Friday, December 21, 2007

I didn't make it to the Robert Storr lecture at the Phillips Collection on Thursday, December 6th...but I did manage to get a copy of it on DVD, and finally had a chance to take a look last night.

The main contention Storr makes is this: There's no such thing as postmodernism.

It's certainly not the first time I've heard this idea expressed. Storr argues that "modern art" isn't a period; it's an ongoing state of affairs in which there are both avante garde-ist feints away from pleasure and accepted ideas of beauty, and about-faces that more readily embrace mastery and tradition.

His main example for this--in one artist's life, even--is Picasso. Rosalind Krauss may see Picasso's Neoclassical period as "reaction formation"--basically, all about masturbation, fear, and failure of nerve--but Storr sees the whole narrative arc of Picasso's career as a series of bold choices and triumphs. (The truth, I suspect, is somehere in the vast chasm between.)

Mostly Storr wants to restore the complexity and jostling that so many narratives of modernism tend to downplay or overlook. I can certainly agree with that--just thinking of recent surveys like Matthew Witkovsky's Foto show at the NGA this year, or the big Dada show organized by Leah Dickerman and Laurent Le Bon last year, I'm reminded of how increasingly messy modernism looks to fresh eyes. Think even of the difference between the modernism of Scheeler and Hopper and of Duchamp and Picabia: Same movement, different worlds.

The problem with pointing to all of this and saying, "See? It's all just modern art!" the way that Storr does is that arguably, this kind of reformulation or revaluation of modernism is...wait for it...an inherently contemporary/postmodern operation, and is typically described as such. If it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck...

Still, the lecture was tremendously entertaining and sharp, even with the big paradox at its heart.

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