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Chapter 34: From Post Modernism and Beyond – Art of the Later 20th Century

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New Technologies: Video and Digital Imagery

In the 1960’s, with the development of relatively inexpensive and portable video recording equipment and of electronic devices allowing manipulation of video recorded material, artist began to explore in earnest the expressive possibilities of this new medium. Viewers looking at the monitor, focus on the image and not the device. This fulfills the Renaissance ideal of looking through a window into the “space” beyond. Video images combine the optical realism of photography with the sense that subjects move in real time in a deep space “inside” the monitor.

Nam June Paik (b. 1932) is a Korean born, New York based videographer. Inspired by the ideas of American composer John Cage and after studying musical performance, art history, and Eastern philosophy in Korea and Japan, Paik worked with electronic music in Germany in the 1950’s. He then turned to performances using modified TV sets. In 1965 he acquired the first inexpensive video recorder sold in Manhattan and immediately recorded everything he saw out the window of his taxi as he returned to his studio. Paik experimented with advanced video technology through his artist in residence status at two TV stations. A grant allowed him to work with engineers and helped to develop a video synthesizer which allows artists to manipulate and change electronic video information in various ways that manipulate the image, create layers, and overlap or merge different video images to create a “time collage.”

Paik’s best known work is Global Groove. It involves a quick succession of fragmented sequences of female tap dancers, poet Allen Ginsberg reading his work, a performance of cellist Charlotte Moorman using a man’s back as her instruments, Pepsi commercials from Japan, Korean drummers, and a shot of the Living Theater group performing a controversial called “Paradise Now.” Paik’s work was originally commissioned for broadcast over the United Nations satellite. The cascade of imagery in Global Groove was intended to give viewers a glimpse of the rich worldwide television menu that would be available in the future.

Developed during the 1960’s and 1970’s, computer graphics further opened up new possibilities for both abstract and figurative art. Electronic programs divided the surface of the computer monitors cathode-ray tube into a grid of tiny boxes called “picture elements” (pixels). Artists can focus on each of these pixels to manipulate and weave patterns into infinite design possibilities. The resulting computer image is displayed in luminous color and suggests a world existing inside the tube.

David Em (b. 1952) is one of the best known artists working in the computer painting mode. He creates fantastic landscapes that have an eerily believable existence inside the monitor. Em has worked with the California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA and to create alien landscapes and simulations. An example of one of Em’s images is Nora.

Jenny Holzer (b.1950) is influenced by signs and LCD technology. In 1989 she did a major sight specific installation at the Guggenheim Museum in New York that consisted of a large continuous LED display spiraling around the spiraling interior ramp. Holzer’s art focused on text and she invented sayings with an authoritative tone for the display. The many statements were purposefully vague, ambiguous and at times contradictory.

Bill Viola (b. 1951) creates works that focus on sensory perception and the spiritual. Viola, an American, spent years studying Buddhism, Christianity, Sufi, and Zen mysticism. He takes this interest in man’s spiritual nature and combines it with his belief in art’s transformative power to design works that encourage viewer introspection. His recent video projects involve such techniques as extreme slow motion, contrasts in scale, shifts in focus, mirrored reflection, staccato editing, and multiple or layered screens to achieve dramatic effects.

The Crossing involves two color video channels projected on 16 foot high screens. The artist either shows the two projections on the front and back of the same screen or on two separate screens in the same installations. In the two companion videos shown simultaneously on the two screens, a man surrounded by darkness appears, moving closer until he fills the screen. On one screen, drops of water fall from above onto the man’s head, while on the other screen a fire breaks out at the mans feet. Over the next few minutes, the water and fire increase in intensity until the man disappears in a torrent of water on one screen and is consumed by flames on the other. The deafening roar of the fire and downpour accompany the images. Eventually everything subsides and fades into darkness.

Tony Oursler (b. 1957) manipulates his images by projecting them on sculptural forms rather than flat screens. This has the effect of taking the images out of the digital world into the “real” world. Accompanied by sound tapes, Oursler’s installations, such as Manshehe, not only engage but often challenge the viewer. The talking heads are projected onto egg shaped oval forms suspended from poles. Because the projected images look directly at the viewer, the statements they make about religious beliefs, sexual identity, and interpersonal relationships cannot be dismissed.

