In the later decades of the 20th century, art critics (such as Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg) assumed a commanding role. Their categorization of movements and their interpretation and evaluation of monuments became a kind of monitoring, gate keeping activity that determined, as well as, described what was going on in the art world. The voluminous and influential writing these critics (along with artists and art historians) produced prompted scholars to examine the basic premises of criticism. This examination has generated a field of study known as critical theory. Critical theorists view art and architecture, as well as literature and other humanities, as a culture’s intellectual products or “constructs”. These constructs unconsciously suppress or conceal the actual premises that inform the culture, primarily the values of those politically in control. Thus cultural products function in an ideological capacity, obscuring for example, racist and sexist attitudes. When revealed by analysis, the facts behind these constructs, according to the critical theorists, contribute to a more substantial understanding of artworks, buildings, books, and the overall culture.
Achieving this form of analysis seems to be straight forward, but is actually very complex. The analysis often reveals contradictions rather than seamless understanding. Many critical theorists use an analytical strategy called deconstruction, after a method developed by French intellectuals Michael Foucault and Jacques Derrida, in the 1960’s and 1970’s. For those employing deconstruction, all cultural contexts are “texts.” Acknowledging the fact of fixed or uniform meaning of such texts, critical theorists accept a variety of interpretations as valid. Further, as cultural products, how texts signify and what they signify are entirely conventional. They can refer to nothing outside of themselves, only to other texts. Thus, no extra textual reality exits that people can reference. The enterprise of deconstruction is to reveal the contradictions and instabilities of these texts or cultural language (written or visual).
With primarily political aims, deconstructive analysis has the ultimate goal of effecting political and social change. Accordingly, critical theorists who employ this approach seek to uncover, deconstruct, the facts of power, privilege, and prejudice underlying the practices and institutions of any given culture. In doing so, deconstruction reveals the precariousness of structures and systems, such as language and cultural practices, along with the assumptions underlying them. Yet it is because of the lack of fixed meaning in texts, many politically committed thinkers assert that deconstruction does not provide a sufficiently stable basis for dissent.
Critical theorists are not unified by about any philosophy or method, because in principle they oppose firm definitions. They are suspicious of all traditional truth claims and value standards, all hierarchical authority and institutions. For them, deconstruction means destabilizing established meanings, definitions, and interpretations while encouraging subjectivity and individual differences.
Deconstructivist architecture emerged in the 1970’s. It proposes, above all, to disorient the observer. Deconstructivist architects attempt to disrupt the conventional categories of architecture and to rupture the viewer’s expectations based on them. Destabilization plays a major role in this type of architecture. Disorder, dissonance, imbalance, asymmetry, unconformity, and irregularity replace their opposites – order, consistency, balance, symmetry, regularity, and clarity, as well as harmony, continuity, and completeness. The haphazard presentation of volumes, masses, planes, borders, lighting, locations, directions, spatial relationships, as well as disguised structural facts, challenge the viewer’s assumptions about architectural form and its function.
Gunter Behnisch (b. 1922) designed the Hysolar Institute Building at the University of Stuttgart. It was part of a joint German-Saudi Arabian project on the technology of solar energy. The architect intended to deny the possibility of spatial enclosure altogether. His apparent chaotic arrangement of units defies easy analysis. The roof, walls, and windows seem to explode destroying any notion of clear stable masses. This “disorder” was purposed by the architect to force the viewer to examine their basis for understanding architecture.
Perhaps the most known architect of Deconstructivist architecture is Canadian born Frank Gehry (b. 1929). Trained in sculpture and a collaborator with Claes Oldenburg and Donald Judd, Gehry would create his designs by building models, cutting them up, and then reassembling them until he had a satisfying composition. His most notable projects are the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, the Disney Symphony Hall in California, and the Dancing House in Prague, Czechoslovakia and the Band Shell in Grant Park in Chicago.
