PRINT March 2010



Keren Cytter, Four Seasons, 2009, still from a color video, 12 minutes.

ON ITS SURFACE, curator Daniel Birnbaum’s essay about Keren Cytter in this issue might seem counter-intuitive, inasmuch as it credits the artist with being “emblematic of our moment” while it describes a practice that bears uncanny similarities to works we’ve known in the recent past. In Cytter’s theatrical productions, a male character might become a female who suddenly finds herself a man once more; in her films, an actor is apt to fall abruptly and totally out of character, turning and speaking directly to the audience. Larger narratives, too, invariably come apart at the seams, with passages repeating themselves, stuttering, and, moreover, incorporating the traits of so many incongruent genres as to seem cascading amalgamations of style. (The character of Cytter’s overall compositions, in other words, is reflected in that of the characters who populate them. As Birnbaum writes, “There is always a fracture, a split or a dissonance, that divides and estranges the speaking subject from itself.”) And yet all these traits seem perfectly aligned with the incipient postmodernism of some thirty years ago and, more specifically, with the qualities of that earlier time’s notion of pastiche. To cite Fredric Jameson’s summation in a 1982 talk at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art (a lecture that would eventually become his celebrated essay “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”), pastiche is symptomatic of a time when there is “nothing but stylistic diversity and heterogeneity”—and when there is no longer a “unique self” linked to art’s “unique vision of the world.” A tacit acknowledgment of such conditions seems the veritable basis of Cytter’s approach.

In recent years, artists have displayed no shortage of nostalgia for modernism—its utopias, grand projects, and interdisciplinarity; its political heft—but nostalgia for postmodernism? It’s a genuine head-scratcher. Indeed, perhaps it isn’t nostalgia at all. For if Jameson, looking back at the profound reshuffling of modernism’s emphases that took place during the 1970s, envisioned a cultural situation in which “each group [comes] to speak a curious private language of its own . . . , each individual coming to be a kind of linguistic island, separated from everyone else,” then what is that but the very set of circumstances described so offhandedly a year ago in these same pages by artist Cory Arcangel as a fait accompli? As he commented here last March: “Art is bound to become more and more specialized, because that’s what everything is going to have to do . . . , simply because of the way information travels. Each person goes his or her own way.” The question, then, is whether contemporary art merely manifests such conditions or, on the other hand, offers a cue—whether, in short, work is symptomatic of these circumstances or provides an occasion for changed reflection on them.

Curious about Cytter in this regard is her self-proclaimed interest in cliché as a kind of pervasive language, passed as it is from person to person to create a shared lexicon—if only by providing us with the empty vessel of truism or, more precisely, with cultural stage blocking that guides behavior and perhaps even feelings. Again, one could turn to Jameson’s description of postmodernism as germane to art that speaks “through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum” (the latter containing work from all art-historical periods). But in Cytter’s case, such an observation seems bent back onto the stuff of life; and while Jameson’s claims about art were steeped in the idea that the demise of modernist innovation reflected a more general corporatization of society and subjectivity alike, Cytter’s privileging of cliché should prompt us to look again at life’s relationship with (and shaping by) abstraction, from aesthetic formalism to formalized social relations.

As it happens, a number of texts in the current issue approach this question, and from different perspectives. In Viktor Misiano’s discussion of Moscow-based artist Olga Chernysheva, for example, he considers her work after the “cataclysmic social event” of the Soviet Union’s dissolution and finds that “abstraction here takes on a second life as a wry shopping-mall spiritualism.” Elsewhere, Jeffrey Weiss surveys the ways in which imaging technology alters our perception of work in traditional media (Matisse’s Bathers by a River, 1909–17, is the focus of his attentions) and redirects our subsequent analyses. Most pertinently, perhaps, Matthew Witkovsky, taking into account recent discussions of abstraction in photography, proposes an alternative “short history” of the medium revolving around “the photograph’s existence as image and as object”—addressing abstraction, in other words, but only while paying “emphatic attention to the body of the photographer and that of the viewer.”

This last proposition reminds me of public remarks made roughly five years ago by Richard Serra, lamenting the fact that new generations of artists were no longer making abstract work, or even thinking much about it. At the time, I felt that the reasons for this were clear enough: Abstraction as such was redundant, because it was already all around us; the objects and images in the everyday world supplied artists with signs for vast (and highly abstract) networks of technology, production, and commerce. But now I wonder whether such an account is adequate for our understanding of dynamics in contemporary art. For if core elements of abstraction as they stand today—from pastiche and cliché to technology and commerce—are not central to the dialogues in art, then we would seem fated to suffer another symptom of postmodernism as described by Jameson: historical amnesia. With any luck, the artists considered in these pages indicate a turn in another direction.