Stylish revolt – how post-modernism broke with the past by borrowing from it

A Stylish Revolt – Post-modernism broke with the past by borrowing from it in irreverent ways.

Peter Yeoh discusses the movement’s legacy with some of its most celebrated artists and design historian Glenn Adamson, formerly of  the Victoria and Albert Museum London, and now Director of the Museum of Arts and Design, New York

Architects were among the earliest adherents of the postmodernist movement, radically transforming cityscapes with their whimsical constructs. The postmodern ideology inspired them to shun modernism’s brutal and deliberately plain buildings and to embrace flamboyant structures adorned with bold colours, sensuous curves, and pastiches of past aesthetics. Philip Johnson, James Stirling, Aldo Rossi, Charles Moore and Robert Venturi were among the first avant-garde architects to astound their own community by constructing kitschy buildings embellished with classical and contemporary motifs.

Their architecture had the showiness of Disneyland or Las Vegas, perhaps prompting performance artists and singer Laurie Anderson to sing about “golden towns and cities” and their big billboards in her hit song Big Science. Postmodernism’s departure from the modernist era can be difficult to pinpoint since they shared traits and yet asserted difference. The postmodern era “began” in earnest, according to architectural theorist Charles Jencks, at the very instant the Pruitt-Igoe housing estate, erected in 1956 in St. Louis, Missouri, was deliberately torn down only 16 years later. To him, the demolition of the soulless complex, a perfect example of modernist architecture’s failed vision, also marked the “end” of the modernity.

Vincon Carrier bag with image by Barbara Kruger, Untitled (I shop Therefore I Am), c.1987. Live-block printed-bagVincon Carrier bag with image by Barbara Kruger, Untitled (I shop Therefore I Am), c.1987. Live-block printed-bag

A postmodern maxim, “less is bore”, perfectly captured the postmodern sensibility. Venturi, a key architect of the movement, had coined the phrase as a parody of grand architect Mies van der Rohe’s famous modernist dictum, “less is more.” The two statements encapsulated the ideological gulf of modernists putting their faith in functionalism and clear classifications of who we are and where we came from, and postmodernists believing in plurality and belief that everyone and everything is malleable.

Postmodernism, like all isms, is an ambiguous term, open to many interpretations and exploitations, but it was generally accepted as an artistic movement against the modernist era that preceded it. Stemming from the same cultural continuum, postmodernism was a rejection of modernism’s rational thinking and rigid social hierarchies, where everything should be in binary opposition: male versus female, white versus black, or straight versus gay. No one can yet declare with complete assurance whether we are still in the modern period or if there was even a postmodern era – or whether we are already in a post-postmodern stage.

Glenn Adamson, a design and craft historian theorist and one of the curators of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s autumn 2011 Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970–1990 exhibition, explained to Glass that even if the movement did not have any goal beyond “its own thrilling manifestations,” it had “certain effects that lasted.”

He elaborated that postmodernism “cast modernism into deep doubt and opened up the doorway to an embrace of cultural difference” and that “many of the really interesting questions about society today were first posed in the postmodern moment – even if it didn’t achieve world peace or end racism and sexism, it definitely started a very necessary conversation that we are still exploring now.”

Jean-Paul Goude and Antonio Lopez, Maternity dres for Grace Jones, 1979Jean-Paul Goude and Antonio Lopez, Maternity dres for Grace Jones, 1979

Sensitive to the latest trends in popular culture that created and surrounded them, postmodern artists and musicians in guises of cyborgs, aliens and androgynes captivated the public with their loud colours, “otherworldly” style and bold attitude. Who can forget David Bowie as the gender-bending alien Ziggy Stardust (clad in Kansai Yamamoto’s kabuki costumes), disco queen Grace Jones as a muscular African statue in her La Vie En Rose, and pop legend Annie Lennox with an orange crop and wearing a man’s suit in Sweet Dreams?