The Guggenheim is dramatic mass of asymmetrical and imbalance forms, and the irregularity of the main masses – whose profiles change dramatically with every shift of the viewer’s position – seems like collapsing units. The scaled limestone and titanium clad exterior lends a space age character to the building. It contrasts with the surrounding heavily industrialized city of Bilbao. In the center of the museum, an enormous glass walled atrium that soars to 165 feet in height serving as the focal point for all three levels of galleries radiating from it. The seemingly weightless screens, vaults, and volumes of the interior seem to float and flow into one another.
Post Modernism in Painting, Sculpture, and New Media
Arriving at a definition of postmodernism in other media is also difficult. Historically by the 1970’s, the range of what was considered art was so broad and inclusive that it is difficult to define it. Just as postmodern architecture incorporates traditional elements or historic references, many post modern artists reveal a self consciousness about their place in the historical continuum of art. They resurrect artistic traditions to comment on and reinterpret or revaluate those styles or idioms.
There is broad disagreement on the elements comprising postmodern art. Many people view postmodernism as a critique on modernism. For example, numerous postmodernists have undertaken the task of challenging modernist principles such as the avant-garde’s claim to originality. In the avant-garde artists’ zeal to undermine traditional notions about art and to produce ever more innovative art forms, they placed a premium on originality and creativity. Postmodernist artists challenge this claim by addressing issues of the copy or reproduction (already explored by the pop artists) and the appropriation of images or ideas from others.
Other scholars, such as Frederic Jameson, assert that a major characteristic of postmodernism is the erosion of the boundaries between high culture and pop culture – a separation Clement Greenberg and the modernists had staunchly defended. With the appearance of Pop art, that separation became more difficult to maintain. Jameson argues that the separation between high and mass cultures, in fact, a defining feature of the new postmodernism. He attributes the emergence of postmodernism to “a new type of social life and a new economic order – which is often euphemistically called modernization, postindustrial or consumer society, the society of the media, or the spectacle, or multinational capitalism.”
For many recent artists, postmodernism involves examining the process by which meaning is generated and the negotiation or dialogue that takes place between viewers and art works. Most postmodern artists reject the idea that each artwork contains a fixed meaning. Their work, in part explores how viewers derive meaning from visual material.
Postmodern art then, involves a wide array of artworks. While some involve critiques of the modernist program, others present critiques of the art world, and still others incorporate elements of and provide commentary on previous art.
One of the first coherent movements to emerge during the postmodernist era was Neo-Expressionism. This movements name reflects the postmodernist artists’ interest in reexamining earlier art production and connects art to the powerful intense works of the German Expressionists and the Abstract Expressionists.
Julian Schnabel (b. 1951) is an American artist who experimented widely with materials and supports- from broken china plates bonded to wood, to paint on velvet and tarpaulin. He was very interested in the physicality of the objects. In The Walk Home, Schnabel superficially recalls the work of the gestural abstractionists. The thick mosaic like texture, an amalgamation of media, brings together painting, mosaic, and low relief sculpture and extends paint beyond previous boundaries.
Susan Rothenberg (b. 1945) produced a major series of large paintings with the horse as a central image. The horse theme resonates with history and metaphor from Roman equestrian sculpture to the paintings of German Expressionist Franz Marc. Like Marc, Rothenberg used the horse as a metaphor for humanity. She stated, “The horse was a way of not doing people, yet was a symbol of people, a self portrait, really. Rothenberg depicts the horse in such a way as her work fall into the ambiguous area between representation and abstraction. In Tattoo, the loose painting style and surface agitation account for Rothenberg’s categorization as a Neo-Expressionist. The title of the work is derived from her description of a tattoo as a memory image, which was her intention.
Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945), a German artist created works on a large scale that draw immediate attention. Kiefer’s images function on a mythological and metaphorical level, as well as a historic specific one. Kiefer’s works in the 1970’s and 1980’s often involve the reexamination of German history, particularly the Nazi era of 1933-1945 and evoke feelings of despair. Kiefer believes that Germany’s participation in WWII and the Holocaust left permanent scars on the souls of the German people and on the souls of humanity.
