moods for moderns

Modernism has become retro….

by Art Chantry (

For my money, the philosophical dialog of ‘modernism’ is probably the most important and the single most interesting and intriguing intellectual/creative discussion of the last century, maybe even in the history of mankind. it dealt with shape and form and class and color and history and politics and everything imaginable (including the meaning of existence) all wrapped up into the rather base question of defining artistic expression in the face of the human condition (or some such nonsense like that.)

Modernism began with the industrial age and (among many other well documented things) the invention of photography. suddenly, portraiture wasn’t a key ingredient of the justification for the existence of painting anymore. In fact, photos not only did portraits more accurately (and cheaper) it also made for more interesting landscapes and still-lifes as well. easel canvas painting was suddenly cast adrift in a pursuit for re-claiming it’s right to exist – a new self-definition of painting.

AC:it's based on nearly 40 years of paying attention. i dunno if it's an 'acceptable' explanation (it's certainly heretical). but, i think it's pretty accurate. them academicians in them ivory towers wear big ol' blinders.

So, one of the major discussions of just what exactly IS a painting? the discussion traveled through subject matter and various isms and representation vs. non-representation, correct materials and illusion of depth and figure ground contrasts and even what the eye ACTUALLY sees vs. what the mind THINKS it sees. the dialog is truly astonishing and travels not only through criticisms and literature and conversation, but can actually be traced through the actual art works and ideas presented in them. contemporary art history books are basically overviews of this discussion (albeit a poor overview). It’s really fascinating and I like nothing better than to sit back on a rainy day and read a diatribe/manifesto by some crazed artist declaring his ideas on the matter (always dented).

The final declaration, the end point, the ultimate statement seems to have been done by one Frank Stella, abstract expressionist painter. he did a now classic stretched canvas painting that once and for all, declared exactly what a painting was/is (as developed in western culture – a peculiarity unique to us by the way). It was simply a one-sided, portable, prepared canvas stretched on a frame and emblazoned with an pigment covering it’s surface. to be a painting, there is no need for image, illusion, depth of field, or texture, or emotion. basically it’s a stretched canvas with an idea in paint on it.

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Stella made this claim (and won the ‘sweepstakes’) by creating a painting that was a perfect square stretched piece of canvas. then, he measured the width of the stretcher bar and used that width as a measure to create a series of concentric squares, one inside the other, getting smaller inside of each square, until he ran out of space. he taped them off and crudely painted in between the bands of tape (the paint leaks under the tape in the worst way) to create a black and white image as described. he called it “concentric squares”, and he killed painting at that point.

The big problem for Western art at that point was “where do you go from there? Stella nailed it. every painting from then on was backtracking. even Stella didn’t what to do. his work became “shaped concentric canvasses” – a basic repeat again and again. then be back-stepped into his color and protractor series (which used a rudimentary illusion of depth). he had no where else to go but backward.

Other artists of the period faced the same problem. many struggled with actual subject matter (emotional work like frankenthaler). others realized that painting as defined by th

ialog of modernism were actually three-dimensional objects – sculpture. so, may switched mediums (even stella). others started to think that all that really mattered was the idea and did away with the physical object all together and became ‘conceptual’ or performance’ artists. still others simply killed themselves (no joke).

Read More: ---El Lissitzky was a Russian born artist, designer, typographer, photographer and architect who designed many exhibitions and propaganda for the Soviet Union in the early 20th century. His development of the ideas behind the Suprematist art movement were very influential in the development of the Bauhaus and the Constructivist art movements. His stylistic characteristics and experimentation with production techniques developed in the 1920s and 30s have been an influence on graphic designers since.---

Lurking around the fringes,there was a group a young turks who simply pointed out that we’d always had flat, emotionless, textureless ideas – images all around us. the world was full of advertising and flags and comics and targets and logos and drips and stuff. graphic design was an entire language devoted to that very same issue. the fine art modernist dialog lead to graphic design, strangely.

At first the ‘artists’ imitated graphic imagery – John’s flags, Rauchenburgs ad imagery, Lichtenstein’s comix, and (of course) dang near everything by Warhol. the academic intelligentsia called it “pop”. It was the embodiment of the dead-ending of the modernist dialog. however, all of us “common folks” all just called it “everyday life in America.”

