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

Oliver O’Donnell, Bilderfahrzeuge Project,

Chloe Julius, UCL,

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.

Speakers & Abstracts

Action in Dispute: Harold Rosenberg’s Ambivalent Modernism

Christa Robbins (University of Virginia)

In his 1969 essay “The Concept of Action,” Harold Rosenberg (1906-1978) rejected the practice of “removing the object and making the artist’s action into the work of art.” The essay was a response to a tendency, in the 1960s, to read his theory of “action painting” as a precursor to a postmodern performative aesthetic. In this paper, I discuss Rosenberg’s resistance to having his theory of action viewed as a precedent for a postmodern jettisoning of the art object, locating that resistance in what he regarded as art’s political and “moral” imperative to lay bare the limiting conditions within which action unfolds. That imperative was grounded in Rosenberg’s nuanced theory of action, which, in the context of culture, he understood to be played out not as painted or sculpted form, but in the manner by which artists act in the world. That is, his concern was with the social, as opposed to stylistic, character of action, which he described as always taking place within a determinate field. Rejecting a modernist notion of aesthetic autonomy, as well as a postmodernist disregard of the object of art, his essays, and the paintings at their center, reveal the contested status of “the modern” at this moment in the history of American art. This paper demonstrates the difficulty of drawing a sharp line around either modernism or postmodernism once a more complex accounting of postwar painting and criticism is brought into view—one that acknowledges the deep ambivalence with which New York artists stepped into their new “rôle,” as Rosenberg called it, as modernist artists.

Medium-Specificity as Determinate Negation: Why Greenberg was Right in Practice but (Somewhat) Wrong in Theory

Daniel Neofetou (Independent Scholar)

From the late '30s through the '50s, Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) was an incredibly prolific critic whose ekphrastic writing entails an attentiveness to artworks which is rarely seen today. However, he became wholly identified with his more schematic theoretical essays, particularly the 1960 essay 'Modernist Painting', written for radio broadcast by Voice of America, and those collected under the headings 'Culture in General' and 'Art in General' in his Art and Culture, the 1961 book of collected essays which solidified his status as the hegemonic interpreter of late modernism in painting, and precipitated the Oedipal efforts of the next generation of critics, many of them former acolytes.

Whether through the general argument that his critical paradigm was simplyinsufficient to understand works engaged in the fraying of disciplinaryboundaries, the proliferation of happenings, performance and conceptual art and the production of 'texts'; the further contention that, in fact, Greenberg had always missed what was most decisive in the work of artists he championed (Krauss on Pollock); or simply through historicization which sought to locate Greenberg's criticism as relevant only to its specific epochal conjuncture (T.J. Clark and his student John O'Brian), this next generation made the case that the lens through which Greenberg understood art was outdated and inflexibly narrow.

Admittedly, contemporaneously with the rise of so-called postmodern art, Greenberg's writing began to conform to his critics' characterisation of it (although not to the extent that he endorsed art which most crudely 'illustrated' its medium-specificity, as evidenced by his dismissal of the minimalists). Nevertheless, I will argue that postmodernism has become so easily canonised as simply another stage in 20th century art rather than the historic gravedigger of (Greenbergian) modernism, because the latter was never the approbation of purity which could be undermined by art and criticism whose focus was turned to extra-aesthetic or non-medium-specific concerns. Instead, modernism is the term for a moment when art's emancipation from aristocratic and ecclesiastical patronage made evident its transhistorical dialectic, whereby reified, conventional forms are determinately negated, which is a dynamic which persisted as the fulcrum of so-called postmodern art, and continues in art today.

Allan Kaprow’s Writings: Reflections on Form and Life in Art

Alexander Potts (University of Michigan)

Allan Kaprow (1927-2006) is most widely known as a leading advocate and practitioner of the relatively short lived phenomenon of the happening. Of more lasting significance, however, have been his attempts to reconceptualize the problematics of modern art in his extensive and unusually articulate body of theoretical and critical writing. Kaprow offered some of the more suggestive rethinking from the post war period of the underlying tensions, as well as interplay, between an art work’s reality effect and formal logic, an issue that had long preoccupied theorists and critics and promoters of modern art. Such writing, repeatedly interrogating and seeking to push to its limits, but never quite abolishing, the boundary between art and life, culminated in a rich visual and writerly compendium, Assemblage, Environments and Happenings, published in 1966. This set out a critical overview, both global and local to the American East Coast art scene, of experimental currents that engaged his attention. Running through his presentation is a fascination with work that struck him as vividly and concretely actual but also dream-like and in its own way inflected by an underlying feeling for form.  At the same time, as a prefatory comment to the  book indicated, this writing about art, like that of many of his contemporaries, was driven by a larger ambition that went beyond critically examining and creating a historical record of the art of his time: ‘Artists, like critics and historians, make the history they reflect..…’

