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.
Among the most thought-provoking of the several excellent exhibitions mounted in London this fall was “Gerhard Richter: Panorama” at Tate Modern. As with Warhol, Venturi, and Scott Brown, Richter’s breakthrough works of the 1960s seem more impressive as time goes by. One of the German artist’s finest pictures of that period is his 1968 oil Stadtbild Paris, a close-up aerial view of the City of Light en grisaille, a standout in the current survey.
If one approaches this six-and-a-half-foot-square, thickly impastoed canvas at close range, it is difficult at first to decipher the subject matter. But as one moves back from it, the composition quickly comes into focus and reveals itself to be an overhead perspective of an identifiably Parisian quartier in ruins after a saturation bombardment. This vista is purely fictive, but given that it was dreamed up in 1968, a year of woe for Paris (to say nothing of Saigon, Hanoi, Prague, Chicago, and Detroit, among other cities), it is not difficult to read Richter’s scene of urban destruction as a commentary on the political upheavals of that moment.
The Richter show also includes another disaster scene, this one unfortunately not at all speculative. One can readily walk right past September, an unprepossessing 2005 canvas the approximate size and proportions of an average flat-screen TV, without taking much notice of it. The title alludes to the terrorist attack of 2001 on New York’s World Trade Center, but without that elliptical verbal clue one might not infer what the picture depicts, at first or even third glance. The art historian Robert Storr, who organized the Museum of Museum of Modern Art’s 2002 Richter retrospective, makes a strong case for this initially inscrutable composition in his heartfelt and persuasive monograph September: A History Painting by Gerhard Richter.
According to Storr (who witnessed the horror of the Twin Towers’ collapse from a brownstone fire escape in Brooklyn), Richter was dissatisfied with his original photorealist composition—based on an appropriated news image of United Airlines Flight 175 slamming into the South Tower—because he felt it inadequate in comparison to the countless spectacular photos of the event. On the other hand, he also was loath to produce a picture that would exploit the most obviously sensational aspects of the catastrophe for manipulative effect.
Instead, he took a diametrically different tack and scraped away several layers of paint to render the canvas as an atmospheric suggestion rather than an explicit depiction of what happened at the World Trade Center. As Storr explains:
The image is at the very edge of being recognizable, at that liminal point where the information it contains could be read any number of ways and the mind must struggle to create a whole, or pictorial Gestalt, out of the diffuse, ill-defined contours of the forms and the apparent coding of the color. In sum, viewers must mentally reconstitute a likeness that is in effect disintegrating before their eyes…. Compared with what eyewitnesses can recall even with the passage of time and what video and photography have captured and preserved, Richter’s version—or, better said, vision—of 9/11/01 is an eroded representation of a monument blown to smithereens, the ghost of a ghost.
As Storr convincingly argues, the participatory effort this ambiguous image requires of its viewers gives September a psychic power one would have thought beyond the means of painting in an age when images of the utmost emotional immediacy and pictorial fidelity can be transmitted globally in an instant.
Upriver from Tate Modern, at the museum’s original Millbank premises lately renamed Tate Britain, there was ample evidence of a wholly different attitude toward the representation of overwhelming disaster, as pursued by John Martin (1789–1854), the deeply eccentric, hugely successful, and widely disparaged British painter. In sharp contrast to Richter’s reticence and subtlety, “John Martin: Apocalypse”—splendidly organized and stunningly installed by Martin Myrone—revels in its subject’s willingness to marshal every painterly and promotional trick at his disposal to fabricate and disseminate images of doom and destruction that spoke to the deep-seated fears of the British masses in the decades bracketed by the climax of the Napoleonic Wars and the Industrial Revolution in full throttle.
A poor boy from Northumberland with no academic training, Martin apprenticed with a coach-painter and then earned a living in London by decorating china and glass. Ferociously ambitious and endowed with a genius for showmanship, as he approached his thirtieth year he seized upon the idea of producing large-scale canvases based on biblical episodes that combined landscape and history painting—genres then considered distinct and incompatible by the art establishment. With panoramic tableaux like his vastly entertaining and commensurately popular Belshazzar’s Feast (1820)—a roiling, operatic staging of the Babylonian king’s convention-sized dinner party, halted by phosphorescent writing on the wall—Martin proved that he could operate outside the usual channels of patronage and effectively go over the heads of mandarin tastemakers and appeal directly to an unlettered following of unprecedented size and scope.