After that, things really floundered as the fine art world lurched this way and that way, constantly trying to find some sort of MEANING or DIRECTION. It was sad. sure, there were major practitioners popping up here and there. but, they’d committed intellectual suicide, for all intents and purposes. they’d actually ended the discussion.

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Of course the “fine art” world is too big of a business to just roll over and die. so, the sad mirror reflections of the dialog of the contemporary art/business world just keeps staggering along like some sort bad actor in a zombie flick. so sad.

Meanwhile the pop culture world started to fly. over the last 50/60 years, since the end of ww2 and the the soon thereafter endpoint of the modernist dialog, an enormous number of strange new styles began to emerge in our visual language. early outfits like Push Pin and cultural movements like psychedelia drew from the past and re-presented it juxtaposed in new situations to say totally new things. this style-adopting (and morphing) became known as “appropriation.” it became the conversation of the period after modernism died. we call it “post-modernism.” everything we do, everything we see, everything we think in our shared visual language is firmly rooted in the post-modernist entrapment. we are almost entirely incapable of coming up with a new idea now. that’s not a BAD thing, but it’s a REAL thing. it’s a sign of a classic culture in decline, in decay – a “DECAdent” style at it’s most definitive. so it goes.

This little catalog cover( first image) was distributed by a 3rd-string manufacturer of “modernist” style furniture. It’s classic of the post-war period when looking “new and fresh” while disposing of the old world from before the war was the whole point of the new world order. It’s clean simple lines, the b& w contrasty photo style, the limited two-color industrial color scheme (please note that the funny little lighter area in the orange ink is a faded area. exposure to sunlight on period inks was deadly). even the placement of typography and selection of typefaces all scream of the dictums of modernist graphic design theory. but, the script typography and the self-betrayal of the design of that chair (note that the front leg and armrest abstractly mimic the thigh and calf of a reclining woman’s leg – not a accident.) one of the major failings of modernist theory was that it asked us to divorce ourselves from our own humanity. that’s really doesn’t work very well.

Read More: ---Electrifying America - The posters of Lester Beall An exhibition from the collection of Mark and Maura Resnick February 8 to May 31, 2009 Los Angeles County Museum of Art 5905 Wilshire Boulevard Los Angeles CA 90036, USA---

Modernism in graphic design is also a rather darkly humorous failure in other ways as well. one point of note is that the first experimental efforts at constructivist design (which later formed the bedrock of modernist ideals) was started as a revolt against capitalism by devout communist rebels like El Lizitsky. he actually was trying to create or invent a design style OF and FOR ‘the people’, an ‘everyman’ visual language anybody can do that would be applicable in all cases to to speak in the voice of the people.

By the 1950′s, the modernist bolshevik ideals had been usurped by corporate America where American graphic design giants like William Golden and Paul Rand and Lester Beall took those same modernist principles and warped them into ‘contemporary corporate decoration style.’ It was the ultimate betrayal. every time you see an old film clip of a nuclear missle leaving it’s silo, you’ll see Paul Rand’s modernist corporate logo for Westinghouse slide by the camera.

Read More: ---In America, William Golden was making a name for himself in television and was arguably the medium’s first graphic designer. Golden was born in 1911 in New York, where he attended a vocational high school in which he studied commercial design and photoengraving. In 1937, he joined the CBS Radio Network and soon became their art director. After his career was interrupted by World War II, he returned to CBS and produced many award-winning promotional pieces often using the images from the likes of Ben Shahn and the then unknown Andy Warhol (who later became an influence on the illustration styles employed by graphic designers in television). However his greatest creation was his corporate identity for CBS Television the well-known CBS ‘eye’ (see below) first aired on the 6th November 1951. He died at the age of 49, only a few months after being awarded art director of the year by the New York Art Directors Club in 1959.---

The irony of all this is “modernism” has (at this point) been reduced in power and influence to “just another nostalgic period style.” our contemporary visual language borrows from it on the most surface level to make images look old fashioned and funky and quaint.

Modernism has become retro.

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