Through their personas, these pop acts – sometimes unwittingly, sometimes consciously, were tapping into the zeitgeist – pushed postmodern ideologies into the public domain and inevitably subverted modernist certainties about our identity. They also challenged modernist prejudices with their shape-shifting alter egos: campy pop vaudevillian Klaus Nomi singing arias in plastic tuxedos, punk band Devo rocking about the “de-volution” of mankind in kitschy costumes, and Boy George crooning about the travails of love in drag.

Peter Saville, 'Power, Corruption & Lies' album cover for New Order, 1983Peter Saville, ‘Power, Corruption & Lies’ album cover for New Order, 1983

With the same role-breaking stance, Lennox told Glass how her styling in Sweet Dreams was “a defining moment” because as a young woman she “didn’t want to be constrained or diminished through the appearance of a dumbed down ‘cute/sexy’ girl.” She was aware that modernist “society loves to label and wants everything to conform to what we recognise and understand, and to over-simplified and easily identifiable stereotypes, rarely looking beyond outward appearances.” She recalled: “I wanted to be true to myself and free to present myself in ways I found more relevant, authentic and thought provoking. As an artist and performer, I seized the opportunity to present myself through evolving personas, as I saw fit, because it suited me.”

Glenn Adamson considers Lennox as one of the more mainstream and less confrontational pop figures, but “very ahead of her time in playing with gender and using the postmodern palette of mix-and-match styles, exaggeration and high colour to good effect.” To him, she had “a tendency to assume ‘voices’ in her work, often processed through technology (partially courtesy of David Stewart, her partner in Eurythmics),” and her recordings and music videos had a “mobile sense of style and persona.”

French photographer and designer Jean-Paul Goude was largely credited for transforming Grace Jones into a striking pop act. In his book, So Far So Goude, he described her as projecting “a constant duality: on the one hand looking at her, she was like a caricature, almost grotesque, but on the other, she embodied the most classical African beauty.” When Jones was pregnant with their son, Goude concealed her body with a witty “maternity dress” topped with an exclamation mark – how very postmodern of them!

Stylized Sculpture 067, 2007 (Yohji Yamamoto, 1991) Dress- Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute. Image with kind permision of Hiroshi SugimotoStylized Sculpture 067, 2007 (Yohji Yamamoto, 1991) Dress- Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute.
Image with kind permision of Hiroshi Sugimoto

“Grace Jones, to me, is the sine qua non of postmodern style,” Adamson enthused about her ability to create an impressive tableau of alter egos throughout her career. “She and Goude played so intelligently with image and stereotype, showing that even difficult matters like primitivism and sexist expectations about women’s bodies could be deflated with a rapier-like wit. Like Madonna or Lady Gaga – but much before them – she cycled through many different looks, suggesting that each was simply a put-on pose.”

“There is a strong connection here to the ‘vogueing’ of the queer underground – Jones learnt a lot from the drag queens of New York,” Adamson continued. “Goude had a different outlook, more based on art and photography, but also embracing the possibilities of extreme art directing. He was definitely going for a postmodern bricolage of aesthetics and also engaged with ideas of synthetic identity as they occur through mediation, as his film for Jones, A One Man Show, makes abundantly clear.”

Ettore Sottsass (for Memphis), Casablanca sideboard, 1981. Plastic Laminate over fibreboardEttore Sottsass (for Memphis), Casablanca sideboard, 1981. Plastic Laminate over fibreboard

Fashion designers were also responding to the cultural shift. Italian fashion experimentalist Cinzia Ruggeri’s Homage to Lévi-Strauss, a double-ziggurat dress, is the emblem of postmodern overstatement. In discussing her designs with Glass she remarked: “I wanted to investigate the interaction between the body, the garment and the outside world, and I was interested in the various possibilities of representing something in the most explicit or intimate way, blending elements and meanings together with elements and meanings of a different nature: the fusion of values, sensory and emotional. Perhaps this type of approach can be called postmodern.”

