The Infinite Line: Remaking Art after Modernism
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. 222 pp.; 50 color ills., 83 b/w. $48.00
Sometime about 1960, a change took place in the form, status, function, and meaning of artworks made in the non-Communist developed world. It had been a long while coming--intimations can be found in art from the middle of the previous century--and much of the old order survived in the new. But that a change happened cannot be doubted. The former, agonistic model of ambitious art and culture, what was generally called modernism, was replaced by a new, consensual system, eventually given the name postmodernism. Pop art, which had manifestations in all capitalist European countries as well as the United States, served as a vivid signal of the change. On its first appearance, Pop--identified with the Independent Group in England (1952), Nouveau Realisme in France (1960), and the eponymous Pop art in the United States (about 1962)--proved a magnet for critics, curators, and collectors; its irreverence and deadpan, as well as its accommodation with mass culture, cast in shade the anarchist extremism, determinate negation, or existential anxiety of Abstract Expressionism, Art Brut, Art Informel, Tachisme, and other postwar, nonobjective tendencies. In 1961, the English artist Richard Hamilton described the difference between the old and new orders with remarkable perspicuity: "Affirmation propounded as an avant-garde aesthetic is rare.... Pop-Fine-Art is a profession of approbation of mass culture, therefore also anti-artistic. It is positive Dada, creative where Dada was destructive." (1) In 1963, American artist Andy Warhol answered the critic Gene Swenson's question about Pop art with equal incision and even greater economy:
Warhol: "I think everybody should like everybody." Swenson: "Is that what Pop Art is all about?" Warhol: "Yes, it's liking things." (2) Warhol's wholesale acceptance of the reification of modern life and the blandishments of advertising and the commodity expresses the general political realignment (from left to right) of art in the era of monopoly (or "late") capitalism. This does not deny the possibility that desire and consumption may unleash emancipatory energies; it is just to say that such an upwelling can be politically productive only in conjunction with mass organization and circumstances of heightened, ideological self-consciousness. Pop art, however, unlike some earlier realisms, was neither the outgrowth of such a mass movement nor an effective instrument of such self-examination.
The signposts of the new, postmodern order, of course, amounted to many more than the affirmative stance of Pop toward the subject matter of industrial and mass culture, or toward the products of what Hans Magnus Enzensberger in 1970 called "the Consciousness Industry." They also included an emotional shallowness and absence of expressive affect, exemplified by an infatuation with uninflected, flat surfaces, familiar shapes, and industrial, commercial, or even vulgar colors and patterns, for example, in the art of Ellsworth Kelly, Donald Judd, and Richard Artschwager. They were a coolly cerebral mien, a scientism, and a linguistic turn, noticeable in the names given to the American art movement that came to prominence just after the appearance of Pop--that is, Minimalism, which was initially also known by the appellations Specific Objects, Primary Structures, the Art of the Real, and ABC Art. They comprised, too, a relocation (in the event, temporary) of the place of art: from the gallery to the studio, from the museum to the landscape, and from the seminar room to the streets. And they constituted a denial of the authenticity of the posture of the autonomous, or monadic, artistic subject, coupled with the appearance (especially marked in Conceptual art in its many varieties) of the fractured, incomplete, decentered, or even schizophrenic subject--a subject who experiences language (both verbal and visual) as a material artifact rather than as a signifying activity.
To this list of characteristic tendencies and effects of the art of the 1960s and after, Briony Fer in her book The Infinite Line: Remaking Art after Modernism adds a pair of others: serialism (or "seriality") and repetition. The terms are familiar enough to critics and historians of nineteenth- and...