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London’s Apocalypse Then & Now

Frieze Art Fair

an exhibition at Regent’s Park, London, October 13–16, 2011

Pavilion of Art and Design London

an exhibition at Berkeley Square, London, October 12–16, 2011

Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970–1990

an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, September 24, 2011–January 15, 2012
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt
London: V&A Publishing, 319 pp., $75.00 (distributed in the US by Abrams)

Gerhard Richter: Panorama

an exhibition at Tate Modern, London, October 6, 2011–January 8, 2012, the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, February 12–May 13, 2012, and the Centre Pompidou, Paris, June 6–September 24, 2012
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Mark Godfrey and Nicholas Serota, with Dorothée Brill and Camille Morineau
DAP, 304 pp., $65.00

John Martin: Apocalypse

an exhibition at Tate Britain, London, September 21, 2011–January 15, 2012
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Martin Myrone
London: Tate Publishing, 240 pp., $34.95 (paper) (distributed in the US by Abrams)


a video game by Bethesda Softworks
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Gerhard Richter: September, 2005

London in early autumn this year felt very much like a tale of two cities. One was the glittering international souk that briefly materialized during the Frieze Art Fair, the annual contemporary art exposition that since its founding in 2003 has become one of the obligatory stops for plutocratic collectors on a year-round circuit that includes the European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht in March, Art Basel in June, the Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain (FIAC) in Paris in October, and Art Basel Miami Beach in December.

Thus despite the troubled global economy, London in October was flooded by an acquisitive tribe comprised of American hedge fund managers, Russian oligarchs, and Middle Eastern movers, sheikhs, and sheikhas who thronged the blindingly lit Frieze tents in Regent’s Park to stock up on investment-grade artworks with a cumulative insurance value of £223 million. This latest edition of the fair featured a number of pieces that commanded seven figures, and more than a few works seemed to comment, directly or indirectly, on the present state of the global economy and the role that art has come to play as an instrument for parking the wealth of the super-rich in a time of shaky markets.

One piece for sale at Frieze and cunningly attuned to the particular tenor of the moment was Credit Card Destroying Machine (2011), a kinetic sculpture by the British artist Michael Landy. This thirteen-foot-high industrial-orange-painted apparatus—part Rube Goldberg cartoon contraption, part Jean Tinguely self-destroying sculpture—devours and mangles plastic bankcards fed into it. It went to a European collector for £120,000.

Many Frieze visitors also made the rounds of several smaller selling exhibitions contrived to capitalize on traffic generated by the big fair, most notably the Pavilion of Art and Design, a top-of-the-line fine and decorative arts bazaar held in a tent in Berkeley Square. The private view for this more traditional show drew an eclectic mix of American moneymen, junior members of the royal family, Continental fashion moguls, and million-dollar decorators. The wares on offer reconfirmed a recent tectonic shift in the tastes of the super-rich, away from English and French eighteenth-century antiques, long the international lingua franca of grand domestic furnishing, and toward early- to mid-twentieth-century design, as signified by a monumental dining table, circa 1900, by the Viennese Modernist architect Adolf Loos, priced at £200,000.

Concurrent with Frieze and its offshoots, another, quite different London was carrying on less giddily under much-reduced circumstances. On October 13, the borough council of Brent, a racially diverse working-class area in northwest London, summarily shut six of the twelve public libraries it operates, including the Kensal Rise Library, which was opened by Mark Twain in 1900. This drastic deprivation of free access to books for citizens who could not otherwise afford them was one of the most personal and telling manifestations of the severe cuts in government funding that were first announced in the middle of 2010 by the recently formed coalition government of Prime Minster David Cameron, but that only now are being felt with full force throughout the country in social welfare, especially higher education, health care, and community services.

Local authorities rationalized the library closings by claiming that the loss of the half-dozen less-frequented branches would reduce operating costs from £4 to 90 pence per user visit. One borough functionary cheerily assured ITV News that “it’s a much better deal for taxpayers.” But as one disconsolate Brent resident, an elderly black man, told a television reporter, “No jobs, no education, no books. What’s left?”

The announcement late last year of impending government-spending reductions set off a spate of rioting in London two weeks before Christmas 2010, when demonstrators protesting a 300 percent rise in university tuition rates roughed up the Rolls-Royce bearing Prince Charles and his emerald-bedecked wife, Camilla, on their way to a charity performance in the West End. That brief flare-up of civil unrest was followed this past August by a more widespread and sustained outbreak of marauding in several areas of London.

In one of the most extraordinary of those incidents, a mob invaded the Ledbury, a two-Michelin-star restaurant in high-bohemian Notting Hill, during the evening meal, smashed the front door and windows, and stole money, jewelry, and phones from terrified diners. What easily might have become an all-out class-warfare horror scene straight out of A Clockwork Orange was averted when waiters and kitchen staff beat back the hooligans with rolling pins and other kitchen implements, and then shepherded guests to safety in the wine cellar until police arrived.

By Frieze week, however, all was once again luxe, calme, et volupté at the Ledbury, not far from the tents in Regent’s Park. At lunchtime the mirrored dining room was filled to capacity with a stylish multilingual crowd, while a painter restored the restaurant’s exterior, the only lingering evidence of the summer assault. Although that and other signs of anarchic destruction around town had been largely effaced, a distinct undercurrent of apocalyptic doom could still be perceived in places as divergent as the city’s marvelous museums and the London Underground.