Postmodernism and Commodity Culture

In keeping with the evaluation of postmodern culture as inextricably linked to consumer society and mass culture, several post modern artists have delved into issues associated with commodity culture. American Jeff Koons (b. 1955) first became prominent in the art world for a series of works in the early 1980’s that involved exhibiting common purchased objects such as vacuum cleaners. Clearly influenced by Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, Koons made no attempt to manipulate or alter the objects. Critics and other art world participants perceived them as representing the commodity nature of both the art world and society. Koon’s experience as a commodities broker before turning to art and his blatant self-promotion have led to accusations that his art is market driven.

Pink Panther intertwines a magazine centerfold nude with a well known cartoon character. He reinforced the trite kitschy nature of the imagery by titling the exhibition of which this work is a part The Banality Show. Some art critics have argued that Koons and his work instruct viewers because both artist and work serve as the most visible symbols of everything wrong with contemporary American society. Koon’s prominence in the art world indicates that he has developed an acute understanding of the dynamics of consumer culture.

Postmodernism and the Critique of Art History

Postmodern architecture often incorporates historical forms and styles. Members of the art world have frequently cited this awareness of the past as a defining characteristic of postmodernism in architecture and art. Such awareness extends beyond mere citation. People have described it as self-consciousness on the part of the artists about their place in the continuum of art history. Not only do artists demonstrate their understanding of past art, but they also express the awareness of the mechanisms and institutions of the art world. For many postmodern artists, then, referencing the past moves beyond simple quotation from earlier works and styles and involves critic of or commentary on fundamental art historical premises. In short their art is about making art.

A Short History of Modernist Painting by Mark Tansey (b. 1949) provides viewers with a tongue and cheek summary of various approaches to painting artists have embraced over the years. Tansey presents a sequence of three images, each which visualizes a way of looking at art. On the far left panel we see the Renaissance ideal of viewing art as if looking through a window. The central panel depicts a man pushing his head against a solid wall representing the thesis central to modernist painting – that painting should be acknowledged as an object in its own right. Modernism, particularly the type the Clement Greenberg promoted in the 1960’s and 1970’s was based on a rejection of imitation and illusion as a primary aesthetic goal. On the right panel Tansey summarizes the postmodern approach to art with a chicken pondering its reflection in the mirror. The chicken’s action reveals postmodernist artists’ self consciousness or awareness of their place in the art historical continuum.

Robert Arneson (1930-1992) spent his life in a small town north of San Francisco. Over the years he developed a body of work that was predominantly figurative ceramic sculpture, and was often satirical, or amusing, or even biting commentary. In 1981 a well-known art critic Hilton Kramer published a review of an exhibition including Arnesons’s work. Kramer’s assessment was very negative. As a direct response Arneson created California Artist, which comments on Kramer’s derogatory comments on the provincialism of California art. The ceramic culture is a half length self-portrait incorporating all of the critic’s stereotypes. Arnesons’s defiant arm-crossed and denim clad sun-glassed portrait sits atop a crumbling brick pedestal coated with a plaster façade. The pedestal is littered with beer bottles, cigarette butts and marijuana plants. In creating this responsive work, Arneson, revealed his understandings of the mechanisms (art criticism etc) for evaluating and validating art.

Post-Modernism and Art Institutions

Along with the conscious reappraisal of the processes of art historical validation, post-modernists have turned to assessing art institutions, such as museums and galleries. Not only have such artist’s addressed issues associated with the roles of thee institutions in validating art, but also, in keeping with increased public concern over issues of race, class, gender, and ethnicity, they have scrutinized the discriminatory policies and politics of these institutions.

