PRINT March 2003

The Architects: Aldo Rossi, Peter Eisenman, Bernard Tschumi, et al.

AT THE TURN OF THE ’80S, THE TYPICALLY PAROCHIAL ART press cast a roving eye on popular film, music, and fashion—to name only a few of its lasting fancies. Yet by far the greatest extracurricular infatuation was architecture, garnering numerous reviews and features as well as the covers of Artforum, which showcased a project by SITE in 1982, and Art in America, which featured the recently completed AT&T Building in 1984. Art in America in fact went so far as to launch a monthly series in 1980 introducing readers to luminaries such as Aldo Rossi, Charles Moore, Peter Eisenman, and Michael Graves. While it is a commonplace today that the term “postmodernism” migrated from the criticism of architecture to that of art, the means by which a besotted art press helped enable that transition deserves a second look.

Two art-world developments of the late ’70s paved the way for architecture’s rapid infiltration of the art-critical discourse. Sculpture, for one, began to adopt a distinctly architectural idiom in the work of Alice Aycock, Mary Miss, Jackie Ferrara, and Dennis Oppenheim, among other practitioners of “House Art” (to borrow a sobriquet from Mel Bochner) or “Constructionism” (in the parlance of Robert Pincus-Witten). Their work often took the form of forts, sheds, or Wild West facades that encouraged art critics to import language and concepts from their architectural brethren (a situation made explicit in exhibitions such as the Whitney’s 1978 “Architectural Analogues,” which featured objects “that hover in an ambiguous territory between sculpture and architecture”).

While this trend played itself out from the hectare-hungry triumph of outdoor sculpture at Documenta in ’77 to a slide-show postscript at the Whitney Biennial in ’81, the art world developed a parallel taste for architectural drawings, which appeared at a growing number of exhibition venues in New York. Among commercial galleries, Max Protetch played a pioneering role, but the phenomenon moved center stage when Pierre Apraxine presented “Architecture I” at Leo Castelli Gallery late in 1977. The show made the work of Rossi, James Stirling, Robert Venturi, and other “postmodern” pioneers unavoidable for art lovers doing the SoHo rounds, and it compelled art magazines to wedge architectural coverage into their exhibition reviews, as commonly occurred through the mid-’80s. This is not to suggest that these architects would have otherwise been unknown to art audiences, but, as Richard Pommer noted in Art in America, the Castelli exhibition and others showcasing the architectural in-crowd gave “point to the talk of a new audience for architecture and a rapprochement with the art of the galleries.” Explicitly linking the vogue for architectural drawings and recent developments in the visual arts, Pommer noted that the work of the then widely exhibited architects had “not a little in common, though coincidentally, with the recent projects of Alice Aycock, Charles Simonds and others recapturing architecture for art from the other side of the divide.”

Having kidnapped architecture for its own purposes, the art press seemed intent on coaxing a rigorous definition of “postmodernism” out of its new hostage. The term had actually been cropping up in art criticism since the late ’60s, most often simply to describe what came after Minimalism or Greenbergian Modernism, save for the rare cases of theoretical sophistication, such as Leo Steinberg’s 1972 essay on Rauschenberg’s flatbed picture plane, “Reflections on the State of Criticism.” (A more typical and telling usage could be found in Douglas Davis’s 1977 book Art Culture: Essays on the Post-Modern, in which the index entry for “Post-modernist” art directs readers to “See Post-minimal.”) The architecture world, by contrast, seemed to know what “postmodernism” was all about, and it seduced the art press with the promise of elucidating a term that art writers had been fast to adopt but slow to define.

