Post Modernism

I chose Post modernism and Neo-Expressionism for my post 1950’s movements because I had no idea what either term really meant.  This exercise in contextual studies has been really interesting but also difficult and I have found myself dipping between different books trying not to get confused.  I wanted to say they were abstract or conceptually challenging, but of course in the context of art those words have a different meaning to normal life.

Dempsey describes Post-Modernism as a notoriously contentious term.. I can see why.


As a starting point for exploring what is meant by Post-modernism I thought I should investigate what is meant by Modernism, and so have been reading as essay by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood called ‘Modernity and Modernism Reconsidered’.  I have found it fascinating, but very dense and I am having to go over passages more than once to comprehend them.  As I understand it there never was a movement as such called Modernism, but it was a framework (paradigm) through which art of a period through the 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s was viewed by certain art critics.  The definition was set out by Clement Greenberg, a very influential art critic, in many articles and essays he was writing in the first half of the 1960’s.  Greenberg and his successors (Michael Fried was the main one quoted) believed they were identifying which of new art works being produced would be viewed retrospectively as masterpieces.   They stated a really excellent art work which would survive the test of time would need to be considered purely on aesthetic grounds, and that the works of painters Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski, and the sculpture of Anthony Caro were true masterpieces.  Interestingly the artists were  reading what the critics wrote: the essay inferred there was an interplay between what the critics said was true excellence and what the the artists produced, and that this had potential to undermine the artistic integrity of the work, in the same way that money and the commercial art market does. Greenberg et al were fans of the Abstract Expressionists and seemed to have a very purist, elitist and conservative approach.  They were not impressed by art which had a political or activist element, by anything theatrical or performance based, by pop art, or by art that had a primary conceptual purpose.  Another english art critic of that time was Clive Bell who coined the term ‘significant form’ to describe the distinctive type of “combination of lines and colours” which makes an object a ‘work of art’.  Bell was also a key proponent of the claim that the value of art lies in its ability to produce a distinctive aesthetic experience in the viewer.

201_kenneth_noland-aprilKenneth Noland 1960.  At the time Noland and Louis were experimenting with acylics which were a new medium at that time, and with painting on primed and unprimed canvases.  Their work was praised for its objective and increasing orientation to flatness.

In Harrison and Woods essay they compare two works of art: Antony Caro’s Prairie 1967 and Robert Morris’ Untitled 1967:


The work above by Caro was praised by Fried as being an excellent masterpiece: “the finest work of art by an englishman since Constable”.  The fact that the metal rods which apparently hang in space achieve that appearance by weighting the ends, causing visual and mental trickery is not of consequence to the modernist critique where all that matters is what is seen.  The work on the right, by Morris, will vary where it is displayed, as it is a pile of pieces of felt unconnected with each other.  The one shown in the book ( I couldn’t find it on-line) is subtitled 264 pieces of felt cut in varying shapes and sizes.  As such the sculpture is true to its materials, there is no visual manipulation, and at the time Morris was exploring the idea of “anti-form” and sculpture beyond objects, challenging the writings of Clive Bell.  In Morris’ work the process of how the materials are manipulated or assembled is part of the work, its quality is not just about the finished product.  According to the Guggenheim website, in the works Morris made using felt, along with Eva Hesse’ work and Rishard Serra at that time, they moved from Minimalism  into the category of Post Minimalism. 

Modernist Art is very narrowly defined by critics such as Greenberg and Fried and in Harrison and Woods essay, but there are much broader definitions, in which modernism started in art following the industrialisation of the nineteenth century, and the start of the Impressionist movement.  It was a response to the rapidly changing nature of society brought about by the machine age, and the optimism about what could be achieved given the fast changing developments and achievements.  It was also a response to the development of photography which questioned the traditional role of painting as largely representative.


Moving on to what constitutes post-modernism then, there are a few clues, but not a hard and fast definition.  It started to be talked about at the end of the 1970’s .  This is significant politically, socially and economically as it was when some key western nations (UK and USA) shifted considerably to the right: gone were the broadly welfare state socially inclusive values that had held sway since the end of WW2; in were Thatcherism, Reaganism, Monetarism and the supremacy of the individual over the community. It was also a time when people were beginning to questioning the role of technology, the exploitation of resources.  The world had not quite started to be taken over by desk top pc’s, the internet and mobile phones, but the explosion in interconnectivity would occur within the next decade.

Some definitions I have found are:

Harrison and Woods say “it may be that the role of the spectator is key to the sense of a ‘post-modernist’ painting”, whereas in a Modernist work the role of the painter was passive.

French theorist Jean Francois Lyotard wrote in his book ‘the Post Modern Condition’ that man lived in a state of constant crisis because he was “desperately overwhelmed by technology” and that while the ‘modern’ was characterised by categories such as history time space and concept which were objective, the ‘post -modern’ questioned such values, talked about one time, one history, one space, which were subjective.  They were thinking much more philosophically about our role in time, space and the universe, maybe more about the meaning of life.  Whereas the modernists, the avante-garde, the minimalists, the conceptualists had all been about the reduction to the elemental, but this emphasis totally changed with the beginning of the 80’s. (Parmesani)

Post Modernism aimed to express the experience of living at the end of the twentieth century, and has often engaged with social and political issues.  Starting with the idea that art has traditionally served the white male middle class dominant group, post modernist artists have chosen to highlight marginalized groups and environments.  Post modernist artists have grappled with ideas such as ‘what is truth’ and ‘in what sense is originality possible’. Popular culture and imagery is incorporated, and juxtaposing dissimilar objects have also been elements of post modernist art.(Dempsey)

Examples of Post Modernist works:


Fountain (after Marcel Duchamp: A.P.)
Sherrie Levine

“I try to make art which celebrates doubt and uncertainty. Which provokes answers but doesn’t give them. Which withholds absolute meaning by incorporating parasite meanings. Which suspends meaning while perpetually dispatching you toward interpretation, urging you beyond dogmatism, beyond doctrine, beyond ideology, beyond authority.”–Sherrie Levine  she has repeatedly takenthe ideas of famous art works by male artists and reworked them.  This is not a apinted urinal, it is totally made in bronze and polished to a high glossy finish.


Barbara Kruger, Your Comfort is My Silence, 1981 

These works and others by Kruger were reproduced in all sorts of unconventional ways such as on billboards, teeshirts etc.  Their political purpose was as important as their aesthetic purpose.





Julian Schnabel, St Francis in Ecstasy, 1980

Schnabel started working in this vein in the 1970’s was supported by the Saatchis and heavily promoted.  Harrison and Woods characterise Schnabels work as follows: “Scale, gesture, energy,boldness, apparent conviction and so forth all serve to reinflate the sense of the artist as a ‘visionary’: one who feels deeply, acts on impulse – yet profoundly – and offers up his insights to those who, in turn, are free enough of drab convention to appreciate the liberating message.”  (I really hope that was irony!)

It is more difficult to establish what movements followed Post-Modernism as we get closer to the current day, and to publication of the text books I have been using.  Although 1980 was nearly 30 years ago, to me it seems like yesterday and the issues being addressed then are still relevant.  We are still questioning the role of industrialisation and the use of resources and the balance of power; maybe the big change is the urgency of the debate as back then the words ‘climate change’ were not established as a major cause of concern.


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