Nigredo (the Latin word for “blackening”) pulls the viewer into an expansive landscape depicted using Renaissance perspective. The landscape is not a thing of beauty; rather it is bleak and charred. Although it does not make specific reference to the Holocaust, this incinerated landscape does indirectly allude to this historic event. More generally the blackness of the landscape may refer to the notion of alchemical change or transformation, a concept of great interest to Kiefer. Black is one of the four symbolic colors of the alchemist- a color that refers to death and to the molten chaotic state of substances broken down by fire. The alchemist, however, focuses on the transformation of substances, and thus the emphasis on blackness is not absolute, but it can be perceived as a process of renewal and redemption. Kiefer imbued his work with a deep symbolic meaning that when combined with his textured surfaces have great impact.
Breaking of the Vessals is Anselm Kiefer’s massive sculpture that visualizes the idea of creation put forth in the Kabbalah, a collection of ancient Jewish mystical writings. According to Kabbalistic tradition, the attributes of God—his mercy, wisdom, and power, for example—were divided among ten vessels that were not strong enough to contain them. The breaking of the vessels symbolizes the destruction that brought the divine essences into an imperfect world. In this commanding work of art, Kiefer reflects on the fragility and imperfection of human existence. The spirit of God is represented in the semicircular pane of glass that is suspended above the bookcase and inscribed with the word Ain-Sof. The deconstructed bookcase below is crammed with folios of lead and glass, alluding to the richness of Jewish culture and the many times it has been threatened throughout history. The lead markers attached to the bookcase symbolize the ten vessels of the divine essence. All the signs of destruction and broken glass recall the infamous Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany, when in 1938 the windows of synagogues and Jewish-owned storefronts were smashed. Kiefer’s installation becomes a towering monument to the persecution and attempted destruction of Jews and Jewish culture during the Nazi era.
Chris Ofili (b. 1968) while not grouped with the Neo-Expressionists produced work that was empathetically expressionistic in nature. Ofili explored themes such as religion (he was raised Catholic) reinterpreted through the eyes of a British born Nigerian. The Holy Virgin Mary was a very controversial piece that depicts Mary in a manner that radically departs from conventional Renaissance representations. The Virgin is simplified and appears to float in an ambiguous space. The artist used bright colors applied to the canvas in multiple layers of beadlike dots inspired by ancient works in caves in Zimbabwe. The Virgin Mary is surrounded by tiny images of genitalia and buttocks cut out from pornographic magazines, which are placed in similar positions as angelic beings in Renaissance paintings. Ofili then placed clumps of elephant dung, one on Mary’s breast and two under the bottom corners for support. The dung allowed Ofili to incorporate his African heritage into the work in a literal way. The Holy Virgin Mary created great controversy when it was exhibited in the show Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection in Brooklyn, New York in 1999.
Art as a Political Weapon
With the renewed interest in representation brought about by the Pop artists and Superrealists in the 1960’s and 1970’s, artists began to embrace the persuasive powers of art to communicate to a wider audience. In recent decades artists have investigated more directly the dynamics of power and privilege, especially in relation to issues of race, ethnicity, gender, and class.
In the 1970’s, the Feminist movement focused public attention on the history of women and their place in society. In art, two women – Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro – largely spearheaded the American Feminist Movement under the auspices of the Feminist Art Program, which Chicago and art students founded. It was coordinated under the California Institute of the Arts.