One of the most eagerly awaited highlights of the fall cultural season was the Victoria & Albert Museum’s exhibition “Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970–1990,” the latest in a series of surveys on the history of modern design that began with retrospectives on the seminal nineteenth-century design reformers A.W.N. Pugin (1992) and William Morris (1996) and continued with Art Nouveau (2000), Art Deco (2003), the Arts and Crafts Movement (2005), Modernism (2006), and Cold-War Modernism (2008). In some ways the Postmodernism show is the riskiest of these reassessments, not only because it covers a period still fresh in many people’s memories, but also because of the tendency for advanced design of recent vintage to look faintly ridiculous within just a few decades.

Furthermore, the new exhibition’s organizers and the authors of its catalog, Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt, had a very tough act to follow in their show’s near-definitive forerunner “Modernism: Designing a New World, 1914–1939,” impeccably curated by Christopher Wilk. In contrast, “Postmodernism: Style and Substance” seems spotty and superficial, glitzy and glib—deficiencies that may be largely but not solely attributable to the meretricious quality of work produced during the 1970s and 1980s. It was difficult to discern what precisely Adamson and Pavitt had in mind, for rather than providing any coherent definition of Postmodernism, their show seems more an omnium gatherum of self-consciously transgressive objects that smash, distort, or destroy works and styles allegedly associated with the Modern Movement.

Postmodernism came nowhere close in quality to Modernism at its apogee, not least because that later style wholly lacked the social impetus that animated the designs most emblematic of the Modern Movement. Even though Modernism in its postwar American Corporate phase departed from the reformist program of such interwar German landmarks as Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus of 1925–1926 in Dessau or Ernst May’s Frankfurt housing estates of 1925–1930, it still could bring forth occasional masterworks, including Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building of 1954–1958 in New York and Eero Saarinen’s John Deere headquarters of 1957–1963 in Moline, Illinois.

If there had been any doubts that Postmodernism was not a movement but merely a style—or perhaps even more accurately a “look”—any such uncertainties were erased by this unintentionally deflating exhibition. Things get off to a brisk start with an excellent section on the work of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, whose early output, like that of their contemporary Andy Warhol, looks better with each successive exposure. Venturi and Scott Brown’s 1972 book Learning From Las Vegas (written with their junior colleague Steven Izenour) launched an electrifying populist challenge to Late Modernism, and their designs from that period still crackle with impudent excitement. However, this show is likely to do lasting damage to the reputation of several figures once deemed major masters, including Ettore Sottsass Jr., primus inter pares of the Milan-based Memphis design group, and the Viennese architect Hans Hollein, an early Pritzker Prize winner once greatly admired for his postmodern Abteiberg Museum of 1972–1982 in Mönchengladbach, Germany, but who in hindsight now seems of negligible importance.

The conjoined triviality and opportunism of many objects on view in “Postmodernism: Style and Subversion” is epitomized by Wendy Maruyama’s Mickey Mackintosh chair of 1988, a high-backed, glitter-coated affair that sports stylized mouse ears, a jest that dishonors both the Disney animated-cartoon character and the famously austere and attenuated chairs of the Scottish Art Nouveau architect-designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh. This hideous hybrid neatly conflates Postmodernism’s penchant for jokey historical recall and the commercial self-promotion now known as “branding.” Indeed it cannot have been lost on Maruyama that the most conspicuous corporate patron of Postmodern architecture and design was the Walt Disney Company (which enlisted such leading Postmodernists as Michael Graves, Arata Isozaki, and Robert A.M. Stern to expand its theme parks and resorts); the viewer may get the impression that she would have liked to join them.

However, the strongest impressions advanced by this show are its many images of destruction, decay, and dissolution, qualities not generally associated with Postmodernism in the United States, where it was generally characterized by historicizing motifs (often quotations from well-known architectural landmarks) recombined in collage-like form. The exhibition begins with an introductory sequence dominated by a huge photo of the demolition in 1972 of Minoru Yamasaki’s Pruitt-Igoe housing project of 1951–1956 in St. Louis, an event that the critic Charles Jencks famously celebrated as the death knell of the Modern Movement, in part because he regarded that Modernist slum-clearance scheme as a misguided example of social engineering through Corbusian, clean-sweep, urban planning.

Across from this explosive image stands a replica of Alessandro Mendini’s Lassù chair, which the designer set aflame and filmed in 1974 as nihilistic performance art. A subsequent gallery displays Isozaki’s 1979–1983 watercolor Tsukuba Town Center in Ruins, in which the architect imagined his Japanese civic ensemble in a state of projected devastation, a format inspired by the Romantic archaeological fantasies of Giovanni Battista Piranesi and John Soane. Elsewhere in “Postmodernism: Style and Substance” can be found Gaetano Pesce’s shroud-like Golgotha chair of 1972; James Wines’s BEST Products showroom of 1975 in Houston, which featured a frozen cascade of bricks tumbling down its eroded façade; and the tattered-looking fashions of Rei Kawakubo and Vivienne Westwood.

Running through the exhibition like a dark seam, this emphasis on an apocalyptic aesthetic appears more as an expression of present-day perceptions than an accurate representation of Postmodernism in its original incarnation; the show stresses an anarchic subtheme rather than the style’s primary appeal to the burgeoning plutocracy spawned by Reagan’s America and Thatcher’s Britain. The latter affinity was obliquely alluded to in the exhibition’s unquestionable high point: the placement of the seven-and-a-half-foot-high 1978 presentation drawing for Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s AT&T Building in New York between a yellow-sequined 1980s Chanel suit by Karl Lagerfeld and Jeff Koons’s kitschy 1986 stainless steel bust of Louis XIV, a juxtaposition that slyly implies their makers’ equivalent embrace of high fashion.

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