Published  24/10/2011

From Neon to New Order. Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970-1990

From Neon to New Order

Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970-1990
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
24 September 2011–15 January 2012


“Some of the best postmodernists are modernists on a holiday from orthodoxy” claimed Charles Jencks, postmodernist architect and critic, during a recent discussion with architect Rem Koolhaas.1 In stating this, Jencks implied postmodernism to be pure denial, mere subversion: the adolescent straining against the shackles of its modernist parentage. Yet Jencks went further still, claiming that “the definition of a postmodernist is someone who would deny that they are a postmodernist”. If denial is at the root of postmodernism, it is a denial not only of categorisation, periodisation and stylistic cohesion, but also denial as an end in itself.

Martine Bedin. Super Lamp. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The Victoria and Albert Museum takes this definition of postmodernism – as the self-elected “other” – as the basis for its exhibition Postmodernism: Style and Subversion. Postmodernism’s conceptual elusiveness has long rendered it untouchable by curators, hence the relative lack of exhibitions on the subject until now. It is, after all, an ambitious task to appropriately represent the visual diversity of a period of stylistic history that is underpinned by fragmentation and the refusal of narrative. Yet this is something that perhaps only the V&A, as a museum of the history of design, can attempt: as with its 2006 exhibition Modernism: Designing a New World, the V&A uses Postmodernismnot to draw a conceptual line under a “movement” but instead to explore its visual effects through the output of designers and artists working during that time.

The entrance to the exhibition reflects this intention perfectly. The word “postmodernism” in green and purple neon boldly announces the singular concept that this exhibition celebrates. Yet the garish, slightly faltering appearance of these letters hints at the flimsiness of postmodernism as a concept. Like the neon signs of Las Vegas that early postmodernists Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown considered indicators of a new era defined by vacuous kitsch, this neon announcement speaks of postmodernism’s own spuriousness. The placement of the exhibition’s opening text around the corner from this only enhances this feeling of superficiality, one that continues throughout the show.

Yet it is this emphasis on surface that allows the V&A to avoid the burden of defining their particular brand of postmodernism, beyond that of stylistic diversity. As the exhibition’s subtitle suggests, and the curators Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt claim, style itself is the essential quality that ties all postmodern output together. “Modernism declared itself to be beyond style,” state Adamson and Pavitt, since style indicated plurality rather than one universal truth.2 In offering a simple celebration of stylistic eclecticism, then, Postmodernism deliberately avoids the abundant theoretical discussion of postmodern culture and its wider social, political and economic “conditions”. In addition, by choosing the time period 1970-1990, the curators have intentionally started “too late” and finished “too early”. They cleverly shirk the problematic task of defining a beginning and an end to postmodernism, since to do so would be to trample upon postmodernism’s own commitment to subverting the narrative of progress and patriarchy that modernism had relied upon.

In avoiding the idea of postmodernism’s “birth”, the show commences with several possible beginnings. Ettore Sottsass’s 1967 Totem, accompanied by pieces from the designer Alessandro Mendini, populate a visually uninspiring first gallery space, implying that postmodern design began in 1960s Italy. The opposite wall boasts a large-scale photograph of the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St Louis, Missouri, built during the 1950s. A quotation by Jencks accompanies it, reminding us of his contention that Modernism ended at the exact time the demolition of the crime-ridden Pruitt-Igoe began, at 3.32pm on 15 March 1972, a moment which represented the death knell for modernism’s utopian architectural vision.

A third origin for postmodernism is offered by a space devoted to Venturi and Scott-Brown’s Learning From Las Vegas (1972), the pair’s treatise on architectural symbolism based on their travels in that region. In this book Venturi and Scott-Brown noted the way in which the multiplicity of styles that characterised the architecture of Las Vegas hotels and casinos indicated architecture’s evolution towards communication – particularly in the form of signage – and a subversion of modernist notions of “taste”. In this room, excerpts from the pair’s influential photographic record of Las Vegas architecture are laid over large-scale imagery, accompanied by collages and sculptures and a wall-sized video of cars on the Strip. In confronting the viewer with an overwhelming quantity of imagery, this room echoes the heightened level of visual consumption that Venturi and Scott-Brown saw as characteristic of Las Vegas life. The room also presents itself as a collage in its own right, mirroring the way in which Venturi and Scott-Brown used a new culture of “both/and” rather than “either/or” to assemble their own designs for buildings using clippings from pre-existing materials.

