How New York Lost the Idea of (Post)Modern Art

Oliver O’Donnell, Bilderfahrzeuge Project, odonnell@bilderfahrzeuge.org

Chloe Julius, UCL, chloe.julius.18@ucl.ac.uk

The historiography of postwar American art tracks a movement from the modern to the contemporary. But this was not the experience of the artists and critics who lived through the transition. For those intent on squeezing out modernism’s last drops, as well as for those washing their hands of it, ‘postmodern’ was a far more apposite word to describe the paradigm shift. That the postmodern has been absorbed into the contemporary testifies to the way in which postmodernism fell below its stated intentions. This defeat was naturalised in the 1990s by passing postmodernism off as a fad, rather than taking seriously its oedipal ambitions.

At stake in the burial of the postmodern is the object of its critique: the modern. Though Habermas tells us that this too was an incomplete project, postmodernism has obscured modernism’s contingency by rendering it a fait accompli. This panel seeks to charge both the modern and the postmodern with possibility once more by resurfacing the intellectual histories of those working at the fraught intersection of both. While pinpointing the gathering point for such histories in 1960s New York, the panel also welcomes papers that explore the precursors and aftershocks for this critical juncture, widening the historical reach to Partisan Review, October and everything in between.

Today, as we live through various crises defined by some of the very forms of thinking that postmodernism helped popularize—namely, modes of scepticism about norms of evaluation and arguments about identity— its historicisation has become all the more pressing. By framing the turn away from both modernism and postmodernism not as progress but as a loss, this panel asks whether we can locate within the period’s well-rehearsed debates – for example, about minimalism, pop, photography, or indeed Clement Greenberg – an art history that could have been.

Information about the speakers and papers on this panel will be posted shortly. 

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