Judy Chicago (b. Judy Cohen 1939) wanted to educate viewers about the role of women in history and fine arts. She aimed to establish a respect for women and their art, to forge a new kind of art expressing women’s experiences, and to find a way to make art more accessible to large audiences. Inspired early in her career by Georgia O’Keefe, Barbara Hepworth, and Louise Nevelson, Chicago developed a painting style that consciously included abstract organic vaginal images. In the Early 1970’s, Chicago began planning a monumental piece called The Dinner Party. She used craft techniques (such as china painting and stitchery) traditionally practiced by women to celebrate the achievements and contributions women made throughout history. She originally conceived of the work as a feminist Last Supper attended by 13 women (the honored guests). The number 13 also refers to the number of women in a witches’ coven. This acknowledged a religion (witchcraft) founded to encourage the worship of a female –the Mother Goddess. Through her research, Chicago expanded to 39 the number of guests and placed them at a triangular table 48’ long on each side. The triangle is an ancient symbol for both woman and the Goddess. The notion of a dinner party also brings attention to the women’s traditional role of homemaker. A team of 400 workers under Chicago’s supervision assisted in her creation of this artwork.
The Dinner Party rests on a white tile floor inscribed with the names of 999 additional women of achievement to signify that the accomplishment of the 39 honored guests rest on the foundations laid by other women. Among the honorees are Georgia O’Keeffe, Egyptian Hatshepsut, the British writer Virginia Wolfe, Sacagawea, an Susan B. Anthony. Each Guest has an identical place setting of eating utensils and a goblet. Each also has a unique oversized porcelain plate and a long place matt or runner that reflects significant facts about the woman’s life and culture. The plate range from simple concave shapes with china painted imagery to sculpted 3-D designs. The plate motifs incorporate both butterfly and vaginal imagery. The butterfly is an ancient symbol of liberation, and the vagina a symbol of female sexuality. Each stable runner combines traditional needlework techniques.
The entire work provides viewers with a powerful launching point to consider feminist views.
Miriam Schapiro (b. 1923) pursued a different path than Chicago and has, since the 1970’s, focused on getting viewers to appreciate the beauty of materials and techniques of women artists throughout history. Schapiro began as a hard-edge painter when she moved to California in the 1960’s. There she became fascinated with the hidden metaphors for womanhood she saw in her own abstract paintings.
Intrigued by materials from other creations, Schapiro began to make huge sewn collages, assembled from fabrics, quilts, buttons, lace trim, and rick-rack she collected at antique shops and state fairs. She called these works “femmages” to make the point that women had been doing “collages” long before Picasso. Anatomy of a Kimono is one of a series of monumental femmages based on patterns of Japanese kimonos, fans, and robes. The kimono shape is repeated in this large composition made of sumptuous fabrics.
Early attempts at dealing with feminist issues in art tended toward emphasizing differences between men and women. More recent discussions have gravitated toward the notion of gender as a socially constructed concept, and an extremely unstable one. Identity is multifaceted and changeable, making the discussion of feminist issues more challenging. American artist Cindy Sherman (b. 1954) addresses in her work the way much of Western art has been constructed to present female beauty for the enjoyment of the “male gaze,” a primary focus of contemporary feminist theory. Starting in 1977 she produced a series of more than 80 black and white photographs titled “Untitled Film Stills.” Sherman considered how representation constructs reality by depicting herself in various costumes and wigs in such a way as to look like a film still. This idea originated when Sherman realized the stereotypical depictions of women in some soft-core porn magazines she was shown. She designed, acted in, directed, and photographed herself so that she would have total control of her image. Although she is still the object of the viewer’s gaze in these images, the identity is one she has chosen to assume.
Faith Ringgold (b. 1930) is an African American woman that uses art to explore issues related to race in contemporary America. Inspired by the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, Ringgold created works of art that provided pointed commentary on the realities of racial prejudice in America and increasingly the role of gender. Originally a painter, she turned to fabric as her predominant medium in the 1970’s. Using fabric allowed her to make more specific reference to the domestic sphere, traditionally associated with women and to collaborate with her mother a fashion designer. With her mother’s death in 1981, Ringgold created Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima?, a quilt composed of dyed, painted, and pieced fabric. This personal tribute to her mother combines personal and political. The quilt includes a narrative – the witty story of the family of Aunt Jemima, most familiar as the stereotypical black “mammy”, but here a successful black business women. The narrative is conveyed through text, written in a black dialect, and embroidered portraits, all interspersed with traditional patterned squares. This work resonates with personal, autobiographical references and speaks to the larger issues of the history of African American culture and the struggles of women to overcome legislation.
