Best Frenemies: Modernism and Postmodernism

Everybody’s talking about postmodernism. Is pomo dead, dying, or more relevant than ever? Blame it on that exhibition. You can even wag an accusatory finger at current fashion trends that disown 1980s cultural fluency as passé. With all the focus on pomo in these debates, what happened to modernism? Whenever someone brings up painting’s self-referentiality, new media’s technotopias, or photography’s auratic function, well, that’s modernism. It’s still around, and just as relevant as pomo.

Daniel Arsham, "Eyes," 2010.

The easiest way to explain the current relationship between modernism and postmodernism? They’re frenemies. Sure, they disagree on a lot of things – on progress, the nature of time, and medium-specificity, to name just a few – but modernism and postmodernism keep on chatting with each other and hang out at the same exhibitions.

If “modern-postmodern” is too burly for your tongue, “multiple modernisms” means pretty much the same thing. Which term to use isn’t too important; that’d be a nit-picky debate. It’s far more useful to consider how modernism and postmodernism co-exist in current exhibitions as frenemies.

1. Frenemies and Mean Girls

Postmodernism: I’m sorry that people are so jealous of me… but I can’t help it that I’m so popular.

Maybe I’m just whining about the popular girl who has it all. In Mean Girls, modernism gets to fight back against its brainchild with some choice lines like:

Modernism: She thinks she’s gonna have a party and not invite me? Who does she think she is? I like invented her, you know what I mean?

Modernism, I do know what you mean and it’s just not fair.

2. Modern-postmodern Exhibitions

Andrea Rosen’s exhibition of Sterling Ruby and Lucio Fontana might seem like just another postmodern curatorial swipe against art’s hierarchies and chronologies. In the postmodern world, anything’s game, anything can be juxtaposed with anything else.  Ruby’s sculptures, his bulky, technicolor rubble, are rife with appropriation and hybridity, especially when seen alongside Fontana’s viciously slashed works. Replicating Fontana’s modernist gestures of aggression against the physical art object, Ruby transforms his own works into things more akin to artifacts and ruins than monumental sculpture.

The problem with seeing this exhibition as only postmodern is that it renders Fontana’s works lifeless, as if they’ve arrived in the gallery postmortem to be used at the service of the younger artist. Fontana’s works look good in this exhibition and it’s not because they’re bolstering Ruby’s shiny ruins. They still exemplify modernist idealism and progress, specifically Fontana’s belief in Spatialism. For Fontana, slashing the canvas literally opened up a big, black void to the beyond. The space became an ambiguous area for action where potential promise reigned just as much as abject refusal. Regardless of the exact degree of influence between Ruby and Fontana, the quotational aspect of contemporary art leaves traces of modernism in the postmodern, even if there’s no paternalistic premises of an anxiety-driven modernism.

La Carte D’Après Nature, curated by artist Thomas Demand, participates in an archival impulse similar to the one at Andrea Rosen. Demand gathered works consisting of various sources, styles, and decades under the loose curatorial theme of how artists represent the natural world. The exhibition features artists – including René Magritte, Ger van Elk, Luigi Ghirri, Tacita Dean, and Martin Boyce – whose work spans the 1800s to the present day. Taking a postmodernist stance on this exhibition would be easy; pomo throws out familial lines based on chronologies and style in preference for messy, rhizomatic structures.

Alfred Barr, founding Director of The Museum of Modern Art, produced a complicated family tree for the museum’s 1936 exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art. Such a convoluted chart allowed Barr to solidify the status of New York and modern art through endorsement by that undeniable powerhouse, history.

The array of works in La Carte D’Après Nature isn’t based on a modernist tactic like Barr’s. Still, modernism’s there. Works like Magritte’s heighten undertones of the sublime and surreal that might go unnoticed in the more recent works.

Martin Boyce’s Through the Trees (2011), a series of steel, glass, and colored plastic gel windows installed throughout the exhibition space, lets viewers peek into the next room of the gallery and anticipate what’s next. First off, installing windows inside an exhibition space is just funny; not many people are too lazy to walk through the exhibition to see what’s in the following room. Well, that type of person becomes truer and truer each day online. I can get the gist of an exhibition by going to the gallery’s website and I’ve also been known to leave galleries after a few seconds if I don’t like the art. Still, Boyce’s windows are more complicated than an “I want it now” element, getting something with scroll-and-click immediacy.

Postmodern reading of Boyce’s windows: windows are just material things and they might be part of an institutional critique,emphasizing the superficial, false layers of any viewing situation. Fine, but remember what Rosalind Krauss has said about grids in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, that as much as grids are “flattened, geometricized, ordered…antimimetic, antireal,” they’ve also been used by modernist artists as windows to represent “Being or Mind or Spirit.” There’s something strange, sub-aquatic, and otherwordly about Boyce’s geometric windows.

Installation view of Martin Boyce, "Through the Trees (I)", 2011.

3. Post-medium and Technology

If postmodernism’s characterized by the post-medium and modernism by medium-specificity, then that leaves discussions of art and technology out of pomo. SourceURL:file://localhost/Users/corinnakirsch/Desktop/VLA%20Residency%20Writing%20Sample.doc This critique of postmodernism has been explored elsewhere in more detail.  Focusing on medium, or an artwork’s physicality as a framework of communication, has never receded from art practice. New technologies in art, from video to internet-based practices, have continually tended to explore how media produces particular experiences for artists and viewers that can’t be gained elsewhere.

4. Why Post-Modernism Can’t Continue in Its Current State

You’ve heard the dumb argument about why pomo can’t stop: it just can’t end. It’s not that pomo’s end can’t be realized, it can’t be criticized either because an “assessment of the situation of postmod­ernism…might be said to be a still unrecognised achievement of postmodernism.” Puhlease. This is just circular logic: pomo’s logic prevents it from being assessed, therefore preventing its assessment. Pomo, just like mo, came out of a specific historical situation; neither one is a behavior or a set of actions that will go on forever.

In An Anthropology for Contemporaneous Worlds, Marc Augé describes the ability for multiple modernisms to co-exist, where distinct worlds overlap and “each world possesses at least images of the others—images that may well be deformed.”  There’s no escape from pluralism back to a purely chronological history of art. Not when it’s easy to Google any history, giving the feeling that time’s collapsed into a tangled ball of places, names, and all things modern and postmodern.

3 Responses to “Best Frenemies: Modernism and Postmodernism”
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  1. […] forever. Corinna Kirsch has a smart post describing Modernism and Postmodernism as frenemies. [Here is a Fantasy]Artists are behind Occupy Wall Street. Ben Davis provides the background (with mention of the […]

  2. […] People can talk about post-modernism forever. Corinna Kirsch has a smart post describing Modernism and Postmodernism as frenemies. [Here is a Fantasy] […]

  3. […] 1. Because we’re not over Modernism and we’re not over Postmodernism, I wrote Best Frenemies: Modernism and Postmodernism. […]

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