradigm-shifting movement but as just another style trend, like Punk or Goth. It features Memphis furniture, Vivienne Westwood fashions, the Alessi teapot, and Grace Jones’s cubistic maternity dress.
Meanwhile, in the United States, there were clashes between PoMo and Promo factions about whether Postmodernism really was a style. In contrast to when it first appeared, this resuscitated Postmodernism was mostly about decor and argument. At its start, it seemed to slice through history, announcing the finality of the modern tradition as well as its own moral quest for content, context, and substance in the pre-digital world of its day. Today, in our thoroughly fragmented, commodified, and fetishized early 21st century, the update becomes a farce, having everything to do with stylishness and inclusiveness, and nothing to do with substance. “Postmodernism is a sort of early warning system for the lives we lead now,” said Glenn Adamson, cocurator with Jane Pavitt of the V&A design show, which not only included Kraftwerk, but also hip-hop performers and even the dissident art hero of 2011, Ai Weiwei. “Singapore, Beijing, and Dubai are arguably more Postmodern now than Milan and London ever were.” But this is what happens: the radical fringe becomes the dominant look. The profound concept becomes a matter of shallow surfaces. And that’s exactly how Postmodernism ended up.
In the past couple of years, there’s been a new post-Postmodern movement lurking in Europe: Metamodernism. It features an agenda that involves art that is impermanent, incremental, provisional, and idiosyncratic, as well as site-specific and performative, emotive and perceptual, devious and questioning.
Advanced by cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker, who have published Notes on Metamodernism as a webzine, Metamodernism neatly negotiates the built-in confusions and contradictions between Modernism and Postmodernism. Vermeulen and van den Akker propose that “the Postmodern culture of relativism, irony, and pastiche” is finished, having been replaced by a post-ideological condition that stresses engagement, affect, and storytelling. “Meta,” they note, implies an oscillation between Modernism and Postmodernism and therefore must embrace doubt, as well as hope and melancholy, sincerity and irony, affect and apathy, the personal and the political, and technology and techne (which is translated as “knowingness”).
Sense and nonsense play a role, too. So does quirkiness. In the foreground today are such so-called Metamodernists as Ragnar Kjartansson, Pilvi Takala, and Cyprien Gaillard, all of whom work in Berlin and whose work is characterized by a fluid esthetic that refers to nostalgia, make-believe, and old-fashioned painting as if it were performance. Kjartansson, who performs musically as well, painted one portrait a day of a friend in a Speedo swimsuit for the 2011 Venice Biennale. Takala’s video intervention in an office job, shown in the “Ungovernables” exhibition at the New Museum, followed the artist as she pretended to do nothing for days on end—a bewilderingly sincere performance that questioned the concept of labor. And Gaillard, interested in the concept of failure, combines picturesque romanticism and entropic Land Art, setting off fire extinguishers in the landscape, recording the rubble of demolished modern buildings, and commissioning landscape paintings. In the work of these artists, reality, fiction, old-fashioned representation, and recent relational strategies come to terms with failure, instability, and all the looming “as ifs” of the present moment.
Kim Levin is an independent art critic and curator.