Meyer Schapiro’s Obsolescence: Pop Art, Happenings, Neo-Dada

Oliver O’Donnell, Bilderfahrzeuge Project

As he approached his retirement, the American art historian and intellectual Meyer Schapiro (1904-1996) still played an active—albeit uneven—role in the New York art world. In addition to his mentorship of figures like Allan Kaprow and Donald Judd, Schapiro also curated the watershed exhibition “Artists of the New York School: Second Generation,” which included works by Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Helen Frankenthaler. In 1971, Schapiro even wrote some unpublished remarks on Pop art. Though Schapiro identified more readily with the art of the 1940s and 50s, his confrontation with truly contemporary art in his later years reveals his conception of Abstract Expressionism to be remarkably open and admirably diverse. By analyzing Schapiro’s relation to the art of this transitional moment—during which time Schapiro self-consciously retreated from the world around him—we can better understand why he struggled with the emergence of postmodernism and why he felt misunderstood, for instance and most famously, by Jacques Derrida.

‘A Rigorous Dialectic of Seeing and Reading’: Annette Michelson’s art criticism

Stephen Moonie (Newcastle University)

Amongst a cohort of modernist critics and artist-writers not generally known for their modesty, Annette Michelson (1922–2018) has occupied a relatively low profile. Nonetheless, she played a crucially formative role in the transition between modernism and post-modernism in the visual arts. Despite Michelson’s role in the formation of October, however, it is misleading to consider her as a post-modernist. Following Robert Genter, it might be more accurate to call her a ‘late modernist.’ Genter uses this term to denote a maturing or complexifying of modernist discourse, although his term refers to the literary and sociological context. From an art-historical perspective, one could mount a similar argument regarding Michelson’s phase as contributing editor at Artforum between 1966–76.

During this period, Michelson’s celebrated essays—including ‘Bodies in Space’ (1968), ‘Toward Snow’ (1971) and ‘Anemic Cinema’ (1973)—established her as a pioneer of film and cinema studies. After her passing in 2018, contributions to a special issue in October tended to focus on those aspects of her oeuvre. However, this paper is more concerned with Michelson’s position in relation to other modernist critics. Her period at Artforum is loosely bookended by a 1968 review of film theorist André Bazin, and a 1975 review of arch-conservative Hilton Kramer. It is within this frame that the paper seeks to further explore Michelson’s critical commitments.

Quaint Postmodernism 

Karen Lang (Independent Scholar)

In ‘The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism,’ an essay published in the journal October in 1980, Craig Owens (1950-1990) brought attention to a new tendency amongst New York artists ‘to generate images through the reproduction of other images’.  He called this tendency ‘the allegorical impulse,’ defining allegory as ‘one image read through another’.  That postmodernism would itself be defined in similar terms was not amiss – Owens zeroed in on a tendency in the contemporary visual arts and his theory would be accepted as gospel.  But what of the larger implications of this theory.  What happens to the unsayable when the work of art is reduced to a ‘text’ which is ‘read’?  What happens when critical attention gravitates to the surface of the work of art?  Is there a lesson for us in the lure of the surface in postmodernism?  Today we swim in an endless currrent of images read through one another, without easy purchase on the underlying conditions from which these images spring.  Is it enough to say that this is our contemporary condition, and that this condition emerged with ‘postmodernism’?  Or is it perhaps time to consider how, in those key essays on postmodernism, the failure to fully interrogate underlying conditions comes at a price.  The fact that these underlying conditions include the shift to neo-liberalism – the same neo-liberalism which continues, intensified, in our own time – prompts the question of whether theory misssed its target.  That we are swamped by the underlying conditions which emerged in postmoderism casts the fancy theoretical footwork in those essays in a new light.  Does it not now appear even the tiniest bit quaint?



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