Most art critics quickly grasped a definition of architectural postmodernism dependent on an eclectic pastiche of historical styles. Yet as they searched for more refined analogies between postmodernism in architecture and in art, they were often surprised to be led back to their own fold, in particular to the then démodé Pop art. Dan Graham explored this connection in Artforum articles in 1979 and 1981. The first, “Art in Relation to Architecture/Architecture in Relation to Art,” was illustrated with a Roy Lichtenstein painting alongside the work of postmodern poster boy Robert Venturi. Graham wrote, “What Venturi appropriates from the Pop artists is the understanding that not only can the internal structure of the architectural work be seen in terms of a relation of signs, but that the entire built (cultural) environment with which the building is inflected is constructed from signs.” Although the architectural community had been fascinated with Pop art (and made no secret of that interest), in the art world the movement had to a certain extent fallen off the radar after the advent of Minimalism. So while a generation of artists had been busy carving up the landscape and creating installations concerned with the phenomenological and spatial effects typically associated with modern architecture, the postmodern architectural community had been steadily mining Pop’s interest in vernacular culture and appropriated forms, as well as attending to the semiotic implications of such a practice. Not coincidentally, these issues reappeared in the writing of art critics and historians, including Douglas Crimp and Craig Owens, who in 1979 put the problems of appropriation and representation at the center of their incipient definition of “postmodern” art. In fact, Graham’s assertion that Venturi—as well as the Pop artists—saw the entire “cultural environment” as constructed from interpenetrating layers of “signs” dovetailed neatly with Crimp’s contention that the artists he grouped under the banner “Pictures” were exploring the all-consuming world of media imagery and its modes of signification.

As the ’80s began, debates in the architectural world provided a useful model for art critics seeking to make distinctions between various types of postmodern practice. By the time art writers got hip to architecture, they realized that their confreres across “the divide” were in the midst of a turf war over whether postmodernism even existed and, if so, whether it necessarily entailed the nostalgic (and often embarrassing) practice of mismatching Mansard roofs with Palladian windows. This battle reached art audiences directly with “Architecture and Limits,” a three-part collection of articles organized by architect Bernard Tschumi for Artforum in 1980 and 1981. In this trailblazing series, Tschumi skewered “current historicist recipes” as a “sign of fear and a sign of escape” from more radical changes at the heart of the discipline. As an alternative, Tschumi presented the architecture of Raimund Abraham, John Hejduk, and Eisenman, as well as strident cautionary tales by historians Kenneth Frampton and Anthony Vidler. A number of vanguard art critics latched onto these distinctions, as Hal Foster demonstrated in a 1981 Artforum review of “Houses for Sale” at Castelli, in which he denounced architecture that “begs, borrows, steals” from tradition in the name of a humanist “Return,” much as he condemned the historicist pastiche of styles promulgated in the paintings of Julian Schnabel and Francesco Clemente. Crimp followed a similar tack in “Appropriating Appropriation,” a 1982 catalogue essay that contrasted the historicist, idealist postmodernism of Michael Graves with the critical appropriations and deconstructions of Frank Gehry. Architecture thus afforded these critics and their art-world audience a straightforward, easily graspable comparison between “good” and “bad” postmodernism, at a time when such distinctions may have been more difficult to demonstrate in the murky waters of the visual arts.

Although architecture continued to permeate the art press throughout the mid-’80s, it eventually lost its grip on the art-critical psyche. Today a parade of major buildings manages to pique the art world’s curiosity, but more general discussions of architectural theory and practice are far less frequent in the context of writing on the other visual arts. This creeping decline in the discourse was already hinted at in its heyday. In the December 1980 Artforum, Tschumi cautioned against “the art world’s fascination with architectural matters, evident in the obsessive number of ‘architectural reference’ and ‘architectural sculpture’ exhibitions.” He wrote, “To envy architecture’s ‘usefulness’ or, reciprocally, to envy artists’ ‘freedom’ shows in both cases naiveté and misunderstanding of the work. . . . To call ‘architectural’ those sculptures that superficially borrow from a vocabulary of gables and stairs is as naive as to call ‘paintings’ some architects’ tepid watercolors or the P.R. renderings of commercial firms.” Similarly, the editors of October’s 1981 “Art World Follies” special issue inveighed against the “newly minted coin of the architectural drawing as the latest collectible hedge against inflation.” Such a cynical view of market forces may have some merit, since it was perhaps no coincidence that the galleries embraced architectural drawings at a moment when they had little salable art to show, only to reduce architecture’s presence when they needed wall space for a bumper crop of painting. Art criticism, of course, followed suit. Having gained much from its passing passion for architecture, it wasted no time in moving on to its next crush.

Scott Rothkopf is an art historian based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.