DOES POSTMODERNISM BEGIN with the teapot? The question is prompted by the V&A’s design survey “Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970–1990,” where the vessels appear with bewildering frequency. On view are Adrian Saxe’s Ampersand teapot (1988), Richard Notkin’s Double Cooling Towers teapot (1984), Matteo Thun’s Pontifex teapot (1983), and so on, ad infinitum. The best of the bunch is Marco Zanini’s weirdly brilliant Colorado teapot (1983), a truly original example of the form that simultaneously evokes a pacifier, a pop-up chicken thermometer, and the red-nippled breast of a Tom Wesselmann nude. This profoundly Oedipal object appears to lie on its side, lolling disreputably next to another teapot, Peter Shire’s Stacked Donut (1982), which looks like the offspring of a caterpillar and a Morris Lapidus hotel.
There’s also a little green wooden teapot prototype dated 1972 in the small gallery that introduces the exhibition, but few visitors are likely to linger over it. In this space, curators Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt have installed other works that might be seen as antecedents to postmodernism proper. Stealing the show is a slide projection documenting Alessandro Mendini’s destruction of one of his own designs, the abstracted, severely rectilinear, Lassù chair (1974). Set brilliantly aflame, the object appears not only to immolate Euclidean modernism but to incarnate postmodernism itself as a perpetual inferno of signs and experiences. But by the time one arrives, several galleries later, at the display case housing Michael Graves’s epoch-capping Mickey Mouse teapot (1991), the little green prototype has swelled with a retroactive significance that all but eclipses the flaming Lassù. If the progenitor of postmodern design is to be found in this gallery, it is apparently not the destroyer of the Lassù but the maker of this unassuming little tchotchke, this ur-teapot. But we knew that already, for the prototype was designed by Ettore Sottsass.
Sottsass, of course, was the paterfamilias of the Milan-based design collective the Memphis Group and had been actively violating the norms of modernism since the 1960s. Founded in 1981, Memphis pioneered the idiom most of us think of when we think of “postmodern design”: graphic patterns and faux finishes; garish colors; exaggerated, often cartoonish forms; déclassé materials; and simulacral references to a vaguely Deco alternate universe. At the V&A, a dense, jostling display of the Italian firm’s objects was one of the high points. Memphis products tend to look far less ingratiating in person than they do in photographs, because the camera doesn’t capture their surprising opulencethese people really knew how to make chipboard look goodor the almost hostile intensity of their colors, two qualities essential to balancing out the zaniness. But encountered in the gallery, designs like Nathalie du Pasquier’s Gracieux accueil (Gracious Reception, 1983)a small black, red, and white box that seems to vibrate with energy, as if it’s full of kryptonitewill likely convince doubters that Memphis is not the design world’s equivalent of stirrup pants. Beyond Sottsass’s studio, the exhibition is replete with objects and furnishings in a similar vein. Some (like Michele De Lucchi’s pastel hair dryer ) will likely remain permanently mired in the slough of ’80s kitsch, while otherslike Shiro Kuramata’s Cabinet of Curiosities (1989), a spindly tower of rainbow-colored acrylic that should be tacky but somehow isn’tseem to have transcended it.
The show is not just a survey of Memphis and its fellow travelers, however. In their catalogue foreword, Adamson and Pavitt explain that the exhibition is intended as a provisional history of postmodernism, which they define as a “set of intentional design strategies,” i.e., a style. They emphasize that postmodernism in this unconventionally narrow sense, and not postmodernity, is their subject. Yet even having drawn this not necessarily tenable distinction, they’ve given themselves a lot of ground to cover, which they proceed to impressively do. They have marshaled more than 350 works in an array of forms and disciplines, from music videos to art to retail merchandise, and have created an almost equally eclectic mise-en-scène: In one gallery, black walls and chain-link fencing provide the backdrop for an array of music videos, while in another, hulking, high-gloss black display cases create an atmosphere of brooding interwar luxury. Orangey-pink neon signage is deployed throughout. No amount of wry self-awareness on the part of curators or viewers can neutralize the cheesiness of these theatrics, and yet they are actually successful, at times creating (with the help of some synthesizer melodrama from Vangelis and Philip Glass) a genuinely sinister ’80s-noir atmosphere. The curators’ freewheeling approach pays off in other ways as wellfor example, by opening the exhibition up to videos of performers like Leigh Bowery, Grace Jones, and Klaus Nomi, whose stylizations of rogue identities look more like subversion than anything else in the show. Less successful is the somewhat desultory presentation of visual art: A Cindy Sherman “Film Still” and a Richard Prince magazine ad are lost on a wall of commercial and editorial photography, while the Warhol silk screen Dollar Sign, 1981, underscores the least interesting aspects of that artist’s profound engagement with postmodernity.