Though his detractors dubbed him “Mad Martin,” this self-made master was a canny entrepreneur who amassed a fortune from prints based on his canvases and affordably churned out by new means of mechanized reproduction. Martin’s awe-inducing images were so universally captivating that we can believe his son’s claim that “in China and Japan they may be seen in all houses of men of rank and education.”
However, one can also understand why the august Ruskin sniffily dismissed Martin’s potboilers as “merely a common manufacture, as much makeable to order as a tea-tray or a coal-scuttle,” for there was something inevitably formulaic in his tunnel-like compositions luridly illuminated by fire-and-brimstone heavens. As an observer of natural phenomena Martin was pitiful—his mingy thunderbolts suggest cracks in glass, his trees resemble mossy rocks—and he drew the human figure every bit as ineptly as his contemporary and friend J.M.W. Turner. But it is hard, and indeed a foolish denial of pleasure, to resist Martin’s dynamism, fantasy, and verve, or to forswear the frisson of impending cataclysm that he conveyed with such inimitable gusto and visionary flair.
However, not all of the artist’s contemporaries considered his works to be the figments of an overheated imagination. Emerson, that great transparent eyeball, saw Martin’s paintings very much as documentary records of what he himself encountered during his 1847 visit to the British capital, under the strange glow of industrially polluted skies, and wrote to his wife Lidian that those works “are faithful copies of the West part of London, light, darkness, architecture & all.” As Emerson divined, although Martin’s subjects were cloaked in Old Testament garb, they stood firmly in the here and now as reflections of the anxieties and terrors of an age that many believed to be careening out of control. After gaping dumbstruck at the molten inferno of Martin’s The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrrah (1852), even the most downtrodden Cockney might have felt lucky to be alive in Dickensian London.
This fall the platform walls of the London Underground were plastered with movie screen–size advertisements for the newly released American video game Rage (“From the creators of Doom and Quake“). The posters depict a blasted postapocalyptic urban landscape emblazoned with the name of the game in the form of four towering burned-out structures that conveniently spell out the title in capital letters and give an instant visual précis of this shoot-’em-up survival fantasy. The manufacturer describes the storyline of Rage in terms that tap into a pervasive sense of imminent threat and long-term hopelessness felt by many today, and not just those in the usual boys-and-young-males demographic at which most such amusements are targeted:
Fearing a planet-wide extinction from a massive asteroid headed towards Earth, world leaders are faced with the inexorable task of ensuring human survival. Left with few alternatives, life-sustaining pods filled with select people are buried deep beneath the earth’s surface. You are one of the chosen members of these modern day arks and abruptly enter the RAGE universe after surfacing alone. Leaving you to your own devices to stay alive in a world filled with those who prefer you dead, RAGE combines powerful storytelling with heart-pounding action.
Powerful storytelling and heart-pounding action were also two of Martin’s strongest suits, and his images have served as an abundant source of design inspiration for films from D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) to Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004), as well as for sci-fi video games. To be sure, the delivery systems for Rage and Martin’s Last Judgement triptych (circa 1845–1853) could not be more different. When new, those three immense canvases were shown side by side to paying audiences in public assembly halls, enhanced by spoken narratives and low-tech son et lumière effects, a presentation recreated at the Tate with state-of-the-art electronic techniques. Conversely, the video game is accessible via computer, PlayStation3, or Xbox360. But both are alike as safety valves for venting pent-up emotions enflamed by societies in frightening flux.
It does not require an impossible leap of imagination to move from living in a Britain where Action for Children—a government-funded charity aimed at breaking the vicious cycle of poverty, child abuse, and lawlessness—reported during Frieze Week a 42 percent increase in demand for its services even while it has had to reduce those efforts by 68 percent, to accepting Rage’s premise of being “alive in a world filled with those who prefer you dead.” As winter approached in London this year, the cultural riches of an exceptional fall season had a warming effect on the spirit. But a visitor sensed that before long the real scene of threat would more likely be found in the streets of the capital rather than merely being viewed as handwriting on the walls of the Tate.