PRINT September 2009


THE EMERGENCE OF POSTCOLONIALISM during the 1960s, which marked the delegitimization of Western modernism’s utopian and universalist project, was accompanied by an eclipse of medium-specificity—something that had in the pre- ceding decades been central to both the production and the criticism of American and European art. Rejecting the self-referentiality of the art object, site-specific Conceptual practices and early forms of institutional critique instead put forward the analysis of modern exhibition conventions (and the ideologies sustaining them) as the ineluctable context and precondition of aesthetic experience and as a tool with which to explore the intricate interrelations of artistic and mass-cultural codes. Today, however, such a radical debunking of modernism’s claims to autonomy and hegemony is itself the subject of undergraduate textbooks. To use art historian Hal Foster’s formulation, the once-solid canon of modern art has become “less a barricade to storm than a ruin to pick through.” (As Foster notes, art today exists in the “wake not only of modernist painting and sculpture but of postmodernist deconstructions of these forms as well.”) Even so, when considering the specific interrogations of this aftermath in art of the past decade, one can distinguish two opposing approaches to aesthetic modernism and modernity at large. On the one hand, there is a glut of historicist works that appropriate, parody, or tout court fetishize inventions and ideas from the modernist canon in order to proffer them as legitimating symbols of taste and elegance (or simply use them to create a retro ambience, as in some installations by figures associated with so-called relational aesthetics). On the other hand, media-reflexive approaches have been developed by neo-Conceptual artists who engage in critical reconstructions of modernism’s legacy, choosing not to declare obsolete its formal language and ambitions but rather to address its internal contradictions while attending in particular to its geographically and sociopolitically marginalized manifestations.

Since the early ’90s, the Vienna-based artist Florian Pumhösl has emerged as one of the central figures in this latter group. His complex installations not only further our understanding of modernism’s lingering influence on art, design, and architecture but also provide insights into modernism’s historicization and, specifically, into how the paradigms guiding its critique since the ’60s have themselves turned into the conventions of the international infrastructure of contemporary art. The interaction between these two concerns is especially well illustrated by Pumhösl’s expansive, room-size installation Modernology (Triangular Atelier), 2007, which was on view at Documenta 12. Based on the artist’s research into multidisciplinary exchanges among the German, Russian, and Japanese historical avant-gardes, the work features adjustable architecture—made of two black buckram–covered partitions, each featuring several hinged sections—intended to evoke the black walls at the exhibition organized in 1914 in Tokyo by the German Expressionist gallery Der Sturm as well as Tomoyoshi Murayama’s Triangular Atelier, a two-story studio and exhibition space the Japanese designer built next to his house in 1926. Hanging on Pumhösl’s folding screens are three unframed single-color textile works made in 1955 by Atsuko Tanaka, which commingle the decorative concerns of fabric design and the self-referential autonomy of monochromatic painting. Two Lucite display cases mounted nearby contain editions of the magazine Front from 1943—one showing parachute jumpers in formation, and the other a white airplane wing whose red circle suggests both the Japanese flag and the motifs of Constructivist painting—reflecting military recodings of the artistic avant-gardes’ topoi and rhetorics. More generally, the interpenetration of the fields of graphic design, (exhibition) architecture, and abstract painting in Pumhösl’s installation results in what art historian Sabeth Buchmann has described as a revisionist conflation of “‘functional’ and ‘autonomous’ object languages”: The rigid boundary between applied art and high art, propagated in modernist art historiography—which called for the separation of utility from the notion of the work as an end in itself, and of commerce from aesthetics—is thus indirectly put on display.

The mode of operation here perhaps emerges most clearly, however, in the eight small verres églomisés also mounted on the installation’s black walls. In Pumhösl’s take on this generally forgotten medium (typically associated with Constructivist painter and designer Walter Dexel), lacquer was applied to the backs of panes of glass to create a vocabulary of black lines, occasionally forming narrow triangles, implied circles, and various check marks—made rhythmic and dynamic through repetition—that seem to float over a white glass back- ground, once again condensing, by way of what could be called second-order abstraction, the formal repertoires of the historical avant-gardes. Yet if the artist in this way seems to be citing the avant-gardes’ renunciation of traditional European models of aesthetic representation in favor of abstraction as a universal “world language” of modernity, he is also, more significantly, articulating this renunciation in a manner that draws attention to—and asks for some interrogation of—his own installation. After all, the piece is itself conceptually based on a secondary process of translation reiterating the exchange between centers of modernism in the Soviet Union and the Weimar Republic, on the one hand, and the putative periphery, Japan, on the other.

WITH ALL THEIR LAYERS of meaning, function, and context, the historical references negotiated by Pumhösl’s work are often difficult for audiences to decipher, even verging on the hermetic. But this very difficulty is a central aspect of the way his work addresses the medium of the exhibition and provides critical reflection on the globalized system of contemporary art. In being based on a recombination of sources and their adaptation rather than on an immediately decipherable reconstruction of references and models, Pumhösl’s “modernology” proposes a model of intercultural transmission that stands apart from the administrative (and often exploitative) logic of “biennial culture,” wherein episodes in the history of modernism are made all too readily legible. Indeed, the very ideological premises of “global” exhibitions, with all their amalgamations of local artistic traditions, are brought into question. As philosopher Juliane Rebentisch remarks in her description of the Modernology installation in the Documenta 12 catalogue, Pumhösl’s exhibition-as-medium “opposes both the conservative notion of self-contained cultures as well as the neoliberal goal, currently becoming reality, of a single world culture.”