Hans Haacke (b. 1936) has focused his attention on the politics of art museums and how those politics affect the art exhibited, and ultimately the museum’s visitors’ understanding of art history. The specificity of his works, based upon substantial research, makes them stinging indictments of the institutions he critiques. MetroMobiltan illustrates the connection between the art world (in this case the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York), and the real world of political and economic interests. This large sculptural work includes a photomural of a funeral for South African blacks. This mural serves as a backdrop for a banner for the 1981 Moble Oil sponsored Treasures of Ancient Nigeria sponsored show at the Met. In 1980, Mobil was a principal investor in South Africa. Haacke’s work suggests that Mobil’s sponsorship of this exhibit was in part driven by the fact that Nigeria was one of the richest oil producing companies in Africa. In 1981, public pressure forced Mobil from providing oil to the white South African military and police. The printing on the blue banners hanging on either side is the official corporate response refusing to comply with the demand. Haacke set the entire tableau in a fiberglass replica of the museum’s entablature. By bringing these different visual and textual components together, Haacke forces the viewers to think about the connections among multi-national corporations, political and economic conditions in South Africa, and the conflicted politics of corporate patronage of art exhibits. The complicity of corporations in perpetuating injustice extends to the museum world, one that the public often views as exempt from political and economic concerns.

The New York based Guerrilla Girls, formed in 1984; bill themselves as the “conscience of the art world.” This group sees its duty to call attention to injustice in the art world, especially what it perceives as the sexist and racist orientation of the major institutions. The women who are members of this group remain anonymous and protect their identities by wearing gorilla masks in public. They employ guerrilla tactics by demonstrating in public, putting on performances, and placing posters and flyers in public places. This distribution network expands the impact of their messages. The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist is one poster that reflects the Guerrilla Girls agenda in a facetious way. The list itemizes the many obstacles women artists face in the contemporary art world. By publicizing these obstacles, the group hopes for improving situations.

Into the 21st Century: The Future of Art and Art History

At the end of the 19th century, a unique fin de siècle culture emerged, followed by the emergence in the early 20th century of prodigious artistic talents such as Matisse, Picasso, and Duchamp. What will the 21st century bring as we are almost through the first decade? Will a similarly fertile period in art and culture arise? It is impossible to predict. With the expansive scope of post-modernism, no one single style or approach dominates. It seems that one of the major trends is a relaxation of traditional boundaries between artistic media. Many artists today are creating multimedia installations that are often site specific.

Matthew Barney (b. 1967) is one such artist that defies category. His Cremaster cycle (1994-2002) installation at the Guggenheim Museum in New York is typical of the gigantic scale upon which many contemporary works are conceptualized. The installation is a multimedia extravaganza involving drawings, photographs, sculptures, videos, films, and performances (presented in the videos). The Cremaster cycle is a lengthy narrative that takes place in a self-enclosed universe created by Barney. The title of the work refers to the cremaster muscle that controls testicular contractions in response to external stimuli. Barney uses the development of this muscle in the embryonic process of sexual differentiation as the conceptual springboard for this entire project. He explores the notion of creation in expansive and complicated ways. The cycle’s narrative, revealed in the five 35 mm feature length films and the artworks, make reference to, among other things, a musical revue in Boise, Idaho (Barney’s hometown), the life cycle of bees, the execution of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore, the construction of the Chrysler Building, Celtic mythology, Masonic rituals, a motorcycle race, and a lyric opera set in late 19th century Budapest. In the installation the artworks are tied together conceptually by a five channel video piece that is projected on screens hanging in the Guggenheim’s rotunda. Immersion into Barney’s constructed world is disorienting and over whelming and has a force that competes with the immense scale and often frenzied pace of contemporary life.

In the later 20th century, the domination of modernist formalism in art gave way to an eclectic post-modernism. The emergence of post-modern thought not only encouraged a wide range of styles and approaches but also prompted commentary (often ironic) about the nature of art production and dissemination. In recent decades, many artists have produced works prompted by sociopolitical concerns, dealing with aspects of race, gender, class, and other facets of identity. The universally expanding presence of computers, digital technology and the Internet have and will surely have major impact on the art world. It may well erode remaining conceptual and geographical boundaries, and make art and information about art available to virtually everyone, thereby creating a truly global arts community.
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