This visual overload is characteristic of Postmodernismas a whole. As the curators state in their catalogue to the exhibition, it is a feature of postmodern objects that they were created with “exhibitionism” in mind. If this show is not devoted to socio-political interpretations of these works then it at least allows their aesthetic power to emerge. The result is an almost inconsumable array of objects that prioritises sensation over thematic comprehension. Yet this is a curatorial choice that cannot be faulted: if postmodernism refused to sanction thematic tendencies or narratives, then what right has the viewer to expect this exhibition to do so?

The failure of the modernist project, exemplified for Jencks in the demise of the Pruitt-Igoe estate, opens up one theme that the exhibition deals with successfully: the complex relationship between postmodernism and the past. Gaetano Pesce’s plans for a Church of Solitude (1974-77) in New York sees individuals living in a contemplative underground space, away from the stacked life of the metropolis. Marked on ground level by classical ruins, the Church of Solitude suggests that visions for the future can be formed through an excavation of the past and a physical removal from the relentless march of progress. Similarly, Rem Koolhaas’ gouache drawing illustrating “The Story of the Pool” that concluded his 1978 manifesto Delirious New York demonstrates postmodernism’s rejection of the immediate modernist past and its utopian principles. This highly surreal image shows a scene in which Russian constructivists, having designed the ideal modernist metropolis in the form of a floating swimming pool, find that by swimming backwards in the pool they can propel the entire structure forward. They swim it (backwards) to New York, anticipating praise for their engineering of a prototype for the future of Modernism, but on arrival find that Modernism has already died amid the banality of New York’s skyscrapers. By moving backwards in order to move forwards, Koolhaas’s Constructivists have undermined the very concept of progress, paving the way for a postmodernist approach to designing the city.

Yet this show hesitates to present postmodernism as an outright rejection of the past. A key aesthetic strategy in postmodernism has been appropriation and assemblage: the creation of something new from the cumulative process of cutting and pasting imagery from elsewhere. In Peter de Bruyne’s Chantilly chest (1975), the concept of newness is radicalised by the superimposition of strips of blue, black and white lacquer over half of a 19th-century lacquer-and-gold cabinet. Complementing this in the show is the impressively reconstructed facade made by Hans Hollein for Strada Novissima: The Presence of the Past at the very first Venice architecture biennale in 1980. Here six styles of column narrate the transition from Doric simplicity to Modernist monumentalism, all the while permitting the eye to collage these styles into something unsettling and eclectic for a new age of architecture.

If postmodernism’s relationship with the past was largely serious and self-critical, the visions for the future that were born out of this were by contrast humorous, ironic and outlandish. This exhibition does well not to neglect these more light-hearted elements of postmodernism. Ron Arad’s Concrete Stereo (1983) uses industrial material to form a deadpan, oxymoronic object, in which form and material nullify function. Ettore Sottsass’s Casablanca sideboard of 1981 is central to a display devoted to the Memphis group of designers, and speaks of that movement’s subversion of modernist simplicity through bright colour and superfluous decoration. This is exemplified by Peter Shire’s famous Bel Air chair (1981-82), which resembles children’s soft play apparatus and seems to promise a fun, pop-inspired sitting experience in place of stability or comfort.

Yet the remainder of the exhibition holds a darker tone. Spaces dealing with performance and graphic design, though they address postmodernism’s superficiality and exhibitionism, are rife with the concerns over identity and voice that postmodern culture focused on but which this show does not adequately draw out. Kraftwerk’s The Robots (1978), for instance, is offered as an example of the self-styled and hyper-cultivated image consciousness that pop music began to experience from the 1970s onwards. Yet what is not addressed is the broader dystopian vision that bands such as Kraftwerk held for the future, one in which love, voice and identity become programmable and predictable in an age governed by computers. In a separate space, a video of Laurie Anderson performing songs from her 1982 album Big Science raises questions of sexual identity and the power of language through the vocoder-mediated monotone of Anderson’s voice. Photographs by Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman could have continued Anderson’s a potential narrative regarding loss of identity and unfixed individuality amid cultural permissiveness had they not been shown in a separate room among a dense display of magazines, advertisements and poster designs.

