The Victoria & Albert Museum has picked a conundrum of a subject for its new sprawling survey exhibition: “Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990.”
There’s little consensus as to exactly what po-mo was, or even whether it’s over yet. On the other hand, it turns out to be more fun than you might expect.
One way of thinking about styles in the visual arts is to ask the question, what are they good at? Art Deco, the subject of a previous gather-all show at the V&A, excelled at bathrooms, hotels and party dresses. The strong points of postmodernism in the arts were similarly connected with leisure and pleasure.
At the heart of the exhibition is a space resembling a nightclub -- or discotheque as it would have been termed back in the 1970s -- dominated by huge screens on which performers such as Grace Jones and Talking Heads can be seen and heard.
Nearby are smaller screens and headphones through which you can experience period phenomena including hip-hop, break dancing and a pas de deux by performance artist Leigh Bowery and ballet dancer Michael Clarke wearing rococo spacesuits. Elsewhere, clips from “Blade Runner” (1982), Ridley Scott’s epic film of a wild and dark urban future, are projected.
I enjoyed all that, being the kind of person who resists contemporary culture while it’s actually happening then likes it once it’s safely in the past. It’s moot whether po-mo achieved much of lasting value in the non-performing arts. While there’s plenty of oomph on display, there aren’t many masterpieces (not a very postmodern idea, the great work).
A few pieces by art stars such as Rauschenberg and Warhol are scattered around, though you wonder whether they belong there. In architecture, displayed mainly in the form of plans and photographs, postmodernism could be engaging, when small-scale and playful -- as in Frank Gehry’s own house in Santa Monica (1977-78), a witty assemblage of crazy angles and unexpected materials.
Monumental postmodernist architecture, though, tended to be ghastly, as you might expect of a style that depended on questioning all verities and throwing away the rule book. Applied to public buildings, this often resulted in an attempt both to parody and to undermine more rule-bound idioms such as classicism and modernism. Hence: Chippendale office blocks and shopping malls adorned with clunky Doric columns.
The V&A is basically a museum of decorative arts, so in these big surveys, whatever the style under consideration may be -- Baroque, Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts -- there’s always a lot of furniture and crockery on display. In this case, umpteen postmodernist chairs and coffee sets are on show, plus, more surprisingly, craft ceramics.
Jumble of Styles
A lot of these depend on a more or less outrageous mix-and-match of incongruous stylistic ingredients. Alessandro Mendini’s “Proust Chair” (1978) is a case in point: a Baroque seat covered with pointillist dots like a painting by Seurat. It’s memorable, imaginative and a bit horrible. A lot of po-mo is like that. In fact, it has a certain amount in common with the stylistic free-for-all of the mid-19th century. That is: Victoriana or premodernism.
In retrospect, the best of postmodernism is full of energy and pzazz. It was a party style, incongruously for an idiom that is also associated with impenetrably dense theorizing and profoundly dull prose.
Is it over yet? Perhaps not. Renzo Piano’s Shard of Glass, currently rising at London Bridge, looks like a post-modern building to me. What’s gone is the exuberance, suggesting that the current period may be a sort of morning-after-the-party aesthetic hangover: post-postmodernism.
“Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990” is at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, through Jan. 15, 2012. The exhibition is supported by Barclays Plc’s Barclays Wealth. Information: http://www.vam.ac.uk.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. His most recent book is “A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney.” The opinions expressed are his own.)