Adrian Piper (b. 1948) is committed to using her art to bring about social change in regards to racism. Her installation Cornered is provocative and confrontational involving a video monitor placed behind an overturned table. Piper appears on the monitor, cornered by the table, and speaks to the viewers about her experiences as a light-skinned black female. She tells the viewers, that although overt racism has diminished, subtle equally damaging forms still exist. “I’m black”, she announces in the 16 minute tape, “Now let’s deal with this social fact and the fact of my stating it together….If you feel that my letting people know that I am not white is making an unnecessary fuss, you must feel that the right and proper course of action for me to take is to pass for a white. Now this kind of thinking presupposes a belief that it is inherently better to be identified as white.” The directness of Piper’s art forces viewers to examine their own behaviors and values.
Lorna Simpson (b. 1960) further explores issues of racism and sexism. Simpson produces photographs that try to reveal and subvert conventional representation of gender and race. Like Sherman she deals with “gaze” trying to counteract the process of objectification. To which both women and African Americans are subject. In Stereo Styles, a series of Polaroids and engravings, Simpson focuses on African American hairstyles, often used to symbolize the entire race. Hair is a physical code tied to issues of social status and position. A scholar who has studied the cultural importance of hair pointed out, “Hair is never a straight forward biological ‘fact’ because it is almost always groomed…cut…and generally ‘worked upon’ by human hands. Such practices socialize hair, making it a medium of significant ‘statements’ about self and society.” The scholar further argues “where race structures social relations of power, hair – as visible as skin color, but also the most tangible sign of race difference – takes on another forcefully symbolic dimension.”
David Hammons (b. 1943) creates installations that combine sharp social commentary with beguiling sensory elements to push viewers to confront racism in American society Public Enemy was created for an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1991. Hammons entices the viewers to interact with the installation by scattering autumn leaves on the floor that crunch when walked upon and positioning helium filled balloons throughout the gallery that brush viewers waking around the gallery. Once drawn into the environment, viewers must confront the central element of the work, large black and white photographs of a monument depicting Teddy Roosevelt triumphantly seated on a horse flanked by an black man and an American Indian both appearing in the roles of servants. Around the edge of the installation, circling the photographs of the monument, were piles of sandbags with both real and toy guns propped on top, aimed at the statue. By selecting evocative found objects and presenting them in a dynamic manner that encourages viewer interaction. Hammons attracted an audience then revealed the racism embedded in received cultural heritage and prompted reexamination of values and cultural emblems.
Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (b. 1940) is a Native American artist that explores the politics of identity in her art. She is concerned about the invisibility of Native American artists and because of this concern has organized exhibitions of their art. She has acknowledged many influences in her work from European pictogram images to Byzantine art, and American Indian beadwork designs, to the German Expressionists.
Quick-to-See-Smith challenges stereotypes and unacknowledged assumptions associated with identity. Trade (Gifts for Trading Land with White People), is a large scale painting with collage elements and attached objects reminiscent of a Rauschenberg combine The central image is a large canoe appearing on a large surface painted in a loose Abstract Expressionist fashion and covered with clippings from Native American newspapers. Above the painting, as if hung on a clothes line, is an array of objects including Native American artifacts and contemporary sports memorabilia from teams with American Indian derived names. The inclusion of these objects immediately recalls the vocal opposition to these names and acts such as the Braves “tomahawk chop.” Quick-To-See-Smith uses the past – cultural heritage and historical references – to comment on the present.