Despite the curators’ declared intention to locate their concerns firmly outside of postmodernism’s social, political and economic environment, the final section of this show is nonetheless devoted to one particular facet of the postmodern condition: money. Yet this condition is approached through a confusing mixture of celebration – of the reinvention of crafted, saleable objects – and cynicism – for the prevalence of commodity culture  during the 1980s and postmodernism’s part-culpability in relation to this. If mass production and money culture was what Andy Warhol satirised in his Dollar Sign screenprint of 1980, which greets us as we enter this section, this culture was also Warhol’s and many others’ means of generating revenue from easily manufactured artworks. For instance, Michael Graves’ Mickey Mouse Gourmet Collection (1991) gently mocks the iconic outline of Mickey Mouse’s ears and the merchandise-fuelled success of the Disney brand, all the while creating a product that his own customers will recognise and pay for.

These pieces are accompanied by outright criticisms of consumer culture: a photograph of Jenny Holzer’s neon statement Protect Me From What I Want (1983-85), alongside Frank Schreiner’s Consumer’s Rest Chair (1983) formed from a shopping trolley and Andreas Gursky’s large-scale photograph of the Toyko stock exchange(1990). Though these make for interesting insights into the wider concerns of postmodernism, they feel tacked on to the show. The “Money” section of the exhibition is a concession to the broad set of complex commentaries made by postmodernists on capitalism, politics, language, race, and gender, among much more, without offering a full exploration of these commentaries beyond their basic manifestation in design.

The exhibition ends as falteringly as it started: having begun with the kitsch of neon, it trails off with a room showing the video for New Order’s Bizarre Love Triangle (1986), quoting thelyrics “Why can’t we be ourselves like we were yesterday?” The V&A has an answer to this question. Not only has our world changed in the wake of postmodernism, but we are not, technically, in its wake: “We are still feeling postmodernism’s effects. In that sense, like it or not, we are all postmodern now.”3 In claiming this, the V&A exempts itself from the usual sense of closure that would be expected of such an important exhibition. More specifically, it escapes any charge of “historicising” postmodernism that might be levelled against it by stating that the exhibition itself, and its audience, are themselves postmodern and thus lack sufficient distance from the subject to draw any consensus on it. Coming at the end of a powerful and visually exhausting experience, this way of ending the show might strike viewers as an easy way out.

Yet one could argue that a firm conclusion is not necessary here. As is characteristic of the postmodern approach to many art forms, the process or means of expressing something is as important as its conclusion. By offering a fragmentary portrait of the “shattered mirror” that is postmodernism4, this exhibition’s curatorial (if not theoretical) adherence to the central tenets of postmodernism – its celebration of the low-brow, social experience of culture, of kitsch superficiality, of an eclecticism that defies narrative – is true to its subject. In the end, the show’s failure to produce a digestible visual experience characterises its success – a success bound up with failure that is itself an act of postmodern contradiction.


1. ‘Rem Koolhaas – Talking Architecture’ held at the Victoria and Albert Museum on Friday 30 September 2011.

2. G Adamson and J Pavitt, ‘Postmodernism: Style and Subversion’, in Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970-1990, Victoria and Albert Museum, 2011, p. 13.

3. Exhibition wall text, Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970-1990, Victoria and Albert Museum, 2011.

4. Anderson and Pavitt, ‘Postmodernism’, p. 13. The exhibition catalogue itself reflects this fragmentation: it consists of a long essay by Anderson and Pavitt followed by forty shorter (four- to six-page) essays by a wide range of writers, historians and practitioners who discuss an immensely diverse cross-section of postmodernist themes and objects.

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