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Art of the Postmodern Era: From the Late 60s to the Early 90s.

Irving Sandler refers to this book as a survey, but it has none of the precision or inclusiveness of the surveyor's craft. Though extensive footnotes suggest the conscientiousness of an art historian, it is in fact a tale told by a genial, but parochial, chronicler - a scanner of art magazines and newspapers, mostly in English; a flaneur in SoHo; a watcher of auctions. His references derive from something he calls the art world. This consists of artists, art editors, critics, museum curators, dealers, and collectors from whom Sandler draws the "consensus" that he presents as history.

Consensus, from consentire, to feel together, provides many comforts for the chronicler, especially to the historian who is forced to forgo the process of sifting and distancing that time provides. Since Sandler's divisions range from decades to half-decades to mini-decades, to periods as brief as a mere season, some of his news is already stale and takes up a lot more space than is warranted, while news from beyond the pale - the art world - is sometimes thrown in recklessly. There is not even a nod to artists who work against the grain of consensus, or withhold themselves from the "art world," and, as if to absolve himself from charges of bias (which is to say, passion) Sandler stresses that he is only telling us of what turned up; what exercised the denizens of the art world in which he subsists.

If you want to know the lingo, the tags that emerge one season or another, Sandler provides them as givens, sometimes even going so far as to call them "styles" without further ado: Minimalism, post-Minimalism, Neoconstruction, deconstruction, "neo-geo," commodity art, poststructural, feminist art, arte povera, Neoexpressionism, new image. . . . This index to the language that prevailed amongst the professionals is useful to the general reader who almost certainly could never have followed the chaotic path so strewn with the jargon that Sandler negotiates and explicates. All to the good.

But what are we to do with the ambitious title? A postmodern era? When geological periods are called eras, or whole centuries, how can this ragtag collection of labels constitute an era? And is the era closed? Sandler dutifully puts forward claims made in the art press, and sometimes in the literary press. He accepts certain of them without demurral. His postmodernists set themselves against a modernism he characterizes as an "exalted conception of universal progress" and a "messianic belief that the human condition was improving." If this were indeed the characteristic of modernist thinking, what, then, would T. S. Eliot be? A nonmodernist? To determine what postmodernist thinking is about, Sandler reproduces literary theorist Ihab Hassan's list of opposing terms: "Modernism" and "Postmodernism"; "Form (conjunctive/closed)" and "Antiform (disjunctive, open)"; "Design" and "Chance"; "Art Object/Finished Work" and "Process/Performance/Happening"; "Creation/Totalization" and "Decreation/Deconstruction"; "Centering" and "Dispersal"; "Selection" and "Combination."

This dialectical game is all too easily demolished by a careful examination of modernist art history, and modernist poetry. If Baudelaire was still concerned with "form," then Rimbaud, surely a modernist, was consciously summoning a world of antiform, and said so explicitly. If "design" reigned, it was not alone, for even a modernist such as Strindberg was already discussing the role of chance (and for that matter, was Duchamp not a modernist in his very bones?). If the "art object" was part of the story of modernist art, what about the other part in which Lissitsky, for one, declared he was creating a "happening"? "Centering" may have played a part in certain parts of the modernist woods, even in painting, but surely Kandinsky was more concerned with "dispersal," and Ezra Pound in his Cantos, which he intended to go on forever, avoided a center with an ideological passion.

Despite the surpassingly blurred outlines of a postmodern era, Sandler, in a long and well-documented chapter, "Postmodernist Art Theory," runs through New York's contingent of high-flowing talkers, most of them lodged in the pages of Artforum and October magazines, with allusions to their allusions to the French pleiade from Barthes to Baudrillard. The heated arguments (I would say overheated) between the tough editors of October, and assorted other contenders are presented in Sandler's summary with considerable attention to the opinions of Rosalind Krauss, one of October's most visible editors and a formidable rhetorician. Sandler abandons his cautious tone elsewhere and here (I'm happy to report) goes on the attack. Krauss, he writes, as one of the editors of October "used art theory to gain art-world power," and the editors "were expert at playing art and academic politics." Her strategy "was to embrace postmodernism, denounce modernism as the enemy, and use a deconstructive method to repudiate it." In Sandler's thorough survey of opinions generated by Krauss' scholastic stridency, the reader can situate himself on the scene and even choose sides, as Sandler does in this chapter alone.

Sandler has functioned as a reviewer and critic for a long time, and there are well-crafted sections - I would call them articles - that present the views and works of individual artists such as Richard Serra, Robert Smithson, Robert Irwin, James Turrell, Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Eric Fischl, Sherrie Levine, Jeff Koons, and assorted others thrust into the foreground of the art world during the years he covers. On the other hand, he tends to give disconcerting attention to minor players, devoting, for instance, a whole chapter, rather jejune in its presentation, to what he calls Pattern and Decoration Painting, focusing mainly on Miriam Schapiro (who figures also, and justly, in his chapter on feminist art), Robert Zakanitch, and Joyce Kozloff.

Given that Sandler accepts the given, the book can justifiably be called a reflection of its time, but not a reflection on its time. Sandler offers few speculations; resolutely avoids overt expression of his own enthusiasms; and never departs from his parish (except in his allusions to European art, which he admits he cannot really discuss in depth). I hate to think so, but it may well be that to him, the "art word" is synonymous with "the real world."

Dore Ashton is professor of art history at the Cooper Union of Art and Technology, New York.
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Title Annotation:BookForum
Author:Ashton, Dore
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1996
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