When it comes to architecture, the preeminent postmodern discipline, the exhibition is on firmer ground, with renderings, photographs, and models from all the names on the po-mo syllabusCharles Jencks, Frank Gehry, Robert A. M. Stern, et al.dominating the early stages of the show. After exiting the first gallery, visitors are led into an anteroom that elucidates Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s vernacular enthusiasms and visionary ethos of “the big sign and the little building.” From there one proceeds up a ramp, a neoclassical gauntlet dominated by a rendering of Charles Moore’s egregious homage to the glory that was Rome, the Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans (1976–79). At the top is the show’s largest gallery, where, looming like the Colossus of Rhodes, is a reconstruction of Hans Hollein’s 1980 contribution to the Venice Architecture Biennale: a row of six massive columns, one of which is broken so that its top half hangs threateningly over visitors’ heads. Though each column is different from the others, the architect was clearly not interested in offering a primer on pillars through the ages. This is not Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and so on, but rather Doric, smokestack, Adolf Loos. Here, Hollein neatly illustrates that typology itself was often the object of postmodernist pastiche, and that an apparently typological schema may be no more than an aesthetic device, a ruled background against which the free play of signifiers appears all the more anarchic.
Indeed, the exhibition as a whole illustrates this point, having been organized around a series of rubrics that gleefully reject the principle of mutual exclusivity: “Bricolage” (miscellaneous mash-ups), “Alchimia” (an illuminating look at the other, always-the-bridesmaid Milan design studio), “Apocalypse Then” (cyberpunk eschatologies), “Style Wars” (a survey of graphic design from the likes of Paula Scher, April Greiman, and Peter Saville), “Money” (money), and so on. Many of these themes point toward, rather than skirt, the conditions of postmodernity. The conceptual firewall, in other words, has not usefully narrowed the curators’ purview. It seems simply to have licensed a certain reeling fragmentedness that mirrors postmodernism’s own ahistorical synchronies without, in fact, historicizing them.
Continuities stand out sharply against this backdropone in particular, as mentioned. What could account for the strange proliferation of teapots? Unless we are willing to posit a curatorial folie à deux, we have no choice but to hypothesize that the teapot really does occupy a privileged position in the postmodern imagination. The idea is not necessarily implausible, especially if we construe this humble piece of serving ware in the context of what T. J. Clark calls “room space.” In recent lectures on Picasso, Clark defined the term as a structuring principle of bourgeois subjectivitya “form of life, a shape of understanding” predicated on “a confidence in a world defined by four walls,” a world of “limits and corners and familiarity.” This is a “space of possession”: Enclosed within it are knickknacks and fruit bowls and musical instruments and the like, numerous small instantiations of property, all of them “nearby, commonplace, manipulable.” Room space no longer exists, Clark arguesits collapse coincided with the emergence of Cubism, which, he suggests, was chiefly occupied with articulating its demise.
Surely the teapot, that most sacred totem of heimlich domesticity, is the quintessential artifact of room spacea suture, perhaps, drawing that dead spatial paradigm into relation with its living antithesis. To rehearse Fredric Jameson’s still persuasive theorization, hyperspacepostmodernism’s own structuring principleis a field of disorientation in which it is impossible for human beings to establish their own relationship to the forms around them or to understand the volumes of those forms. Hence, postmodern flatness. For Jameson, hyperspace is not an abstraction. It is a physical product of the postmodern built environment. But it is also a map, or anti-map, its incomprehensibility figuring the dark mysteries of global capital, the matrix of invisible power in which the postmodern subject feels itself to be helplessly enmeshed.
The set of strategies that arguably epitomize postmodern designthose practiced by Memphis, Studio Alchimia, and many of the other object makers in the exhibitionoffer themselves as a counterweight to this helplessness. If this idiom doesn’t exactly imply freedom, it does imply a certain agency within the network, a nimbleness, a cunning program for negotiating between defiance and capitulation. In the Memphis gallery, I heard a visitor say, “I wish it could still be like this. So much more fun.” I’m not sure what she meant by “this,” but it was hard not to agree with her. These objects tell us so insistently, and often so convincingly, that they’re having funthat we’re all having fun. They present us with beguiling images of playful incongruity: clocks or lamps or sofas whose constituent parts are so kookily off-kilter and so sharply distinct, so various in color and facture, that it seems as if they might not be permanently fusedas if they are just holding together for the moment and may suddenly rearrange themselves in some exciting new permutation. The implication being that we can, too. To buy Shire’s Bel Air chair or Sottsass’s Casablanca sideboard or any of these things would be to initiate the age-old imitative magic by which our possessions create us and to reach the same accord with our circumstanceswith postmodernitythat they model so exquisitely.
The problem is that this transaction isn’t possible anymore. We can still surround ourselves with objects, like dragons in our lairs, but we don’t inhabit the world of “limits and corners and familiarity” in which objects maintain their power. No matter how obsessively we seek to reanimate its fetishes, we will never retrieve that fundamental condition of room space. A teapot may be “nearby, commonplace, manipulable,” but property no longer is. It has dilated across accounting equations that no one understands and dispersed itself into infinitely divisible, infinitely recombinant tranches. Someone owns your mortgage, but not a person on earth can tell you who that is. It’s a secret known only to capital itself.
“Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970–1990” remains on view through January 15.
Elizabeth Schambelan is a Senior Editor of Artforum.