Fashion greats Karl Lagerfeld, Vivienne Westwood, Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto were also experimenting with postmodern forms in the 1970s and 1980s, upending modernism’s definitions of haute couture. In his autobiography, My Dear Bomb, Yamamoto inscribed how high fashion, “the presentation of a perfect item to a specific person,” did not suit his personality. “That is just a fact of life,” he wrote. “To live is to experience a sequence of singular chance encounters. It is a string of coincidences. Life is formed by joining together those fleeting, frozen moments in a string of beads, with each moment almost unbearable for the randomness of its appearance. Is there any other way to live a life?”

Plate From Roma Interrota Competition 1978 @Robert VenturiPlate From Roma Interrota Competition 1978 @Robert Venturi

Hiroshi Sugimoto, the influential Manhattan-based Japanese photographer, gave Glass special permission to publish advance images from his Stylized Sculpture series, photographs of women’s outfits taken at the Kyoto Costume Institute, including iconic works by postmodernist proponents Yamamoto, Kawakubo, Miyake and Junya Watanabe. Relying on the carefully lit black-and-white photographs for which he is famous, Sugimoto captured the shifting forms of 20th-century fashion, showing how garments created with postmodernist sensibilities can still evoke a timeless beauty.

In London, Westwood and her partner, impresario Malcolm McLaren, were confronting modernism’s dominance over British culture from their tiny shop on King’s Road, popularising the countercultural “Teddy Boy” look, Brando-style leatherwear, proto-punk aesthetics, and bondage gear. Inspired by the French Situationists, an avant-garde artistic and literary collective with revolutionary Marxist roots, McLaren, who died last year at the age of 64, set up the King’s Road boutique as a “situation” to instigate change through artistic revolts, provocatively naming it SEX in 1974. He also formed the Sex Pistols, styling the band with a nihilistic look, sound and attitude of British punk. SEX soon became the centre of London’s punk fashion scene.

Ai Wei Wei, Han Dynasty Urn with Coca Cola Logo, 1994. Han Dynasty UrnAi Wei Wei, Han Dynasty Urn with Coca Cola Logo, 1994. Han Dynasty Urn

Adamson believed that postmodern fashion, like most expressions in the movement, resists the subscription to just one look. He said it was about an attitude, and a “desire to upend the status quo, especially the norms of beauty and (gendered) attractiveness which had come to seem oppressive.” He deemed Westwood as the most postmodern fashion designer as “she was very conscious about what she was doing, mixing codes, drawing from street style in the manner of a Duchampian appropriationist, and definitely attacking ideas of the ‘body beautiful.’”

While modernists saw the world without nuance or uncertainties, postmodernists viewed it as a fragmented place, as if they were constantly looking through a broken mirror. “I like that metaphor a lot, often use it: modernism pretends to be a clear window on the world, postmodernism a shattered mirror,” he continues. “It shows yourself in fragments but gives you the experience of refraction and shift, allowing you to make up your own image of yourself.”

“All postmodernists exploit postmodernism!” he exclaims when asked if artists were profiting from the movement even though they were not ideologues. “Postmodernism was like an ever developing repertoire of surprise and subversion intended precisely so that people could do what they liked with it. Of course money came into the picture eventually and so you do get a sort of corporate exploitation of the ideas – but even that was expected from the start.”

Despite its anarchic reputation, the early days of modernism were seen as the triumph of human reason over spiritualism. Faith in religion was replaced with trust in rational thinking, believing that technology, not god, can produce a more utopian society. We still enjoy its legacy today. But by the time the late 1960s came around, our trust in modernism’s social classifications was beginning to erode. The rejection of modernism’s utopian narratives has led to the efflorescence of hybrid expressions in pop culture. To artists and designers, reality can no longer be easily classified or codified, as modernism insisted. In the new social order, male could be female, white could be black and straight could be gay.

Adamson saw no other “authentic” core to the postmodern movement other than “to overthrow modernist forms that were seen as repressive or limiting.” For him, postmodernism “does leave people very confused and, arguably, doesn’t give much of a true picture of power structures as they’re too busy calling them into question.” He added: “my personal opinion about this is that we still live in postmodern times – in a postmodern condition – and that postmodern-ISM, in our sense, was an early warning system or early reaction to that condition.”

by Peter Yeoh

Taken from the Glass Archive – Issue Seven – Power