In a statement published in the catalogue to “Modernologies,” a group show curated by Sabine Breitwieser opening this month at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (where this installation will again be on view), Pumhösl suggests the origins of such concerns:

A few years ago I reached a point where it no longer seemed to make sense to engage with the themes and events of modernism out- side the Western canon without addressing the origins and the “grammar” of modern art. I felt that the referential approach, which made sense in the 1990s as part of a critical reconstruction, had ceased to be of use to me. I wanted to get down to the basics: abstraction, autonomy, presence, and implementation.

As the artist indicates, the focus in many of his recent projects is emphatically on the grammatical structures underlying modern art—although a basic recognition of the generative function of the exhibition as a model or even a blue- print for the lasting legacies of modernism can be traced back more than a decade in Pumhösl’s practice.

His 1996 exhibition “On and Off Earth” at the Grazer Kunstverein in Austria, for example, addressed the attempts of Victor Papanek, author of the classic study Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change (1971), to adjust the universalist aspirations of modern design to fit local requirements using such principles as recycling and do-it-yourself. To this end, Pumhösl presented realizations of Papanek’s designs for mobile “living cubes” made from wooden beams with fabric stretched between them; architectural modules based on hexagonal structures derived from fat cells; and other sculptural reconstructions. Yet as the critic Christian Kravagna remarked at the time, within the institutional model of the contemporary art exhibition the works in the show appeared not only as artifacts of reformist and experimental ideas but also as prototypes for standardized commodity production. In such a context, contrary to Papanek’s original intention, these design solutions do not represent an antithesis to the expansionist ambitions of modernism, but actually complement them.

In the related installation Humanist and Ecological Republic, shown in 2000 at the Secession in Vienna, Pumhösl again reflected on the medium of the exhibition, this time while charting a history of the design utopias of Western modernism in “underdeveloped” regions, with specific reference to the ruins of International Style buildings in Madagascar. The main space housed modular sections of models for modernist buildings along with a sculpture by Henry Moore. Bringing together such examples of urban design with an icon of mid- century art, in an installation reminiscent of the ’50s, the exhibition came to seem paradigmatic of modernism itself. In an adjoining gallery, Pumhösl showed Lac Mantasoa, 2000, a silent video montage of architectural plans and models, decaying buildings, and underwater footage documenting the titular industrial city in Madagascar, which was partially flooded in 1936–37 during the construction of a reservoir. This meditative video focuses less on the implications of modernization’s failure, however, than on what artist Mathias Poledna describes in the exhibition catalogue as the “double binds of facticity and abstraction, of concrete function and the concomitant economy of desire, of projection and frustration.” Artistic and architectural utopias have always been enmeshed in these binds—and, it can be added, artistic reinterpretations of those utopias, such as Pumhösl’s own, are structurally implicated in them as well.

INCREASINGLY, THE THEMATIC CONNECTIONS among the components of Pumhösl’s exhibition designs have ceded to a stronger emphasis on the act of transmission itself—a process that underscores Pumhösl’s general reservations about any expectation of unambiguous legibility from critical art. An exemplary instance is the 16-mm film OA 1979-3-5-036; after Take Hiratsugi, Gozen Hiinagata (Dress Patterns for Noble Ladies), ca. 1690, 2007. In this animated film, cryptic ornamental white lines, lattices, and zigzags appear against a black background. These abstract marks are, as the title states, based on Gozen Hiinagata, a catalogue of kimono-tailoring patterns printed as woodcuts by Take Hiratsugi in the late seventeenth century, which feature topographic, floral, and military motifs. “OA 1979-3-5-036,” meanwhile, refers to the catalogue’s call number at the British Museum in London and thus evokes the archival amassing of traditional artifacts of foreign cultures by ethnographers— as well as the administrative aesthetic of ’60s Conceptual art. By “sampling” the dress patterns and rotating them ninety degrees, Pumhösl’s film renders them abstract forms, expunging any reference to their original purpose. Although their functional context as instructions for dressmakers and, more broadly, as social markers “for noble ladies” is no longer apparent, these decorative pat- terns retain a semiotic potential: Hints of figuration are often discernible in the shorthandlike marks as they flare in the projection. The binding nature of forms—the impossibility of exhausting or exceeding their gestalt in various media and contexts of use and display—is put to the test in this transference of Japanese ornamentation into abstract film. The history of experimental animated film, moreover, establishes a renewed tension in the work between the utilitarian dimension of abstraction (most notably in the Bauhaus and Constructivism), prefigured in Hiratsugi’s pattern book, and the high-modernist artwork’s claim to autonomy.

This work too, then, circumvents function by aestheticizing it. Yet its vestiges remain implicit, here as elsewhere, in the title of the work, which provides infor- mation about the historical contexts of the formal languages Pumhösl appropriates. In exhibition, the film is invariably accompanied by a 2007 series of verres églomisés, whose point of origin in ’20s and ’30s Japanese typography is suggested by their being titled after layout formats used in graphic design, such as Aushang (notice), Plakat (poster), and Tabloid. In a manner that is typical of Pumhösl’s recent practice, he thus makes the case that form and content cannot be transmitted without also engaging the media technologies and distribution mechanisms through which this transmission occurs. Against the foil of our globalized culture and modernism’s lasting influence on art, design, and the world of commodities, Pumhösl’s project of a critical modernology reflects Adorno’s notion of “aesthetic form as sedimented content” while also arguing that this content-derived form can never claim universal validity: Rather, it must exhibit the context of its production in spite of itself.

André Rottmann is a Berlin-based art historian and critic, and an editor of Texte zur Kunst.

Translated from German by Elizabeth Tucker.